Among the few women to lead a global professional body, Helen Brand, Chief Executive, ACCA, has been instrumental in driving ACCA’s work to develop the accounting profession across Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.
Helen joined ACCA over 25 years ago and took over as Chief Executive in 2008. She is also the founding member of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and now sits as Vice-Chair on the IIRC Board.
Helen Brand is also a member of the University of Exeter Business School International Advisory Board and a member of the Deakin University Business School International Advisory Board. Her voice has been crucial in shaping conversations surrounding the role of ethics in the rapidly transforming accounting profession in this digital age.
In this exclusive interaction with People Matters, Helen talks about employee inclusion data gathering, the roadblock to equality of opportunity, the advantages for smaller corporates in achieving inclusion, and leveraging digital tools to enable belonging.
Read on for excerpts from the interaction.
As per a recent ACCA report, 73% of global respondents think finance and accounting is an inclusive profession. In your opinion, how is ACCA as a professional body contributing to this diversity and inclusion agenda?
As a global professional accountancy body, representing a global community of 227,000 members and 544,000 future members across 176 countries, diversity and inclusion is a fundamental part of what ACCA stands for.
We came into being in 1904 to create a body for accountancy professionals that could be open to all. In pursuit of that ideal, we’re proud to be the first professional accountancy body to admit women members, back in 1909, and for pioneering many other notable milestones in the profession’s evolution.
Today, championing equality remains central to everything we do, and inclusion – along with integrity and innovation – is one of our three core values.
The diversity our open access policy has enabled is one of ACCA’s greatest strengths. And we see this reflected across our membership, from our most senior governance arms to the unparalleled diversity of those who choose the ACCA Qualification across the world. That diversity and the opportunity for anyone of ability to pursue a career through the ACCA Qualification is something our members and future members identify strongly with – and they consistently tell us that it’s a source of great pride.
So we have a duty to champion this, on their behalf, recognizing that until everyone is judged solely on their ability and potential, the work towards true equality of opportunity is not over.
And, to highlight this even further, in December 2020, we published ACCA’s explicit commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals with the commitments we made to delivering Goal 5: Gender equality and Goal 10: Reduced inequalities further reinforcing our commitment to this issue.
The report also highlights that 54% of the global respondents don't know what to do to promote the agenda, or are uncertain. Despite the visible advocacy and awareness campaigns, what do you think is causing said gap? What must be done to minimise the uncertainties?
As inequalities widen and there’s been an increased focus on whether opportunities are indeed open to all, I think that’s led to some important thinking and learning within the profession.
Rather than relying on HR professionals and workplace programmes to address everything, our members and future members are wanting to stand up, make a difference and take a lead. What they need from us, as their professional body, is a roadmap for the concrete actions they can take and, importantly, the questions they can ask themselves to challenge their own preconceptions. Our report, Leading inclusion, provides them with the tools to do precisely that, so they are fully empowered to make the difference they want to see.
While advocacy and policy changes are two key components of making workplaces inclusive, another critical component is representation. How is ACCA supporting its workforce and boosting representation across the breadth of diversity pockets - gender, LGBTQ+, people of colour, PwD and veterans to name a few?
As an organization with a global footprint and brand, ACCA is fortunate in much of the obvious diversity we enjoy. With 110 offices and centres across 52 countries, we have a rich, multi-national workforce, with 61% of the workforce being female and 49% of women holding senior leadership positions. The digital tools we’ve invested in enable us to make the most of this by ensuring that our project teams draw on the widest possible input and viewpoints, especially from the markets around the world that we serve.
Because gender, race and ethnicity are very much visible diversity, we do need to also highlight those more hidden aspects of difference, so we can be truly inclusive.
To help us do this, in April 2020, we created a simplified global inclusion policy for ACCA employees and also undertook a series of internal listening sessions, led by me and our executive director for people, along with a global survey on the issue.
Key themes that came through included that people wanted to learn more about various cultures and ethnic groups, to pay attention to issues such as equality of opportunity and creating a workplace where people feel comfortable saying what they think, and to have more opportunities to share experiences and celebrate diversity.
One of our early actions was the creation of an Inclusion & Diversity steering group, drawn from our global employee population, and three inclusion communities covering ethnicity, LGBTQIA+ and well-being. Over time, we plan to evolve and expand our communities to cover other areas of inclusion.
Alongside this, we have reviewed our approach to employee inclusion data gathering, starting initially with our UK employees – around 950 people – encouraging them to provide us with key inclusion data on an optional basis. This will enable us to look critically and in a data-driven way at areas of challenge for us around inclusion. Over the coming months, we will be gathering further data in key global locations in line with local legislation, as well as societal and cultural norms.
Specific to India findings, the ACCA report highlights that the numbers are reflective of those who work in large or multinational organizations, who tend to have programmes that address the issues. How can smaller and mid-size firms in corporate India work towards fostering inclusivity?
Without the data, it’s hard to be totally definitive about what the smaller end of the corporate market in India thinks about the issue. But, through our global results, we’ve analyzed what those in smaller organizations around the world told us and we’ve been able to develop some targeted recommendations as a result.
In many ways, smaller corporates have advantages in addressing diversity and inclusion in that their dynamic and agile nature can create a more favourable environment.
That said, tone from the top in smaller organizations takes on an amplified importance, with the finance leader often having responsibilities that are broader than finance - may include technology and human resources. As a key leader it is a necessity, therefore, for the finance professional to ensure that all the organizational leaders fully appreciate the issues and concerns of the diversity and inclusion agenda, as well as how this can benefit their organization and its strategic goals.
In smaller organizations, structured programmes can be hard to achieve and often lack the impact that can be seen elsewhere. Education is very much at the individual level and it is important to establish a clear understanding of the issues and concerns across the workforce. Mentoring provides an important and effective tool in this regard.
Finally, a consistent culture and sense of belonging can be easier to achieve in a smaller organization.
Honesty and openness come from personal contact; the ability of a smaller organization to provide this is a real benefit in developing trust and the implicit valuing of the opinions of others.
With tech being the enabler for a multitude of HR functions today, it has started making its way into the diversity and inclusion space as well through providing avenues for bias free hiring. Beyond hiring, through which other segments can technology further amplify the diversity, inclusion and equity agenda?
The concept of belonging is intrinsic to inclusion. So creating communities where people who face similar challenges and have comparable experiences around progressing in the workplace is invaluable. Digital tools enable this sort of engagement and connection across borders and take communities into different and more personal territories beyond geographical ones.
It’s an area that we are thinking about very deeply at the moment – both externally and internally. So looking at how we can best connect our people and our members and future members around shared areas of interest and experience across the whole spectrum, using current and emerging technologies.
Much like soft skills, diversity and inclusion is often looked at as the softer aspect of talent management and culture, and unsurprisingly that deters the growth and dims the significance. How can diversity advocates break through this ceiling?
I would challenge that notion as there’s been credible and much cited research that workforce diversity in particular drives better business performance. In our report, we reference the McKinsey 2015 study that established the link between business success and a diverse and inclusive culture. The report concludes that ‘companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns. And diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time’.
I’d also say that, in a complex and fast-moving business environment, full of disruptors, innovation is more important than ever. And difference in experience and outlook are vital creative sparks that generate true new thinking.
Many of those we consulted in putting our report together also stressed the importance of the link between the customer base and the diversity of the organization itself. One commented ‘if you have a diverse customer base, you need to have a diverse organization to ensure that the decisions that you are taking reflect their needs and wants’.
So, I think that the concrete business benefit – as well as it being the right agenda to pursue for society – is becoming increasingly evident.
What does 2021 look like for ACCA from the lens of diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging?
Because inclusion is an enduring core value for ACCA, it will always be present and visible on our external and internal agendas. In terms of our workforce reporting, we’ll be continuing the annual UK gender pay reporting we voluntarily began in 2017 and extending this to ethnicity pay gap reporting, initially in the UK, in 2021.
Immediately ahead, we’ll be celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March with a series of events around the world, highlighting the contribution women make to the profession at the highest levels.
And the work on communities of shared interests and experiences – both externally and internally – will be a major theme of our work in 2021-22 and beyond.