Michael Scott CA: Put aside bias and focus on the individual
Michael Scott CA discusses his journey into the profession from relative poverty, challenging elitist stereotypes in accountancy and how to make the profession open to all.
What has been your relationship so far in your career with ED&I - in terms of how your personal background steered you towards it and how it informs your approach at work?
The ultimate hurdle I had to overcome was socioeconomic. The household I grew up in was considered to be in relative poverty. Single mother, four children, on benefits, living in a council house, frequently running out of electricity, ‘cancelled’ Christmases, frank and grown-up discussions surrounding money from an early age, with all children receiving free school meals. My mum, raising four children and striving to give us a better life, went back into education to complete an English degree and postgrad in education.
I was unaware of it at the time, but my mum inadvertently became a role model for me. She showed me that determination, hard work and education can be ways to overcome the barriers of socioeconomic hurdles.
Even then, it was difficult for me to picture myself in a role as a professional advisor. A career as an accountant was alien to me. I recall looking at career options in the school library – looking back I can see now that I unconsciously ruled out a lot of professions simply as being unattainable, which they were not. It took me a few years working in retail management before I was able to shake the stigma of my background and pursue an accountancy career.
Coming from a background such as that, I am determined to use my qualification to ensure I do everything I can to remove barriers for people with similar backgrounds to myself. I do this by supporting the ICAS Foundation and volunteering as Treasurer for Fife Gingerbread.
I have strong support for, and emotional attachment to, the ethos and the values of the ICAS Foundation, coming from a not too dissimilar background to its students. The work of the Foundation removed those invisible barriers to entering the profession by awarding mentoring opportunities and offering financial support to students. It opens the profession up to a wider community of experience, thought and backgrounds.
I am also the treasurer on the board of trustees of Fife Gingerbread, a local charity with a core focus on single-parent households which is assisting more and more families in Fife.
Do you think there is still a perception that the accountancy profession is a place for those from a wealthy background and how do you think that image can be changed?
The public perception is that accountants, and similar professions, are men from wealthier backgrounds. Those who work closely with the profession know this is far from the case. Unfortunately, this is a stereotype that has existed for generations and it will always be a difficult challenge to update this mindset.
The current efforts by ICAS should be applauded. Featuring CAs in their media, such as the CA magazine, the ICAS website and more recently in the CA Agenda podcast, go a long way in celebrating the diverse membership and representing the varying backgrounds and lived experiences of the CA network.
This exposure should be continued overall; however additional initiatives such as the ‘Championing Unique Perspectives’ campaign offers further insight, increased representation and are a source of inspiration to those from diverse backgrounds.
Proportional representation of those from less wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds is also quite difficult to achieve. Not only because those individuals are much less likely to enter the pool of candidates that the accountancy profession selects from but because socioeconomic issues are an almost invisible label that is difficult to determine and not obvious to identify until you speak to and understand the individual on a personal level.
What more do you think can be done to ensure that the accountancy profession and the wider business world is open to people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds?
One of the key issues is that those from less affluent backgrounds are not included in the pool of candidates which the accountancy profession generally selects from, i.e., typically university graduates.
Achieving proportional representation is therefore almost impossible due to the attainment gap that exists and develops well before the accountancy profession is introduced. This attainment gap will start in primary school and grow as young people progress through high school and enter further education and the world of work.
The attainment gap that exists between young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds is the largest between any groups in the public education system. The gap in pass rates is 50% between children from ‘higher managerial and professional’ families than those from ‘routine labour or periods of unemployment'. The OECD has even claimed that this gap is wider in the UK than other economically advanced countries.
The divergence begins at a young age. Not through a lack of ambition or aspiration; studies have shown that there is very little difference in what pupils hope to achieve across the spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. The gap exists in individuals’ own expectations and belief of themselves and their potential achievements. Their confidence erodes throughout high school and their expectation of themselves is much lower than their peers. The injustice that these young people face early on in their life inspires a bleak fatalism in some who believe that the perpetual deprivation faced by their own family is their own unavoidable future.
One of the best things ICAS has done to bridge the socioeconomic gap is the introduction of the direct entry route to CA qualification. I was one of the first CAs to qualify through the direct entry route, completing my ICAS training over five years instead of three. This was because I did not have a university education and alternatively had come into accountancy at the later age of 22, achieving a college diploma and then obtaining a training contract with a small local firm.
I would ask ICAS to engage with firms and really push the benefit of this route, not only for the socioeconomic advantages but for the increasing pool of talent that exists in non-university educated individuals. There is little point in having these entries into CA membership if very few firms are willing to use and promote them.
On the other side, however, individuals from less wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds need to view accountancy as an attainable profession. This can be achieved in some part by breaking down that stereotype mentioned before.
The very real perception of what it means to be an accountant must change. Not only because it creates a barrier for those who do not identify with that outdated stereotype, but more importantly because the role of the accountant has in fact fundamentally changed. The typical everyday tasks undertaken by accountants in the past have transformed and grown alongside the rapid development in technology.
Networking and presentation skills, elements of computer programming, report designing, data analysis, technological competence and strategic thinking have all become vital skills of the typical accountant. These are deemed much more relevant than, say, mental arithmetic! This is the message that the profession needs to get across to all individuals.
I also think that young people would benefit from meeting a CA to hear first-hand what working in the accountancy profession entails and learning about the different routes to entry.
Having these open and candid discussions can show young people from disadvantaged backgrounds just how attainable a career in the profession is.
I would love to see CAs from more diverse backgrounds engaging with the institute, the ICAS Foundation, volunteering for mentorship, even engaging with their own schools and colleges, and encouraging the firms that they trained with to utilise the different routes to CA membership.
Of course, there is the sad truth of the socioeconomic pay gap. Like other ED&I areas, those from the less wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds will typically earn less than their counterparts for no other reason than their background.
I completely appreciate that accountancy firms and businesses must consider the professional image that they portray to the public and their clients. The quality, presence and value that they wish to represent. Therein exists an unconscious bias that those who, after talking with them, are quite clearly from a more affluent socioeconomic background are somehow better at their job. This stems from, and only serves to feed into and fuel, the public perception and outdated stereotype of an accountant.
I’ve sadly witnessed discussions and decisions being made not only on staff engagements, but staff employment, based on an individual’s appearance and whether the partners would “want to put them in front of a client”. The same opportunities simply do not exist.
Proportional representation is vital when discussing race, religion, gender and ethnicity, but is equally important for the almost invisible barrier of socioeconomic background.
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