Special report: Why social mobility should matter to every business
In 2020, Tracey Rob Perera CA became the first female Chair of the EDI committee. Here she talks about what the committee has achieved, unveils its new three-year strategy, explains why EDI and social mobility are going backwards in the UK and outlines the role that CAs can play in fixing a broken system
Why this matters to business
For companies large and small that lack an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy, or view social mobility as somebody else’s problem, what is the business case for greater representation across race, sex and class? “Diverse talent and inclusive management of a business and its people are intrinsically linked to innovation, collaboration and creativity,” says Tracey Rob Perera CA, Chair of the ICAS EDI Committee. “They, in turn, are essential elements of growth. Successful leaders view EDI through the lens of strategic growth. Applied effectively, EDI saves time and money as it creates the right work environment, allowing talent to reach its full potential.
“To attract and retain talent, businesses must foster an inclusive culture. And by supporting the development of talented people from diverse backgrounds in a fair and equitable way, businesses can create a winning environment that encourages growth.”
A report from Forbes in April 2023 backs up Tracey’s claim. Of the 2,000 businesses surveyed, 75% of firms in which EDI is integrated into their business strategy to an advanced degree say it has had a positive impact on their competitive position. And if a company doesn’t reflect its customers, is it really best equipped to serve their interests?
“Encouraging businesses to prioritise EDI requires an understanding of both ethical and business perspectives,” Tracey says. “Customers, suppliers and investors come from a range of backgrounds, so having diverse representation at every level of your business enables a better understanding of their needs. This is the business case for EDI.”
How EDI became marginalised
So why join an industry in decline? DC Thomson is of course famous for its portfolio of publications from My Weekly to the Beano to the Sunday Post. Mike saw the opportunity to grow “some absolutely fabulous brands within the stable”. He explains: “DC Thomson was a traditional business in terms of how we produced and distributed our content, so there was great opportunity to optimise the commercial offer for each brand and re-engineer the products themselves. For example, moving daily newspapers from broadsheet to compact was a huge shift for our audience and our teams.”
“Unfortunately, there has been a regression in prioritising EDI due to the challenges posed by the pandemic, economic uncertainty and pressing topics such as business continuity, sustainability and AI,” says Tracey. “All of which has marginalised EDI. I would encourage businesses to include EDI integration into their strategy to help them address the sustainability and continuity of their business. This is the approach ICAS took earlier this year when it launched its 2030 strategy, Together we will.”
There is also a push in places to return to pre-pandemic business as usual, working five days a week in the office. “It’s a concerning trend,” says Tracey. “This goes against effective EDI strategies to get the best out of your talent, especially for working parents, those with dependants or people with neuro or physical disabilities.”
The tone must be from the top
“EDI is everyone’s responsibility, and if the executive management do not own it top-down, very little can improve,” says Tracey.
Also, if the senior management is made up of people who all come from a similar background and went to similar universities, what message does that send to the rest of the company?
“Finding and retaining top talent is key for any business,” Tracey says. “Even in big tech companies, which may say their biggest assets are their innovative products, they still need great talent to run the business successfully. If we don’t manage talent as part of our main business strategies, we are missing a huge opportunity. EDI doesn’t start and stop with the CEO. It needs to be baked into the ethos of the whole organisation so that everyone has a responsibility to deliver. By working together, we can improve business culture.”
The role of CAs
Most ICAS members aspire to a career arc in which they peak either as a partner at a firm, an entrepreneur or a member of the C-suite, perhaps later followed by a new role as a non-executive director.
“We have an exceptionally high calibre of members who are well positioned to improve business culture because of their seniority and impactful roles,” says Tracey. “We can positively influence and integrate EDI into the fabric of our organisations.”
This applies not just to senior management – we are all decision-makers of some sort. We all manage people or business relationships. “Many of us shape and execute some sort of strategy and manage budgets,” adds Tracey. “We are in a place to influence and integrate EDI into business strategy, policies, practices and behaviours. If we lead by example, steering businesses in an ethical way, we can improve business culture and give everyone a chance to reach their full potential. It is incumbent on all CAs to be the ethical, inclusive leaders who set the example for others to follow.”
The new EDI strategy
“ICAS has taken steps to address its perception as a predominantly white, male professional body. The EDI Committee is truly representative of diverse backgrounds, including gender, race, disability, neurodiversity, sexuality, location and age. It includes a non-CA member and three ICAS Council members. This shows a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Tracey explains.
The new ICAS EDI strategy builds on the work of the past three years, as well as continuing to embed EDI initiatives, such as the “Championing unique perspectives” series, launched in 2020. Most importantly, it’s fully aligned with ICAS’ wider 2030 strategy and supports the delivery of activity under three key pillars – social mobility, equality and wellbeing.
“Creating opportunities for social mobility is central to the EDI strategy,” says Tracey. “Work is already under way to make sure the qualification is more accessible, including exploring alternative pathways and delivery models. We need to offer a qualification that the next generation would look to when considering their future. Promoting ethical leadership, collaboration and wellbeing is also key not just to attracting talent, but retaining it.”
There remains a lack of diversity at senior level, as highlighted by Green Park’s annual Business Leaders Index. Across the FTSE 250, there are 178 directors from minority ethnic groups holding 188 director positions, roughly 11% of the total directorships. And of those 178 directors, only 10 occupy the position of CFO. Meanwhile, the number of female CFOs across the FTSE 100 stands at 19, an increase of three since 2005.
“ICAS uses the strapline ‘ethical leadership since 1854’. To prove we are a trusted, global voice, we need to demonstrate that we can collaborate across organisations, sectors and geographies. How do we do that? By being diverse and inclusive. People won’t stay in the profession if they feel it is detrimental to their mental wellbeing and that the business culture and career potential are not appropriate.”
How ICAS helps small businesses
“Last year, ICAS launched a free EDI toolkit (see boxout) and consolidated resources to support small businesses, sole practitioners and entrepreneurs in implementing EDI practices,” says Tracey. “It is aimed at those who don’t have the budgets of the Big Four but want to make changes and don’t necessarily know where to start. The feedback to date has been great, particularly around the inclusive language section. The resources and signposting are in one place, which smaller practitioners have found easier to access, helpful and educational.”
What success looks like
“What excites me is the opportunity we have to work together to make a significant impact when it comes to making business more inclusive,” says Tracey. “Change starts from within. We are committed to creating a safe environment for our members to engage in open discussions about EDI, and are comfortable taking positive action in business. CAs are in a great position to do that.
“As we tackle the hot topics of sustainability, generative AI and other emerging technologies, it is more important than ever for us to be able to distinguish between the good and the bad actors. As the phrase goes, ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’. That’s as true of AI and tech as it is of any product or service (as can be seen from the Post Office/Horizon scandal). So, we need guardrails, and appropriate regulation that doesn’t stifle innovation. We must look at how inclusive it is in terms of the inputs to get a true measure of what the outputs will be.
“That’s an example where CAs can be at the centre of executing the positive action. Ultimately, it’s about our members feeling they have the awareness, empowerment and confidence to champion EDI. By doing so, we have the power to transform our businesses. By integrating EDI as a strategic imperative, we create a culture where every individual feels valued and empowered, and we unlock a business’s full potential. Let’s become the driving force for change so that together we can grow a future that celebrates diversity, fosters innovation and inspires future generations.”
ICAS and EDI
A brief recap of what ICAS has achieved on the back of its first EDI strategy, running from 2021-2023
Launched in 2021, this series “comes from the ethos of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’,” says Tracey Rob Perera CA. “There are so many things people don’t know when they meet someone, but often they will judge them by how they look. The best way to understand what it’s like to come from a different culture, be a different gender, live with a disability etc, is by telling your stories and sharing experience to encourage and inspire others.”
ICAS signed the UK government’s charter in June 2023, joining more than 400 other organisations, ranging from banks and corporations to small start-ups, working together to create a more equal profession. The charter aims to support the progression of women into senior roles in the financial services sector.
To help SMEs, ICAS launched a free, easy-to-use toolkit in September 2023, offering suggestions on how to implement EDI into your business. The toolkit includes an inclusive language guide, as well as links to free ICAS webinars, podcasts and articles which can help your teams better understand EDI. “It’s important that ICAS leads by example,” says Tracey.
In June 2022, ICAS joined Rise, an accountancy-led social mobility initiative established to help young people from low socio-economic backgrounds realise and raise their aspirations, by ensuring they have the skills required to succeed in life and work.
Also launched in 2023, this new members-led group is open to black members and allies alike. Chair Kudzai Zendera CA says the chief objective “is to provide a safe space for students and members identifying as black, to come together, network, learn and share ideas and experiences that can help to grow both their careers and the profession”.
Read the new ICAS EDI strategy