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.