Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace has become an important topic in the past few years and the accounting profession is no exception. As the profession undergoes a re-examination of its efforts to address diversity, we spoke with Katrina L. Salazar, CPA, president of the California Board of Accountancy (CBA) and chair of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) Diversity Committee, to discuss how regulators are working to promote diversity in the profession and within the community that oversees the profession.
Appointed to the CBA in 2012, this is Salazar’s second tour as CBA president, having served in the position in 2015-16. She is CFO for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and has served as executive director of the Rotary Club of Sacramento, CFO at the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and the American Red Cross Sacramento Sierra Chapter.
Salazar previously held several positions in public accounting, including senior audit manager for Reznick Group, and has been an adjunct accounting professor for the Los Rios Community College District.
Diversity is certainly top of mind for many in the accounting profession these days. Why is this an important issue to you?
Diversity is important for me because if we expected all accountants to come from the same mold, I wouldn’t be here. It’s a small thing, but I came to our profession through a non-traditional path: I wasn’t an accounting major. Rather, I chose to transition to accounting after graduation.
This is one of many experiences that helped me understand that diversity is embracing people with a range of perspectives and experiences. Understandably, when thinking of diversity, many people focus on characteristics like race, religion and gender. However, on a basic level, diversity is about recognizing that not everyone’s experiences and ways of thinking are the same.
Fortunately, data shows that diversity is smart business, too. It isn’t about checking a box and having different ethnicities or genders within a firm; it’s about creating cognitive diversity with a variety of perspectives, cultures and backgrounds in a work environment to improve outcomes, solve problems and innovate, attract and retain talent, and expand market opportunities.
I’m excited about welcoming more diversity into our profession. It takes a diverse group of CPAs to understand both the social and cultural complexities that are essential in providing the best possible services to all our communities. I also believe that a more diverse roster of CPAs will spark greater innovation for our profession’s future.
One of the CBA’s strategic goals is an increased focused on diversity. Why is that such a key to the future of the accounting profession and what is the role the CBA and other regulators should play in promoting diversity?
Diversity is a key to the future of the accounting profession as a diverse representation of employees bring different experiences, talents and skillsets to help develop inventive and creative solutions. But let’s be honest, there is also a war for talent. Data shows a trend of fewer high school graduates investing in a college degree, and once enrolled in college, there is great competition luring those students into other programs.
The result is what we now refer to as a “pipeline problem.” We don’t want more CPAs retiring than entering the profession.
Because our profession needs to consider its attractiveness to future CPA candidates, it’s important to recognize that embracing and modeling diversity, equity and inclusion is not a goodwill exercise, but smart business practice. I believe DEI helps our profession and its component businesses, and maximizes our draw of the talent pool entering the CPA pipeline.
The CBA and other regulators should continue to educate, promote and set the example of embracing diversity wherever it can, such as by providing DEI training, developing outreach initiatives targeting underserved communities and having a diverse representation of its own members and staff.
What do you see as some of the barriers to under-represented groups from entering or advancing in the profession?
There are numerous factors that could be considered a barrier to under-represented groups from entering or advancing in the profession:
Cost of higher education.
Lack of access to information.
Lack of recruiting and retaining diverse employees.
Conscious/unconscious prejudice, stereotypes, bias or discrimination.
What are some steps the CBA is taking to make the accounting profession more diverse?
The CBA hosts outreach events to educate the public on becoming a CPA and the value of the CPA license. The CBA communicates with our stakeholders in a variety of ways to maximize reach, including a feature on our website that translates the site into multiple languages.
The latest issue of our UPDATE newsletter, which was published last month, has a feature article by CalCPA member Kathy Johnson, CPA, who serves as the vice president of the Alliance of Black Women Accountants and vice chair of the CBA’s Enforcement Advisory Committee. The article is written through the lens of being “The Only One” of your ethnicity at your workplace.
We’ve also encouraged CBA members to undergo DEI trainings created specifically for leaders by the Department of Consumer Affairs, and another by NASBA. CBA staff have also taken similar trainings. We cannot control the job market, of course, but we are taking steps to let it be known how important diversity is to a flourishing future for the accounting profession.
There can be a tendency with large issues like diversity that people think the solutions are with state or national organizations, like the CBA, NASBA, AICPA. What guidance would you provide firms to help build a diverse culture—and what are some barriers to that success?
If you are ready to explore DEI, don’t wait for the big agencies to lead the way. There are things you can do to get started within your own organization right away.
Let your employees know that diversity is an important value for your company and start living it out. Initiate DEI training to ensure you and your employees have a greater understanding of what it means. Take what you have learned and then implement it into your daily work practices and hiring activities.
How important is “tone at the top” in the success of these efforts?
As CPAs we are all familiar with “tone at the top” and know it sets the ground rules for the rest of the organization. When employees see their supervisors demonstrating their objectives and not just talking about them, it significantly increases buy-in.
I personally strive to set an example by actively participating and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the culture both in my workplace and the boards I serve on. I am passionate about my position as chair of NASBA’s Diversity Committee and strive to make an impact in the accounting profession using the platform that I have been given.
Talk to us a little about how you became chair of NASBA’s Diversity Committee and what are some things happening at a national level on increasing diversity in the profession?
I was fortunate to be asked to take on this role because the incoming NASBA chair saw that something in me that would make this a great fit … in other words, I worked hard, kept doors open and was lucky enough to be valued and recognized by others. And when I reflect on experiences that helped shape me as a young professional, I realize I have been inspired by my mother-in-law’s immigrant success story to donate much time and energy to a local Latina Businesswomen Association to honor her, give back to the community and help forge the path for my own Latina daughter.
Now volunteering for national organizations, I see representatives from across the U.S. pull together to support NASBA’s diversity initiatives. I also see the work of AICPA and the Center for Audit Quality’s Accounting+ program to promote the profession, highlight diverse CPAs, and extend memberships to high school students. Programs are being launched to make the CPA journey more affordable through the Experience, Learn & Earn program, and I just recently learned about Maryland’s focus on accepting pure experiential learning to fulfill their 30-hour licensing requirement.
Ultimately, it’s important to acknowledge the value of a master’s degree to fulfill the 150-hour requirement, but also recognize that this path isn’t feasible for everyone—and isn’t the only way to become a CPA. Today, NASBA, AICPA and many state boards and firms are focused on helping individuals interested in becoming CPAs, but for whom a traditional 30 hours of academic courses isn’t an option, to become CPAs in less time and with less expense because they are working and earning income while learning to become a CPA.
What unique California perspectives do you bring to that committee?
California is certainly on the leading edge of diversity, equity and inclusion. As a California native, I am proud of how our state often leads the way on these types of issues.
With nearly 40 million Californians, our population is incredibly diverse, and the makeup of the CBA members and even its staff reflect that diversity. Applicant pools in this state are naturally quite varied, but this is not necessarily the case throughout the rest of the country. Being able to share our state’s viewpoints when it comes to different backgrounds or ethnicities has helped me to contribute to the national conversation and be a voice of support of diversity, equity and inclusion.
How important is mentorship within firms and companies when it comes to attracting, retaining and advancing under-represented groups?
Mentorship offers a wonderful way to support and educate employees as they develop in their careers. Mentees of under-represented groups gain access to knowledge that may not have been readily available to them without a mentor. Mentorship can accelerate their skillsets, goals, and ultimately lead to greater success and career growth. Firms and companies with a mentor program demonstrate commitment to staff development which helps to attract, retain and advance their employees, especially those from under-represented groups.
How do you think California licensees can help amplify the CBA’s efforts to bring diverse voices into the fold?
Our licensees can help amplify the CBA efforts by educating themselves when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, being a positive role model to those aspiring to enter the profession, and actively encouraging others, especially those in minority communities, to become a CPA.
Another simple effort with high impact is licensees sharing DEI related items the CBA has posted on social media. You can be an important part of spreading the Board’s messages. And for those willing to give some of their time back to the profession, the CBA encourages licensees to consider volunteering to serve on the CBA and its various advisory committees.
You have had a successful career both in public accounting and as a CFO. What’s been your experience as a woman navigating the profession and corporate world? What lessons or advice can you share with others?
Don’t isolate yourself: Build you own personal board of colleagues, friends and mentors who you can use as a sounding board.
Don’t impose limits on yourself: Ask yourself, why not me?
Always give back: Give something back of your time and talents … whether it is to your community, church, or profession.
Through your time on the CBA and with NASBA, your public service has advanced consumer protection and positively shaped the future of the CPA profession. What would you tell those thinking about giving back through public service?
Some of my most rewarding experiences have come from being service oriented. This has opened doors to travel the world and meet world class leaders; opportunities I hadn’t expected and certainly couldn’t have engineered.
My own volunteerism started local and has grown from local nonprofits, to state boards to national organizations. The time I’ve spent on the CBA, and with national organizations, has been both incredibly educational and rewarding. Ultimately, it has only amplified my passion for the accounting profession, and I seriously encourage my fellow CPAs to reach out and get involved.