Unconscious Bias Awareness Study
Unconscious bias, binding the business success
The extent to which unconscious bias has an impact on our society and the professional services industry is hard to capture in full since the very nature of the problem is evasive and unintentionally cultivated for years. What can be attested with certainty is that a consequence of biased behaviours is an industry lacking diversity, particularly at higher organisational levels. Furthermore, unconscious biases constrains the career progression for certain groups of professionals and is becoming a bottleneck to diverse hiring. All of these practices gradually, but inevitably, erode a firms’ success.
At HLB we believe that it is our duty as professionals to analyse the as-is state of any matter and advise on the best steps towards the desired to-be state. In this report, we look objectively into the current practices and identify where and why bias overtakes objectivity and what can be done to address and resolve unconscious bias within the professional services industry.
While the number of female public accountants has steadily increased, there is still a significant lack of female leadership within the industry. We discovered that several unconscious biases as the cause of this. One example is that the traditional career curve for women in accounting is rarely accommodating motherhood. In addition, the pressure to deliver measurable results and clock in the billable hours is another core factor that eschews the career progression curve for female CPAs.
In addition, the career progression curve for non-white candidates of both genders differs significantly to that of white professionals. Despite the increased number of graduates coming in from different backgrounds, CPA firms are still slow to embrace diverse hiring practices. Our own findings suggest that even in richly diverse areas, there are no shortage of diversity at entry-level, but few non-white CPAs progress up the ranks, with less than 10% promoted above the mid-level positions. In addition, structural reasons such as systemic barriers to education and access to opportunities can explain the lower rate of diverse candidates entering the industry.
While the supply of candidates from diverse backgrounds to the industry has steadily increased since the start of the 21st century, the demographic split within CPA firms is still strongly focused on white males as both our internal and external research suggests. Our profession has been too slow in acknowledging the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workforce, as recognised by 55% of HLB Managing Partners. Yet it’s widely agreed that moving the needle towards more equal power distribution isn’t just a social priority; it’s a key driver for the future viability of the industry.
The lack of diversity in leadership positions comes as a direct result of practices and unconscious bias which exists on the grassroots level within the industry. With a compromised career curve, fewer female and non-white candidates manage to make their way to leadership positions, with many giving up on either their professional growth or the industry. This has a direct impact on the attractiveness of the profession, with 67% of HLB managing partners agreeing that prospective employees look at the demographic make-up of the firm and leadership team when assessing an employer brand. Ultimately, homogeneous leadership structures are holding firms back from realising their full potential and driving outcomes for their clients.
Unconscious biases are small bricks that support our mental ‘mortars’ and stand at the foundations of many organisational practices. Removing all of them at once is neither feasible nor sustainable. However, gradual minor adjustments made both on the grassroots and leadership levels can yield a substantial impact for the professional services industry. Addressing biased behaviours at the leadership level is a priority as such targeted action can facilitate with further dissemination of the practices to the lower levels. The Maintaining the ‘status quo’ on the matters of diversity isn’t an option either as inaction will further heighten the issues of inequality and drive new talent to other industries.
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