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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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In The News Inspiration My Two Cents NYSSCPA PSA

True Tone at the Top

NYSSCPA

 

I am reading “Tragedy of Fraud – Insider Trading Edition“, a book recently released by James Ulvog. This is the story of Scott London‘s journey from KPMG partner to prison inmate. James Ulvog covered this story in depth, from the moment it broke up to when Scott London went to prison. I would not be surprised if Jim picks up the story again when London is released from prison. In the book, Jim has spoken about the possible consequences of London’s crime and a lot of these stretch well into the future, potentially affecting him both professionally and personally. It is always a big disappointment when members of the CPA profession completely disregard the ethical and professional standards that have been set by the various governing boards. It is, therefore, important when people like Jim of Attestation Update and Francine McKenna of re: The Auditors
call out the CPAs who are setting a terrible tone at the top of their profession.

It is equally important, if not more so, to recognize those who have provided a positive contribution to the CPA profession. We are trusted professionals for a reason; it’s not just empty rhetoric. A little over a week ago, I had the indescribable privilege of meeting Bernadine Coles Gines, CPA. I am pretty sure this is not a name you have heard before, but she is a woman worth learning more about. I met her at a New York State Society of CPAs (NYSSCPA) ceremony honoring the 60th anniversary of Bernadine Coles Gines’ CPA license. This is a big deal because Gines was the first black woman to receive the CPA license in New York State. It becomes even more of a big deal when you learn more about the challenges she faced, both while working towards becoming a CPA and beyond.

Bernadine Coles Gines moved to New York City from Virginia, where she is originally from, to get her master’s degree at New York University. She moved because, at the time, Virginia’s segregation laws kept her out of graduate school in that state. Once Gines had graduated and passed her CPA exams, she looked for work. She found that she could not find work with a black CPA firm in New York City because they would not hire women. She also found that she could not find work with white CPA firms because they would not hire black people. While interviewing at a white firm, one partner told her that, even though he could not hire her, perhaps Gines could help his wife, who was looking for a maid. She was finally hired by a two-partner Jewish firm, but only after she had convinced them that she was not a communist. Of course, getting work was in no way the end of her challenges but at no time did Gines give up or compromise. She persevered and continued to work toward achieving her goals, despite (or perhaps more resolved, because of) the challenges in her way.

I read a little about Bernadine Coles Gines before I met her, but when I met her, I was even more impressed. She spoke of her principles and her determination and her story is living proof of both. To come to face to face with a person who epitomizes unwavering grit and the drive to stand by what she believes in is truly motivating. To learn about people like Bernadine Gines reminds us about the types of people who have made CPA the trusted professionals that they are and they also show why we harshly judge those who give us a bad name. They are a reminder to us and to those we serve of those of us who are professional, ethical and will stand strong, despite the pressures put upon us.

You should go out and learn more about Bernadine Gines and others like her. As though her achievements were not enough, she shared during her interview, that her sister, Ruth Coles Harris, was the first Black woman to be certified as a CPA in Virginia, in 1963. Ruth Coles Harris faced challenges of her own when she decided she wanted to be a CPA. I wonder what those family reunions are like – I would hate to be the black sheep in that family (if they even have one). I am truly fortunate that I had this incredible opportunity to meet Bernadine Coles Gines and that I was reminded how important it is to uphold ethics and principles and that I should not compromise, especially when things are very challenging.