Smashing the stereotypes
There are many stereotypes about accountants, whether they stem from popular culture or that one accountant someone met once, but we all know or have heard at least one derogatory comment.
We asked our tutors about some of the stereotypes they have encountered in their lives, which include ‘dull’ and ‘boring’, and point to unhelpful portrayals in culture, such as Ben Wyatt and his fellow accountants from Parks and Recreation; a man who invents the name ‘Butch Countsidy and the Sumdance Kid’ for himself and his audit partner as a source of living-on-the-edge hilarity.
The portrayals go back years: who can forget the infamous chartered accountant sketch by Monty Python, where the CA describes his own job as “desperately dull,” before launching into a spiel on claiming reasonable wear and tear deductions on outfits for his proposed job as night-time lion-tamer (and demonstrating that no matter what job he does, he’ll always think like a CA).
In 2005, we actually had the City University of Hong Kong tell us that accountants are scientifically boring, because of the language used in everyday work. Apparently, nothing gets people going more than the phrase “provisional tax liability”!
The truth couldn’t be further from reality
The Italian mathematician (and one-time Friar), Luca Pacioli, kicked off double-entry bookkeeping for Europe in 1494, with the first-ever published work, Summa de arithmetica. He also palled around with Leonardo da Vinci, who illustrated his 1509 manuscript, De divina proportione, which explored the application of mathematics and ratios in architecture.
What is most surprising is that Pacioli did not receive a traditional Latin education of the time; he was an abbaco student – commerce-influenced calculations and merchant-based knowledge that has parallels with the modern CA qualification!
That education wasn’t possible without the basic accounting practices first employed in Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago to support trade and taxation for temples.
So when accountancy was being used to feed, clothe and house people, what would those stereotypes have looked like?
In an ancient world of different cultures, languages and systems, numbers proved to be a common factor, and there are documents that demonstrate expenditure records, received goods and applied tax.
Humans were mastering agriculture such as keeping herds of animals or growing basic crops, and mastery or manipulation of numbers became necessary to determine seasonal growth and ergo survival. Fast forward a few thousand years to 3000 BC and the Iranians were busy developing the origins of bookkeeping with clay tokens.
In ancient Egypt, 1000 BC, the ‘accountant’ is evidenced in records as the ‘comptroller of the scribes’ – someone recognised as the key individual responsible for all accounting and financial reporting. Six hundred years later they invented auditor roles to control grain store movement and feed the populations.
So when accountancy was being used to feed, clothe and house people, what would those stereotypes have looked like? Accounting can be considered one of the oldest professions in the world and has often been situated with legal functions and positions of great responsibility; but why don’t business stereotypes apply to accountants and CAs?
Is it ‘boring’ because it is the one of the oldest trades, always developing but largely unchanged in aim or function?
Do we need to challenge the stereotype?
We already know that each and every CA is an individual and can’t be pinned down as one particular person sharing the exuberant qualities of caution, introversion, jargon-loving and tedious company.
The work of a CA is complex, sometimes difficult, and will always involve analytical thinking and logical challenges. Maybe you also have a full body tattoo, or hold the world record for skydiving, but people can’t imagine that eccentric, fashion-loving, or thrill-seeking CAs and CA students, for example, will fit with the serious nature of the work.
When companies or individuals use the service of an accountant, they are ultimately trusting them with their money. So, perhaps stereotyping that person as boring, predictable, yet trustworthy, especially when that person is in charge of their accounts, is as much about creating a psychological safety-net for the client as it is a cultural shorthand.
Maybe we can enjoy the Batman-like qualities that CAs possess: the person at work is not necessarily the person at home, and you or may not own a cape.
ICAS already knows that diversified growth with all types of personalities, people and backgrounds, is what ensures progressive change for the better, and we will continue telling the world that at every opportunity.
Millions of clients who have worked with CAs will recognise their problem-solving and creative qualities, as well as their understanding of multiple business models and competing stakeholder views, but the world at large isn’t quite in on that secret, yet.