AICPA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters My Two Cents Running

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Image by Jan Steiner from Pixabay

Where are you from? You are so articulate! You speak English so well. The most qualified person should get the job. Why do your people do this? You should smile more. This is a new technology that you probably have not heard of.

To some, this may look like a mishmash of unrelated sentences. Others reading this may already feel their heart rates speeding up and annoyance setting in.

Have you ever just been hanging out, minding your own business and had someone, who may or may not know you, come up to you and touch your hair (and even when they ask, they don’t wait for an answer before acting)? Perhaps you are at work and someone calls you Susan, but your name is Whitney and Susan is the other (insert underrepresented group here) on the team. Maybe you are the only woman on an all male team and, despite your seniority, you are constantly asked to take notes or organize lunch.

Several years ago I ran the NYC Half marathon. My favorite part of this race is when I get to run through an empty Times Square and imagine myself in a movie, fleeing zombies in a post-apocalyptic world. That year, the weather was dismal, cold, and rainy. I also happened to be wearing a long-sleeved, zippered running shirt. Even in the horrid weather, it was still a blast to get into Walking Dead mode on the traffic-free streets. Luckily for me, my husband met me at the finish line with a dry jacket and a ride back home to Brooklyn. It was only when I got home and was unzipping my running shirt that my husband yelled, “Oh my god, what happened to your chest?”

I ran to the bathroom mirror (and by ran, I probably mean, limped) and, upon seeing my chest, I too yelled out, “Oh my god, what happened to my chest?”

It turns out that the combination of wet skin, numbing cold, and the tiny movements of a zip during a 13.1 mile run can result in a significant loss of skin from ones chest. It was enough that the pain of hot water on my exposed flesh made me a little faint, and it was enough that I still have a scar near my collarbone. It was enough that I never wear new clothing on a long run and I try to avoid zippered running shirts. But this? This is how microaggressions work. A microaggression does not exist because someone said or did something to you just that one time, and just you, and it never happened again. Microaggressions are those little thing that are said and done, over and over and over again, until they break your skin, until they cause damage and, if left unchecked, that damage can be significant.

A while ago, I shared, with the Journal of Accountancy, an experience I had working on a project a few years ago. On this team of about twenty people, two of us were Black women and we looked nothing alike. When I say nothing alike I mean, we were not the same height, our hair was not the same color, we had different hairstyles, and we didn’t even dress alike. Also, I was in a supervisory role, and she was not. I say all of this because I was bemused when a couple of my colleagues would confuse me for her and vice versa. A colleague would ask me the status of work he had given her to do and call me by her name while he was doing it. And, no, our names were nothing alike either. This was happening two months into the project and happened more than once. If this was the first and only time this had ever happened to me, I may have explained it away by assuming I worked with people who were really bad with faces and names. But it happens often, especially as I regularly find myself in spaces where I am the only Black woman or one of a very small number.

When a non-white American is complimented (on a regular basis) on how well they speak English, it begs the question, why wouldn’t they speak English well? Things don’t get much better when those same people are asked where they are from. Saying Brooklyn, Billings, or LA, is often followed by, “no, I mean, where are you really from?” If you ever find yourself wanting to ask that question and it is not in response to them saying “when I first moved to this country”, don’t ask. Instead ask yourself why you are about to ask that question? What makes you think that person is from anywhere but here? Do you perhaps need to rethink what an American is?

If you are at work and you are about tell your female colleague that they need to smile more or when you assume that any new technology will confuse your coworker because they are older than you, pause and think. Do you advise your male colleagues to smile more? Why are you asking your female colleague to smile – is it relevant to her job? What makes you assume your older colleague is any less tech-literate than anyone else? Did they just tell you that this was the first computer they have ever used?

All too often, the harm of microaggressions is not with intent. The unfortunate thing is that harm can still be done even when it is not meant. Microaggressions generally occur because of unconscious biases and/or a lack of knowledge. We all have unconscious biases and by all, I really mean each and every one of us. None of us is all knowing, not even Ken Jennings. If we accept these two facts, we can take steps to keep from making the mistakes that result in a microaggression. An excellent start is just slowing down. Life is not trying to buzz in first, so take a moment, take a breath, and think about what you are about to say or do.

As hard as we may try, we may still say or do something wrong. Growing from those moments requires being open to improvement. If someone points something out to you, take that feedback as a gift and ask questions. Ask about the impact of your words and actions, lean in and be vulnerable, tune into your empathy and try to understand what it is like on the other side of the moment. Don’t withdraw into a defensive space but, instead, move into the moment and work to separate the difference between your intent and the impact. It is said often, and we really need to do it – get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

If you witness a microaggression, take steps to interrupt the bias. People are generally more open to listening to a third party, a bystander, than to the injured party. When you have this conversation, remember to speak only for yourself, and not for the person who has experienced the microaggression. Also, do not be accusatory – you must speak about the impact and not assume the intent. Use your “I” words and talk about how this moment has made you feel. If you are the person who has experienced a microaggression, in the same manner, speak about how you have been impacted and do not presume the intentions of the person who has committed the microaggression.

Most of us want to be good people but it is not enough to be good. We must continue to be aware that good people make mistakes and what makes us better is by being, not only open but actively seeking to learn. We must expose ourselves to spaces outside our comfort zones and enter those spaces with curiosity and a willingness to do be vulnerable and do the work. So let’s be courageous, go forward with compassion, and approach our situations conscious of many learning moments our lives bring us.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters Inspiration

Don’t Believe the Hype

Photo by Wallace Chuck from Pexels

It is a story as old as time – at least times that we can remember. The halls of power, the spaces of influence, the golf courses of sponsorship are populated by nothing but white men. Then one day, an other appears in that picture – they are female, BIPOC, maybe even both. We begin to believe that we have turned a corner and barriers have been broken. But then, one of two things happen. Sometimes we seem stuck at just that one, the individual may change but there is always just one person in that space. That is actually the better version because the alternative is that, once that first person is gone, we go back to the monolithic way things were.

It happens over and over again, everywhere we look, and we start to believe that is the only way that things can be. It becomes ingrained in us that there can only be a very limited number of seats at the table for those who are outside of a heteronormative white male mold. It becomes fact that there are not only a limited number of seats but also, for those who are lucky enough to end up in those seats, they need to behave or those seats will be taken away. Getting into and holding those seats becomes a cutthroat competition that would give the Hunger Games a run for its money. Underrepresented people get so caught up in this system that there isn’t the space to pause and ask – really?

We have heard it for long enough now that if you do not know about the business case for diversity, it can only be because you have been living in a tech-free cave. The inclusion of a diversity of people leads to businesses doing better and this is not because those people are not sitting around looking pretty, it is because they bring value through their qualifications, experience, and experiences. When it comes to education, a higher percentage of bachelors and masters degrees have been conferred upon women since the early 1980s and this became true for doctorate degrees in 2006. Unfortunately, even as the number of college-educated women is growing, they continue to lag similarly qualified men. A man with a bachelor’s degree out-earns a similarly qualified woman by $26,000, on average. Women make up half of employees at CPA firms and yet make up less than 30% of partners and principals and, in 2018, only 15% of lead engagement partners auditing S&P 500 companies were women. These are the engagements that give the kind of visibility that can lead to that seat at the table. So if your qualifications and experiences are not being seen because you are being kept out of the high-visibility work, then how do you get to that coveted seat at the table? Before we even throw it into the conversation, I shall take a moment here to add that, at CPA firms with more than 100 employees, partners who are men are more likely to use modified work arrangements than partners who are women.

Now that we have, hopefully, established that there is no good reason for power, pay, and advancement inequity, we also must explode the myth that there is only so much space at the table for the underrepresented. Just because something is the way it is right now, it certainly does not not mean that is the way it should be or that is the way it will be. When we have the opportunity to step into halls of power and get that seat at the table, we should keep in mind those who are right behind us, who probably are a big factor in our success, those who, like us, are talented, and experienced, and qualified. We should keep them in mind as we not only hold that door open but put a wedge under that door to make sure that it does not slam shut behind us.

When we fall back into thinking that there are a very limited number of seats at the table for us, we should ask, why? When we start to wonder if maybe there are too many of us moving into positions of influence we should channel our inner Ruth Bader Ginsberg who said, “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” As we channel the Notorious RBG, we should again ask ourselves, why? And even when the odds seem against us, the table is looking pretty full, and it seems as though getting onto a seat may involve a vicious version of musical chairs, then we must not give up hope but recall Shirley Chisholm who urged us “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But we can’t stop there. When we hold open the door, when we sit at the table, in our folding chair or otherwise, we should make sure to bring along extra chairs so that others who are underrepresented know that there is room.

We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us but also those that we have of ourselves.” Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress and when she got there, she did not close the door after herself. Recognizing that there is more power in the group than in the individual, in addition to helping found the National Organization for Women, she was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus. With a campaign that included a focus on racial and gender equity, Shirley Chisholm ran for president, becoming the first Black person to run for president for a major party and the woman to run on the Democratic ticket. She worked to address food inequities, spreading the foot stamp program to all jurisdictions through the 1973 Agriculture and Food Protection Act and was instrumental in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). She also fought for the rights of workers, with a 1974 bill that expanded minimum wage rights to, among others, domestic workers. All this is just scratching the surface of how tirelessly Shirley Chisholm worked to lift as she climbed.

Of her run for President, Shirley Chisholm later wrote in her book, ‘The Good Fight’, “I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” After her, she surmised, when anyone else from a group that people were “not ready” for, that person would now be taken seriously and also, having seen Ms. Chisholm do it, that person would know they were not alone in refusing to accept the status quo. Shirley Chisholm was wise – folding chairs are light, so don’t skimp on the extra chairs you bring with you. And don’t wait for permission, as she shared in her book ‘Unbought and Unbossed‘, Shirley Chisholm knew that waiting for permission could mean waiting forever. The status quo, stereotypes, barriers? They are all there to be broken.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters My Two Cents Where We Are

Altogether Something Different

Several years ago, I was on a team planning a conference and we were looking at the list of women who had been proposed as speakers. As I perused the list I noticed that all the women on this list were white women. “We need to have a diverse slate of women,” I said. “We can’t have people coming to this conference and believing that the only women who are eminent thinkers are white women. We need to be able to reflect that our thought leaders and earth shakers are not a monolith and are instead, representative of the world in which we live.”

One of the planners retorted, “This isn’t about race, this is about women.”

Reflexively I responded, “Well when I wake up in the morning, I don’t get to choose which one of those I shall be that day.”

In 1976, five Black women, including Emma DeGraffenreid, brought a race and gender discrimination case against G.M. with the allegation that the company’s seniority system, in a last-hired-first-fired layoff program, perpetuated the effects of historical discrimination. This was because G.M. did not hire Black women prior to 1964. G.M. fought back stating that they had, for a while, hired Black people and women, glossing over the fact that all the Black people they had hired were men and all the women they hired were white. Unfortunately for DeGraffenreid and her co-plaintiffs, she lost her case because the courts felt that claiming both racial and gender discrimination would give her “super-remedy” and, therefore, preferential treatment. It seems the courts felt Ms. DeGraffenreid could have left one of those things, her gender or her race, at home when she went to apply for a job. If only the courts had shared how to work this magic with Bernadine Coles Gines. It then may not have taken three years for her to get work with a CPA firm if she had been able to apply as just a woman with the firms that would not hire Black people, and as a Black person, with the firms that hired Black people but only if they were not women.

In 1989, 25 years after the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to discuss the unfortunate synergies that arise when various characteristics intersect in one individual. As she explains it DeGraffenreid’s situation could not be viewed as a case of someone who was a Black person and a woman but as a case of a Black woman, who faced a particular discrimination because she was at the intersection of race and gender.

Transgender people face a significant amount of discrimination in the United States and in 2020, their unemployment rate was 13%, twice the national average of 6.5%. However, within that 13%, the Black transgender rate was double that, at 26%, illustrating the devastating impact of the intersectional discrimination. In addition, the intersection of transgender, Black, and female is where, by far, the most violence is suffered. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans and Black transgender women accounted for two-thirds of the total deaths recorded since 2013.

Ignoring intersectionality often results in the disappearance of people at the intersections, as though a massive sinkhole appeared right in the middle of the intersection and swallowed them right up. Examples include:

  • When San Francisco tech companies implemented diversity programs, the representation of white women in management improved significantly but these programs did not improve Asian women’s chances to be promoted into leadership roles.
  • In Belgium, the resumés of equally qualified Maghreb/Arab women were overlooked in favor of native/Belgian applicants for high-cognitive jobs.
  • LGBT+ women with disabilities face far higher levels of sexual harassment than both men with disabilities and non-disabled men and women.

We cannot look at each other and either/or our intersections. The impacts of each social identity are magnified when they intersect and, at the same time, those at the intersection are marginalized until they vanish in conversations and action. We should ask, for example, if a woman’s initiative in a workplace is benefitting all women in that workplace, or if an initiative to advance racially underrepresented people in a company does not result in benefitting mostly racially underrepresented men while ignoring racially underrepresented women. The gender pay gap of 81c for every dollar earned by men, masks that this gap is 75c for American Indian, Alaska Native, Black, and Hispanic women. Ignoring intersectionality leads to the dangerous vanishing of many in our communities – incomes vanish, discriminations vanish, and violent acts vanish. This is why we need to recognize, as Kimberlé Crenshaw said, the urgency of intersectionality.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The News Inclusion Matters Inspiration

Honoring a First Lady

Chien-Shiung Wu – USPS

Imagine that you devise an experiment that has results so revolutionary that the most respected scientists in your field exclaim, “That’s total nonsense!” Repeating the experiment shows that you are correct and what you have shown is so incredible that the experiment is named after you – the Wu Experiment. Two scientists, seeking to disprove a widely accepted law of physics, Parity Law, had a theory that would disprove that law. They came to you for assistance with experiments and what you came up with was referred to as the “solution to the number-one riddle of atomic and nuclear physics”. Everyone knows that what you did was revolutionary because the two scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics. The surprise, to many, is that, apart from a single mention, almost in passing, in the ceremony’s speech, you get nothing. The consensus is that you were ignored and left out because you are a woman. It is such a big deal to those who were outraged by the perceived snub that, 21 years later, you receive the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics, a prestigious prize that states that it is awarded to “scientists for their achievements for the benefit of mankind and brotherly relations among peoples, regardless of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political views.”

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, The First Lady of Physics, was born in China and had, what sounds like pretty awesome parents. At a time where this was not a widely held view, her parents believed so strongly that girls should get an education, that her father founded a school for them. With this kind of support, it is hardly surprising that Chien-Shiung Wu went on to graduate, at the top of her class, with a degree in physics. Her mentor, a female professor named Jing-Wei Gu, encouraged her to continue her education and, in 1936, Madame Wu (as she was often called) emigrated to America, where she would become a citizen in 1952. In 1940 she earned a PhD in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. Even though she had a doctorate and Nobel-prize winning mentors, Chien-Shiung Wu found that racism and sexism were much stronger than her qualifications. With World War II, anti-Asian sentiments were stronger than ever and ultimately, Chien-Shiung Wu moved, with her husband, to the east coast where she first taught at Smith College and then moved on to Princeton University, becoming the first woman hired as a faculty member by Princeton’s physics department. She left Princeton in 1944, to work on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. Dr. Wu stayed at Columbia University until she retired and it was while she was there that her groundbreaking Wu Experiment helped Drs. Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang win the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was no stranger to being a pioneer becoming, among other things, the first female president of the American Physical Society and the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her: Asteroid 2752 Wu Chien-Shiung. As she blazed her trails and opened doors, Dr. Wu made sure that the door was held open and she worked hard to encourage other women. After she retired, she continued to work tirelessly in education programs aimed at increasing the number of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (most popularly referred to as STEM). I am guessing that her passion was to build a future where women were not held back, were not overlooked, and were always recognized.

On February 11, 2021, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the United States Postal Service released a commemorative stamp in honor of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu and her amazing achievements and contributions not only to science but also to championing women and girls in science. This is a fitting tribute to a woman who, in advocating for women to pursue careers in science voiced a sentiment I can get fully behind, “There is only one thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes, and that is not going to the lab at all!

At the Movies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The News Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props

Choosing to Challenge

Lilly Ledbetter at the NYSSCPA Women’s Leadership Forum

If this was a movie, it might start, in 1998, with a woman coming into work and walking over to a cubby hole, maybe one with her name on it. When she reaches in and to get her mail, she spots a scrap of paper among the envelopes. She pulls out the piece, sees the name Lilly at the top, followed by the names of 3 men. Next to each name is a dollar amount, next to Lilly’s name is $3,727, one of the men has $4,286 next to his, and another has $5,236 next to his. Maybe we see an expression on her name, or maybe we don’t even look for her reaction (I haven’t decided yet) but it is then we go back to 1979, where the same woman is walking in to her first day of work with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Lilly Ledbetter left her job as a manager at an accounting firm to pursue her dream, the love of radial tires. Even though her husband initially objected to this pursuit and even though the only women Lilly saw when she went to apply for a job were secretaries, she was undeterred and soon hired as one of the first women in a management position at Goodyear. When she started working at Goodyear, as they did with other employees, Lilly Ledbetter was told that she was prohibited from discussing her pay. She was told this even though, as is the general case, it was illegal to make such a prohibition. It took 19 years, and an anonymous note, for Lilly Ledbetter to discover that she had been paid less than her counterparts throughout her career with Goodyear. When she took her case to court, Lilly Ledbetter initially won her case but then Goodyear appealed. Their stance was not that they had not discriminated against Ms. Ledbetter but that she had taken too long to bring her claim forward. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter in a 5-4 decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was unimpressed enough by this decision that she read her opinion from the bench.

At the New York State Society of CPAs, when we started planning our first Women’s Leadership Forum, we knew we wanted to have a session that discussed pay and wondered who we might have. A committee member suggested Lilly Ledbetter and I thought (and stated) it would be amazing, but would she really come to our event? Well, she did, and the story she shared was even more powerful and instructive than what I had read. When Lilly Ledbetter looked at that piece of paper, she realized that the impact went way beyond the current pay discrepancy. The impact hit every single one of those years that her employer paid her less than her peers, while her boss told her that he didn’t think that a woman should be working there. The impact hit the pension she would be receiving when she retired. The impact was going to hit what she was going to receive in Social Security payments. The discrimination was not a point in time in the moment at her cubby hole, it was cumulative over 19 years and the ripples spread wide.

Because Lilly Ledbetter lost her case in the Supreme Court, while not disputing that they discriminated against her, Goodyear never had to compensate Lilly Ledbetter. Inspired by her case and by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s powerful dissent, the first act signed into law by President Barack Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Now the clock resets with each discriminatory paycheck and, in a work environment where the discussion of salaries is still frowned upon and it is often a mission requiring Sherlock Holmes-like skills to find pay data, it brings some comfort to know that, whenever it is that we get that torn piece of paper in our mailboxes, it won’t be too late.

As I mentioned, Lilly Ledbetter ultimately lost her case and Goodyear never had to make up in any shape, way, or form for their years of discrimination. Lilly did decide that she wanted to do what she could to make sure her fate would not be the fates of others facing pay discrimination. She decided to Choose to Challenge, not just for herself, but for us all. She opened the door so that the rest of us can challenge too. So when you think about the rights we now have to challenge pay discrimination, don’t forget, Lilly Ledbetter did that!

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props

Black History is Our History

That’s My Mom! Photo Credit: James Petrozzello

When I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, I was invited to a Halloween party. There was a costume contest and each of us had to say who we were and give some kind of blurb. Inspired by my mother I went as an official, working for some department (I can’t remember now) and my work had to do with justice and equality. I received the prize for most original costume. At a party full of superheroes, fairies, and movie characters, perhaps a public servant was a truly original costume. Often, though, when I think about it I feel that those parents felt sorry for my quite nerdy self. I don’t regret it – my mother continues to be my shero.

At this intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, I think about how histories, ancient and as modern as just yesterday impact our present and our future. Then I got to thinking about my mother and her sisters and their influences on me, both overt and covert. They figure among the building blocks that make me.

When my grandmother was a young woman in pre-independence Zimbabwe, she traveled to the United States on a trip organized by the YWCA. When she returned home, her telling of her experiences, especially her trip to the Statue of Liberty, inspired her daughter, my mother, to go to the United States for college. I write this casually, like it was an easy thing for my mother but at the time, in her own country, she did not even have the right to vote, and needed permission to get a passport. Somehow, she figured out a way and she started out at the University of Rochester before she transferred to Mount Holyoke. It would be cute if she decided to attend one of the Seven Sisters because she herself was one of seven sisters but I am guessing her decision had more to do with her boyfriend, a fellow Zimbabwean whom she had met at a party in New York City and was getting his master’s in geology, down the road, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After Mount Holyoke, she too went to UMass Amherst and got her master’s in education, and they soon embarked on their next adventure. My parents moved to Zambia where my father worked as a geologist for an American company and my mother taught high school history at the International School of Lusaka. I once came across a yearbook from the International School in one of my mother’s storage trunks. In it, under her photo, her quote was “I am a citizen of the world” and I imagine one reason she felt that way was because she was barely seen as a citizen of her own nation.

After my little sister passed away, in February 2019, I spent several months in Zimbabwe with my mother and her sisters, appreciating anew what phenomenal women they are, and learning more of their histories. After my parents attended university, they decided to pay it forward, each helping a sibling to get to the United States for university. At the time, Zimbabwe was still not independent, and my mother’s younger sister could not get a passport. But she was determined to get out and go to school. At a point in her journey across the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, she was hidden in the back of a long haul truck, among crates of dried fish and rice. When she finally reached Lusaka and my father went to pick her up she was so frighteningly unrecognizable that my father, fearing the experience might cause a miscarriage, took my aunt to get washed up and changed before my then heavily pregnant mother saw her sister. After my aunt made it to the United States and university, she too paid it forward and brought another sister over for school.

Hearing the histories that my mother and her sisters shared I realized that, as with many marginalized peoples, we often do not hear about their struggles but we reap the benefits of their perseverance. I was with my mother during an impossible time and it was also a time to look at my grandmother’s daughters and see how I what they have done has made me. It was a time to be reminded how they have lived lives where, like the Coles sisters, they follow their desires and won’t be deterred and that is a spirit they have encouraged in their children. It is also a spirit that stands strong for what is right and a spirit that believes in the power of community. When my mother visits us in New York, she loves to take daily walks alone. I have no idea what she gets up to but it must involve a lot of chatting because, long after she leaves the subway station guy or the grocery store employee asks after her. She builds and maintains communities, believing that this is how we all help each other achieve what we seek. And she does do this, starting with the formidable core of her sisters.

AICPA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters Inspiration NYSSCPA PSA Where We Are

Building Generations

Photo by Jeppe Hove Jensen on Unsplash

When Bernadine Coles Gines, the first Black woman to receive a CPA license in New York, was a kid, she and her little sister, Dr. Ruth Coles Harris, were so into playing office that Bernadine once asked Santa to bring her paper clips for Christmas. So it really is no surprise that Dr. Coles Harris and Ms. Coles Gines, were both valedictorians of their class in elementary school, high school, and college. Following in Bernadine’s steps, Ruth attended Virginia State College, and majored in Business Administration at the undergraduate level. One of the required classes was accounting and it turned out to be her favorite. “I could just stay up all night working.” But it was 1948 and, because there were practically no opportunities for CPAs in the United States at that time, none of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) offered accounting as a major. As I have mentioned, the two year work experience requirement meant most Black people were excluded from the CPA profession.

The head of the business administration department at Virginia State College at the time, Dr. George Singleton, was the fifth Black graduate of New York University’s (NYU) school of business administration. He encouraged both sisters to follow their dreams and work towards becoming CPAs, as impossible as that path appeared at that time. The sisters both moved to New York and attended graduate school at NYU, both majoring in accounting. After graduation, the homesick Ruth moved back to Virginia, to be a professor at Virginia Union, while Bernadine went on to make her historical mark on the New York CPA profession.

Back in Virginia, there were no opportunities for Dr. Coles Harris to become a CPA – accounting firms would not hire her to fulfill the experience requirement, but she did not give up hope. When Ms Coles Gines became a CPA, Dr. Coles Harris was even more motivated – if Bernadine could do it, so could she. In 1962, Dr. Coles Harris decided to take the CPA exam. As a professor she felt that she could not encourage her students to take an exam, one that had low pass rates, that she was unwilling to take herself. On her first try, she passed all but one part of the exam. Five months later, the opportunity to take the outstanding part in Virginia Beach but, because of segregation, there were no hotels in Virginia Beach where she could stay. The thought crossed Dr. Coles Harris’s mind of making a civil rights stance, but she decided to defer that moment and, instead, focus on getting the exam done (you have to pick your battles). She found a hotel in the nearby town of Norfolk. Dr. Ruth Coles Harris passed that exam and, in 1963 became the first Black Woman to receive a CPA license in the State of Virginia, making her own history nine years after her sister.

100 years after the first Black person received his CPA license, there are still very few Black CPAs. Per the AICPA, in 2018, only 2% of CPAs in U.S. CPA firms were Black and only 1% of partners were Black. A recent CalCPA and IMA study noted eight factors that contribute to the lack of diversity in the CPA profession:

  • Lack of exposure to the profession prior to college
  • Stereotypes regarding lower mathematical aptitude
  • A disproportionally higher need to begin earning income immediately after receiving a bachelor’s degree
  • Discrimination experienced by parents or earlier generations from the business community
  • Insufficient support during college
  • Lack of business school professors with whom diverse talent identifies
  • Perceived exclusive environment and inequitable treatment within the profession
  • Lack of visible, successful diverse talent in senior levels of the profession

In the CPA Journal, NASBA’s Alfonso Alexander shared how the CPA profession is a generational one where most CPAs have a family member who is or was a CPA, giving them exposure to the profession. Many people of color do not have anyone in their network who can explain what a CPA is and what opportunities are in the profession. A history of exclusion led to a lack of diversity in the CPA profession and, as a result there are still very few Black families that include a CPA who can expose future generations to the profession. Instead, these future generations may stumble upon the exposure through a teacher or professor, as with the Coles sisters, or once they have started their careers, when they cross paths with a CPA through work.

To address this challenge, in 1980, the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) launched the Accounting Career Awareness Program (ACAP) to fill the generational role for underrepresented ethnic groups and “increase the understanding of accounting and business career opportunities”. Working with NABA, the New York State Society of CPAs created the Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program in 1987, to be a part of this vitally important work. I have met CPAs who are products of ACAP or COAP and all of them have told me that they are CPAs because of those programs. We cannot understate that value – even if the ACAP and COAP students do not become CPAs themselves, they can now, armed with a greater understanding of what a CPA is, encourage a friend or family member to consider the profession.

Bernadine Coles Gines and Ruth Coles Harris were both extremely driven and smart women, who each graduated at the top of their class, yet they had to face incredible challenges to attain their CPA licenses. They had a role model in a professor who exposed them to accounting, supported them in college, and encouraged them to strive even though they faced discrimination. As Ruth Coles Harris stated, the exam is difficult enough and, if we want an inclusive profession, we need to address the other factors that are keeping some out.

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The Past, The Present, The Future

John W. Cromwell

If the way things are had nothing to do with what has come before, history wouldn’t be something taught at school. However, we learn in many arenas that the past plays a big part in shaping the present and the future. Both graphite and diamonds are carbon, nothing but carbon, yet they are very different from each other because of the environment in which they are formed. What happened to the carbon in the past, determines whether is a diamond or graphite today. Is there any story that we can tell that does not involve cause and effect?

On April 17, 1896, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation was established in law in New York. 25 years later, in 1921, John W. Cromwell became the first Black CPA. This year we celebrate the centennial of his achievement and the doors Cromwell opened. When, as a member of the class of 1906, Cromwell graduated from Dartmouth, he was its top science student and then went on to get his masters, also from Dartmouth, in 1907. Despite these achievements, it was 15 years before Cromwell became a CPA, and not through any fault of his.

A native of Washington, D.C., Cromwell had returned home after graduation and discovered that he faced two barriers. First, because he was Black, he was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. He also faced a barrier, that would stymie many Black people who wished to become CPAs – the experience requirement. In those states, in order to become a CPA, you were required to work under the supervision of a CPA, something that became the biggest barrier, for Black people, to become a licensed CPA. Even as recently as the 1960’s Bert Mitchell, who was the 100th Black CPA in the United States, struggled to find a job with an accounting firm. Despite graduating at the top of his class, 25 firms would not hire him, using their clients’ attitudes (it could never be their own) toward people of color as an excuse. A window opened for Cromwell in 1921, when New Hampshire instituted CPA laws that did not mandate the experience requirement, and Cromwell took advantage of the opportunity. He traveled to New Hampshire, sat for, and passed the CPA exam in 1921.

Fulfilling the academic requirements of the CPA license is difficult enough – right now, only about half of those who take the CPA exam pass it, and back then an even smaller fraction passed. Now, imagine that you had to wait 15 years, and travel over 500 miles, just to be allowed to even try to suffer through it, despite having graduated from an Ivy League school, at or near the top of your class. Because of their race, the first Black CPAs faced and overcame groundless barriers that had nothing to do with their abilities and everything to do with people’s biases, discriminatory views, and actions.

100 years ago, when Cromwell became a CPA, he became an example of the possible and opened the way for others to follow. Perhaps in 1926, when Cauncey L. Christian took the CPA exam in Kentucky, Christian was braver because Cromwell had shown what was possible. Christian sat for the exam at a time when the exam was not open to Black people. So, in that exam room, Christian had a concern that the other 49 White men taking that exam did not. Although Christian was light skinned enough to pass for white, he must have been fearful of his race being discovered. But, because of his courage, out of the 50 men who took the CPA exam, Christian was one of 7 who passed and, by doing so, became the third Black CPA in the United States. As each Black CPA was licensed, more Black students saw a path to the profession opening up for them as well.

2021 is the Black CPA Centennial and, in commemoration of the trail that John W. Cromwell blazed a century ago, several organizations, including organizing partners the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), Diverse Organization of Firms, Inc., Illinois CPA Society, National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), and National Society of Black CPAs (NSBCPA) will recognize Black CPAs and push for greater progress. The themes of the centennial are honoring the past, celebrating the progress that has been made, and continuing to build the future.

As we learn about the history of our profession, the pioneers, the challenges, and the triumphs, it should help us better understand its current state. The more we know about the history of exclusion, the better we can understand the lack of diversity and the lack of inclusion of various demographics, especially in leadership positions. We should think harder and question if the status quo exists for any better reason than the environments that existed in the past. We should remember and honor those who, in addition to having to work hard had to find their success, had to navigate around or through the arbitrary biases of others. Most of all, we should look at our present and what we can do now to create an environment that builds a future of belonging, equity, and inclusion in our profession.

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History Matters

Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash

History matters. Looking back at events not only gives us the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we also learn lessons from it. We see the things that change our lives in positive ways, we see the seeds of brilliance and we can build on them, and we see the things we can learn from and try not to do again. The history that we learn, through books, school, and other sources, highlights the history makers and, in insidious ways that we barely notice, creates an image of these history makers. Because humans write history, we should never forget that often what we learn is what those humans choose to record.

In 1891, following the loss of the Civil War, a former congressman of the Confederate States of America, Missouri Senator George Graham Vest, said, “history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.” If those victors decide that a history is not worth noting, or if they feel that history does not align with the history they want to tell, they may decide to ignore that history, leave out parts of that history, or just go ahead and assign the history in the way they choose. As a result, some aspects of history have been amplified while others have been muted or erased. The March 27, 1964 edition of Time Magazine noted that the most widely used eighth-grade history text book in the United States mentioned only two Black people by name as having lived since the Civil War. It was this invisibility which led James Baldwin to remark, “When I was going to school, I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history because it seemed that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.”

The historian, Carter G. Woodson, recognizing the dangerous impact of being left out of the telling of history lamented, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it become a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” In 1926, seeking to correct that and to strive for a more balance history, he launched Negro History Week during the second week in February because it included both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. In 1976, the week became the entire month of February, when President Gerald Ford urged Americans to observe Black History Month. President Jimmy Carter officially recognized Black History Month in 1978.

There are people who don’t understand why there is a need to have a Black History Month or, for that matter a Women’s History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian American Heritage Month, or any month or other event that highlights a demographic. Shouldn’t it just be history. It should. However, because of who has been getting to decide what history looks like, these historically underrepresented groups have not been given voice. When history happens, it is not automatically recorded in a ledger for all to see. It waits for someone to choose to tell it and we can only hope that person is being as objective and thorough as possible.

In Boston, Massachusetts, in 1716, an enslaved West African man, who was given the name Onesimus by his master, Cotton Mather, told Mather that he knew how to prevent smallpox. Although Mather was skeptical, he verified Onesimus’ story and then spread the world through Massachusetts and elsewhere. Instead of relief at the discovery that could save lives, Mather was vilified for suggesting a medical procedure developed by or for Black people. An explosive device was thrown through Mather’s window with an angry note attached to it. When, in 1721, a smallpox outbreak swept through Boston, only 6 of the 242 people Mather inoculated died (1 in 40), compared to the 1 in 7 among the population of Boston that did not receive this treatment. In 1796, 80 years after Onesimus shared his knowledge with Mather, Edward Jenner developed a vaccine for smallpox and the disease was declared eradicated in 1980.

Every day, we should seek to know more inclusive and expansive histories. During those times when a spotlight is shone, we should pause and challenge ourselves to purposefully seek out histories we never imagined existed. Today, I learnt that one in four cowboys was Black. Phillis Wheatley was the first Black female author to be published, and did that at 12 years old. As more and more of our lives are recorded on CCTV and other surveillance cameras, we can thank Marie Van Brittan Brown and her husband, for the first innovations in home security systems.

I challenge you to find something that surprises you and learn about about the Black woman who took down Lucky Luciano. Or maybe you might find something that makes your life a little easier. Or find and share something that we don’t even know about. Let’s add layers to history and transform the image of the history makers and enter history without preconceived ideas of who our history makers are. Because, really, anyone can make it.

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Know When to Hold Them

I am the absolute worst gambler. Several years ago, I headed out to Las Vegas to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday, spent a lot of time in the casinos, and very little time gambling. My friend discovered that if she was sitting in front of a slot machine, occasionally pushing the button, she got drinks for free. Sitting next to her, I benefitted from this perk. Thus, we spent a lot of the long weekend chatting and sipping on drinks, while hanging out near a slot machine. It was a lot more fun than it generally has been when I lose my money in a casino. I am sure there are may strategies and techniques that people employ when gambling, but I don’t even know the theories, so I tend to essentially throw my money at a machine or croupier and hope for the best.

When it comes to some financial terms that are being bandied about in discussions about GameStop, I can at least try to explain what the terms mean. I find that what is going on in the stock market right now involves many short words that may be more complicated than they sound. Hopefully, clarifying them will help us all get a better idea of what is going on. I am going to speak about shares (because that is what is at play with GameStop) but these financial terms apply to all kinds of securities. Securities are financial instruments that are tradable and fungible, or mutually interchangeable. The fungible characteristic is what makes securities so easily tradable. Securities being fungible means that they are for all practical purposes, considered to be identical and can be exchanged for one another. You can exchange one $20 bill for two $10 bills. In contrast, though they are both seats one does not consider a front row seat to be the same as a back row seat, especially if everyone in front of you is way taller, so these seats are non-fungible.

I shall start out by talking about buying on margin. In the stock market, when you buy on margin, it means that you are buying securities using only a percentage of your own money. For example, say you want to buy a share for $100 but only have $10 to your name. You approach your local broker and that broker agrees to lend you $90 to get you to the $100 to buy that share. Because just about nothing in life is free, the broker charges you 10% interest on the $90. In a year, you decide to sell that share. When you do that, you will need to repay the broker $90 plus $9 in interest. If you skipped over those sentences because you saw numbers and didn’t want to to math, buying on margin means you only need to use a fraction of the money needed to buy shares and you can borrow the rest, paying interest. If you are able to sell the shares for more than what you paid to buy it, that’s great. You can use your profit to pay back your loan (plus interest) and happily take the rest home with you to do with as you please. However, if the price of the shares goes down, you will lose your money and may have to find money elsewhere to repay your loan. In the United States, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) generally requires that a customer use 50% of their own money for their first time or initial purchase of securities. People who want to short sell securities, also need margin accounts.

For all the people who are optimistic about share prices and financial markets, there are those who look at securities and believe that the value of the securities will go down. Some may call these people pessimists, and these people may call themselves realists. Po-tay-to or Po-tah-to, these folks seek to benefit from their price downturn point of view by doing what is called short selling (or shorting) the security, and this is how shorting works. Pessireal (as we shall call them) goes to their broker and says, “I would like to borrow one $100 share of Tulip stock. Everyone is all about Tulip these days, but I just don’t see that ending well.” The broker will then sell a $100 share of Tulip stock, and give the $100 to Pessireal, less any transaction fees (again, nothing for free). Pessireal will then sit back, wait, and watch the market. If Pessireal’s gut is correct about Tulip and that the value of the share goes down to $50, Pessireal will take $50 of the $100 and buy a share of Tulip stock which they will give to the broker to, as they say, close the short position. So, Pessireal is giving back the borrowed share and has made $50 (less fees) while they’re at it.

Suppose, however, that Pessireal is wrong about Tulip, it becomes the best thing since sliced bread, and nothing can keep its price down. Pessireal may realize the error of their ways and decide to cut their losses when the share price is $200. In addition to the $100 they got from their borrowed share, Pessireal will have to spend an additional $100 of their own money to buy the share they need to return to the broker. Although this is rare, sometimes it is the broker who may decide that they want their share back. It could be because the broker has been watching Tulip’s share price going up and when it gets to $300 a share, they start to fear that Pessireal won’t be able to pay them back. So they call Pessireal up and, despite’s Pessireal’s attempts to assure them that Tulip’s demise is on the horizon, they demand their share be returned. This means, whether they like it or not, Pessireal will have to find an additional $200 to bring the $100 from the borrowed share up to the $300 needed in order to buy a share of Tulip and return it to the broker.

With the regular trading of securities, the worst that can happen is that the value of your investment can go down to zero. That hurts but at least you know that the most you can lose is what you put in. The best that can happen is pretty much infinite. Your gain is whatever the price of the security goes up to be, over what you put in. Short selling is the opposite. You can calculate the most you can earn on a security – the lower the price goes, the more you make, up until the security is worthless. On the very scary flip side, the most you can lose is pretty much as high as the share price soars, which could be, as GameStop short sellers are finding out, can be pretty darn high. Brook Gladstone, the host of On The Media, shared that she spent almost $1,000 on 42 shares of GameStop stock in 1999 and by April 2020, that investment was worth $3.50 a share – $147. She sold her shares when they were at $100 a share. Most of last year, GameStop’s stock was valued at $250 million. The stock has exploded to a point where GameStop’s stock value is around $20 billion! If you are a short seller, that hurts.

The last thing I will mention here is the short squeeze. Say, Pessireal was not alone in thinking that Tulip’s share price was going to crash, and that many had decided to short Tulip but, instead, that price was soaring. Some short sellers may take a look at the soaring price and at their sources of funds and decide that they were ready to cut their losses. If there were enough of these short sellers looking to buy Tulip shares so that they could return them to their brokers, and close the short position, this higher demand could push the share price even higher. Right now, with GameStop (and other stocks) there are a lot more people looking to buy shares than are looking to sell. The trusty supply and demand chart comes in to show how the increased demand will increase the price. The short sellers, looking to cut their losses and repay their borrowed stock, are, in turn, squeezing that price up too.

I can’t say when and how this will end; I am no good at the Vegas game. Heck, I can’t even let what happened in Vegas stay there. I do, however, hope that as you read or listen to stories that are throwing out financial terms, you will nod along and think – I get it.