Ep. 177: Dr. Anton Lewis - DE&I in Accounting

Dr. Anton Lewis, Associate Professor of Accounting at Valparaiso University, joins IMA’s Adam Larson to discuss his research on the experience of Black accountants in the accounting profession. Dr. Lewis explains common flaws that hamper many workplace DE&I initiatives, as well as practical steps that can be taken to improve equitable representation across the industry. To better understand the role of research in tackling DE&I issues, don’t miss this insightful conversation.
Connect with Dr. Lewis

Full Transcript:
Mitch: (00:05)
Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host, Mitch Roshong, and you are listening to episode number 177 of our series. Today's conversation features Dr. Anton Lewis, an associate professor of accounting at Valparaiso University, whose research investigates the experience of black accountants in the profession and promotes equitable racial representation. In his conversation with my co-host Adam, Dr. Lewis talks about DE&I in accounting, common flaws relating to diversity equity and inclusion in the workplace, as well as what can be done and what he is already doing to advance and improve equitable representation across the industry. Keep listening as we head over to the conversation now. 
 
Adam: (00:59)
So Anton, historically conversation about race and the workplace, particularly within accounting simply have not happened. Now, there have been great achievements in DE&I, but there's still much room for improvement in our industry. Why do you think that is? 
 
Anton: (01:16)
Adam, If I had to really give you an answer to that, I actually think it is because we in society and in particular US society have a great deal of problems talking about the subject of race and racial representation. It's almost a taboo subject in many ways. So the problem is we know we have poor representation currently. We know we've historically had poor representation, but nobody really wants to talk about why that is because race and racism are sticky, unpleasant subjects to talk about. And part of what seems to be my life's cause now is a core trying to provoke a conversation around this area, which is not polarizing, which is almost impossible to do by definition. But to my mind, if we can't have a conversation about race, racism, why we have poor black representation in our accounting profession and have had historically, and, you know, if we can't have this conversation and it be at two polar opposite ends to this, but yet still respect each other, each one another's views, we will not actually significantly change the situation. We will not deal with this problem effectively. And to my mind, that has kind of been the status quo for quite some time. 
 
Adam: (02:58)
Yeah, that makes sense. I think I've seen that as well, but as we specifically like focus in on accounting, as you kind of did there at the end, you are often the only person of color in a predominantly white workplace day in and day out, you know, how have you handled that and what have you done to advance the way that is perceived or how you feel about it? 
 
Anton: (03:18)
It's tricky, isn't it? There are those critical theorists, critical race theorists among others who talk about this environmental microaggression that occurs being the only black person in an accounting organization or any other organization that when you step foot in the building of which you work and you are one of the three people out of 500 that work there without anybody saying anything without anybody saying you don't belong, you feel it in the very walls of the institution you're in, and it can be a quite effective way of pushing those of difference out of the doors in terms of how one deals with that. It's difficult. the entire reason why I look at the area of race and racism and where I'm originally from, from Britain as you may hear in my accent when I was a jobing accountant, so to speak, that would happen to me all the time. 
 
Anton: (04:25)
And it's the reason that I began to look at this subject topic, cause I always wanted to know, well, why am I the only one there? And as I was experiencing this, I really wanted to have other people of color, other black people, other black professionals, ironically, to talk about this, to say, I'm not going mad. Am I, are you having this feeling as well? And the truth of the matter if they just weren't there and it becomes a circular problem, right? What am I doing to try to change this? Because I'm an accounting professor. One of the things I try to do is encourage now I'm here in the United States, as many African Americans as many black accountants as I can into profession with more numbers, it kind of gets rid of that feeling of being alone. But unfortunately it's still a very difficult process. 
 
Anton: (05:17)
Another thing that I've tried to do is write more publicly in things like the CPA journal. I've tried to increase my social media presence. I've tried to reach out with my own podcast, Counting Black and White Beans as an idea to be able to be used as a resource to allow those black accountants who feel isolated, who are feeling a little bit lost, let them know that this is not unusual, that this is actually quite common, whether it's in the United Kingdom or the United States, and for them to have a feeling of kinship, of a kindred kind of effect for one of a better word kind of saying you're in, we're in this together. And so I'm afraid to say, Adam, if you're looking for an absolute definite answer as to how does one deal with the isolation often of being one of the few black people within an accounting environment, I can't give you any firm answers to that. I suspect it's as difficult to deal with today. As I found it decades ago, 
 
Adam: (06:27)
I'd imagine it is, it's not easy being underrepresented in any profession. But for the black accountant, there has to be various stereotypes that are there tales. Can you explain how or why these stereotypes exist and what impact that misinformation has? 
 
Anton: (06:42)
Yeah. And again, these stereotypes exist in our profession and other professions as well. Because we, in my opinion, and many others live in a racialized environment, you know, we, our racialized views of those who are different from ourselves, don't stop at the doors of the organizations that we work in. Some of the traditional stereotypes that black accountants often have to deal with that I've found in my research and many other's is one would be of being angry. If you are a black male accountant, and I should be clear here, there are different stereotypes often for black women accountants and black male accountants. So for black male accountants, anger is often an issue. So, you know, if one is out on an audit and you find something has come up and you're in the middle of a meeting with your team to try to address this issue and tempers become a little bit frayed. 
 
Anton: (07:54)
If you are the black accountant, you understand clearly that you cannot be passionate like your white colleagues, because that is seen as being angry and unprofessional and unbecoming, that latitude is not afforded to you. And of course it makes it difficult in terms of impression management. Once we come around and look at performance evaluations and it may come up that you are unprofessional, angry, you scare inverted clients. On the polar opposite, perhaps would be the experience that many black women professionals have of being seen as the Sapphire, this steely hard unemotional unempathetic professional that is cold sometimes also can be angry in that negative way. But the idea here is that she is not a team player. She is overbearing she's quintessentially, anti feminine or unfeminine, if you like in this setting and be it with just these two examples of stereotypes that you mentioned that are often prevalent to the black accounting or black professional experience, whether it's being too angry, if you are a black male accountant or being positioned as Sapphire as a black woman accountant, both positionalities for wont of better word, mean that you are othered and you are positioned outside the professional, the remit of being seen as completely professional. 
 
Anton: (09:34)
What I mean by of that is you're always on the outside, looking in, you can never truly embody that authentic accountant, that trusted accountant, and that's actually quite vital for the work that we do. 
 
Adam: (09:48)
Definitely. And, those, just those two examples that you used are not isolated to just accountants. I've seen those in any other profession as well. Just how people view folks of color in that way. And that kind of brings us in our conversation. I wanted to circle back to something you mentioned earlier was microaggressions. You know, we often hear that term, but I'm not sure everyone truly understands what that means. And to what extent they can have an effect on people in the workplace. So maybe you can share your thoughts on that with us. 
 
Anton: (10:22)
Yes. microaggressions, one of these many terms that's kind of banded around, but people don't give you a concise definition of really what they are. Essentially, microaggressions are racialized. Racial, like aggressions are, are flights often verbal, sometimes environmental, as I've highlighted that say that you are not welcome, you are not wanted, you are othered to give you the best example of what a microaggression would be like. Imagine Adam, that you went into your account workplace, and as you sat down, had your coffee opened up one of the letters, one of the many letters that you had, you've got a paper cut. Now we've all experienced paper cuts, right? Sharp, painful, awful annoying. It's not going to kill you, right? You're not gonna bleed to death, so to speak, but it's annoying. But imagine if you had 50 paper cuts a day, every day that you went into your workplace day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, eventually you get almost a part of you dies by a thousand paper cuts. 
 
Anton: (11:38)
If you like, at least that professional part, that professional self, and it can be incredibly harmful to one's psychological makeup. It can be incredibly harmful to one's ability to function in the workplace. It is continual and unremitting othering. If you like, and it's a genuine problematic, it can be micro thoughts as we might term them where, and forgive me on some of my definitions here where we might think that we are not welcome in the workplace because essentially we don't belong. I.E., black people don't belong in accounting. That might be inferred in a very subtle kind of way. It may be as I once witnessed with not so much black accountant in Britain, but south Asian Muslim accountant back in the United Kingdom where I had interviewed a respondent and he cited that he was offered bacon sandwiches regularly. 
 
Anton: (12:50)
And if you are of Muslim heritage, that you cannot do that. And it was kind of known. It's not a direct physical attack, but it's incredibly deeply offensive. And it's these kind of actions that cumulative, that relate to something term battle fatigue, where it just becomes too much, you become depressed. There are physiological effects that can happen, including extraordinarily high stress levels which can lead to high blood pressure, et cetera, et cetera. And you know, when we're talking about these microaggressions as well, and, you know, we should not forget about this concept that you've alluded to Adam about intersectionality. So some of this, again, speaks to not just being a black person in that environment, but whether you are a black woman in this environment and that gendered piece should this black woman go into the workplace and her hair is for example, now braided, it is seen as unprofessional. 
 
Anton: (14:00)
And in that unprofessional environment, you may not be recognized as working there. There have been reports of this. it may, you may have the typical side eye. People may not want you in front of the clients because you don't look professional enough. As women will understand if one's hemline on any given day where when a skirt is, is worn, is too short, one gets judged upon this, this idea that there is a controlling factor in femininity in general, but specifically on certain aspects of black femininity. And when we're talking about hairstyles, the same thing then crosses over equally to African American men who may decide to wear their hair in dreadlocks. And that, again, positions them as being unprofessional. Although to be fair, there should be a right for people to hold their own style, their own way of being their department that is actually true to their own culture. And that actually speaks to something else, which is quite interesting. If we see these variances in what is acceptable and not acceptable, then the environment that we work in, Adam, within accounting has a set of unwritten rules. These rules are about what is professional and what is considered professional is what is considered both pale and male. And that's really important because if you are not male and you're not pale and arguably middle class, then you are always going to swim against the tide of your success in that environment. 
 
Adam: (15:36)
When you don't look like that, typical professional, like you were just talking about it others you, right. How can we make steps to go forward to change that perception of what a professional looks like? It seems like a broader conversation and something you can't just flip the switch and say, this is how you do it, but what steps can we take to changing that perception of what a professional person looks like? No matter what the color of their skin is. 
 
Anton: (16:04)
That is a really difficult question, Adam. I always say the simplest questions are the most difficult ones to answer. And this is true here for us not to other, we must reticulate truthfully what we consider an accounting professional to be. And if we're honest, think about how we, how we term accountants. When we joke about them, we call them bean counters. Right? If you imagine in your mind's eye, Adam, what a bean counter is. I would say bean counter to me is possibly a middle aged white man, possibly be speckled. Right? Okay. Gray hair with a calculator, furiously tapping away, possibly doing some taxes. Yeah. And this is important because that mental image that I have is to me, the authentic accountant, that is the accountant that I trust with my money. I don't want an interesting accountant. 
 
Anton: (17:09)
Somebody who looks like they go and party or looking after my money, but all jesting and joking side, if you are not that archetype of an accountant, then you must be something else you must be other than what I expect. And that othering piece has to be removed. Because even though I talk about this othering of black male and female accountants, we must have also talk about the othering of our Latinx community, the othering of our LGBTQ+ community, the othering of women in general those who are less able bodied than ourselves in terms of othering, that othering piece is a tricky thing to deal with. That's what we've really got to co overcome. And so, for example, even how we approach dealing with this othering concept must be well thought out. So if we somehow magically manage not to other black women and black male accountants, are we leaving our Latinx brothers and sisters out? 
 
Anton: (18:19)
Are we leaving our LGBTQ plus brothers and sisters out? Are we leaving those colleagues who are less able bodied out? Are we leaving other stigmatized groups out? If we are going to do this, we must. The analogy I like to use here, Adam is we must raise all ships. We must have a tide of equity and equality if you like that raises all ships at the same time, which is why I always force through this idea of intersectionality. When we look at dealing with this devilishly tricky concept of othering, and I'll be perfectly truthful here, Adam you are asking me for solutions that I don't have. I don't know how to do that, Adam. I really don't know how we do that. I only know I think one thing that as we deal with this sticky problem of othering, we must do it together. We must everybody, everybody must join in this conversation, which is why I advocate for the idea of conversation, of dialogue, of not being fearful. Yeah. That stops us dead in our tracks. When we can't talk about this issue of othering and say to ourselves, well, let's try this. Let's try that. Let's try this in a manner that says we work together and not work against one another. If that helps. 
 
Adam: (19:44)
It does, it really does. And I think the idea of conversation is a great way to start dialogue. People need to talk in not attack or condemn or assume, but actually just have that conversation cuz until you have the conversations and start the dialogue, sometimes your eyes aren't open until you start talking 
 
Anton: (20:04)
Without a shadow of a doubt, Adam, you know, and again, it would seem that we've lost the art to talk and to talk in a manner that does not malign the person we're talking to that doesn't reduce the the other person's sense of, of self worth or being. We really have to have great. We need to do better in that. You know, we are, unfortunately, and it's not just the United States here in my homeland, the United Kingdom, it's just as bad and in our areas across Europe as well. And in other places, we are entrenched in this, position of polarization, of partisanship. It's getting us nowhere. And certainly it, when we do that, we remove the tools of which to deal with very difficult problems. And that in of itself is something we're going to have to deal with. 
 
Anton: (20:59)
But actually as a matter of point Adam, I actually think our profession in accounting is really well suited in what we do to begin to make inroads to that very point. Why would I say that? In accounting, we are all about teamwork. We are all about dealing with difficult intractable problems that seemingly often don't seem to have a solution, but we come up with them all the time. And not only that we are in the business of relaying that information out there. I actually believe that accountants in this area, if we really set our mind to it with our skill sets, we can actually do something quite special, but we can't do it. If we can't talk about it, we can't do it. If we are polarized and partisan and we can't do it if we don't admit where we are and what we need to do about it, going forward about this racialized space within accounting, 
 
Speaker 4: (21:59)
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