Canada is perceived as a land of immigrants, where federal policies have encouraged multiculturalism and diversity is celebrated. Public accounting firms doing business in Canada therefore want to be perceived as inclusive to attract employees and secure legitimacy. In this light, online recruitment documents can function as a vehicle for firms to display their values and present themselves as inclusive.

To what extent do photographs on recruitment websites of accounting firms communicate inclusion? Do photographic depictions of diversity reinforce and legitimate unequal social dominance of one group above others?

A study conducted by researchers from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa suggests more needs to be done by Canada’s biggest accounting firms in embracing inclusion in all its dimensions.

The following article highlights the findings of a study authored by:

Conflicting Accounts of Inclusiveness in Accounting Firm Recruitment Website Photographs

The team of researchers selected its sample of Canada’s top eight public accounting firms based on an annual ranking of Canada’s top accounting firms by revenue. The sample included the Big Four firms (Deloitte, PwC, KMPG and EY) and what the researchers referred to as the Next Four (Grant Thornton, BDO, MNP and Collins Barrow, now Baker Tilly).

A total of 1,064 photographs depicting people were analyzed to examine how public accounting firms represented women and non-White individuals in their recruitment documents and websites.

Who is shown in the photographs

Researchers cataloged who was depicted in the photographs, in terms of sex, ethnicity, and other visible elements of diversity and inclusion.

Representation of women and non-White individuals matches Canada’s population

The proportion of women and non-White individuals in the photographs reflected trends in the Canadian population. Case in point, 52% of the individuals photographed were women and 22% were non-White. These proportions approximate numbers published by Statistics Canada in 2013, showing that 51.2% of Canadians are women and 19.1% of Canada’s population identify themselves as “visible minorities” (non-White individuals).

Limited dimensions of diversity represented

While the proportion of women and non-White individuals matched Canada’s population, other aspects of diversity, such as weight, disabilities, or religion generally were not represented. Furthermore, in showing ethnic diversity, there seemed a predominance of Asian and South Asian individuals.

Big Four accounting firms: The individuals depicted in the recruitment websites of Big Four accounting firms were generally young, smiling, professionally dressed and located in office settings. Only one firm depicted individuals showing religious diversity overtly, through head scarves or turbans. Of the individuals photographed, 24% of women and 20% of men were non-White. Among non-White individuals, Asian and South-Asian ethnicities were most prevalent, with few Black individuals and no Indigenous peoples represented as employees.

Next Four largest firms: The recruitment websites of the Next Four largest firms had a more casual feel, with individuals in less formal clothing, and depictions of more casual interactions between colleagues. Sixty-one (61%) of the individuals photographed were women. While 22-33% of individuals were non-White, minority women were emphasized among three of the four firms.

Dr. Merridee Bujaki, Researcher and Professor of Accounting at Carleton University, spoke of the importance of depictions of diversity in recruitment photographs for her and other members of the research team.

“For us as researchers and educators, the way accounting firms depict themselves in terms of inclusiveness is especially important because it provides insights into possible career opportunities for our students, who are diverse in terms of gender and race.”

Symbolic interpretations of photographs

Researchers also explored how recruitment photographs could be interpreted within Canada’s social context. Specifically, the team considered symbolic portrayals of matters such as gender role stereotyping, gendered or racialized displays of power and authority, and inclusiveness.

It should be noted that the research team’s intention was not to suggest that there is only one – or even one best – interpretation of the photographs in recruitment documents. Instead, they argue firms should be aware of various possible interpretations of their photographs.

Overall interpretations

Researchers concluded that though women and non-White individuals were present in the photographs, they were usually not depicted as equally powerful or authoritative as White men. These portrayals alluded to a hierarchy within public accounting firms that seemed to privilege White men, followed by White women, and then non-White individuals.

Fit, happy, and smiling is the norm:  Across the firms, photographs predominantly showed professionally dressed, fit, happy and smiling individuals, giving the impression that these characteristics are expected among new recruits.

Employees are actively engaged:  The photographs showed men in shirts rather than jackets, likely mimicking the informality and comfort common in the Canadian workplace. The photographs could also be interpreted as showing engaged individuals that have metaphorically rolled up their sleeves to work.

There are exciting work opportunities: Many of the accounting firms had photographs depicting employees on international secondments, appearing to hint at the exciting nature of the work.

Women are well-represented, but men lead: Though half of the individuals shown in photographs were women, they were seldom shown in senior roles, while men were often shown in positions of authority. Examples include a depiction of a young woman ready to take notes from a man, and a photograph where three younger employees were listening to an older White male authority figure.

Men achieve career success in a team, women through appearance: In one of the websites, when discussing flexible employment benefits, a group of men were shown being active as part of a team exercising outside, while in another photograph a woman was shown alone inward-focused and getting a facial. These images could be interpreted as illustrating gendered paths for success, where for women, appearance plays a more important role and that women must succeed without the support of a team.

Men lead and focus on work, women on family: All the managing partners shown in one firm’s practice areas were men, on the other hand, a photograph profiling a woman as partner addressed family-friendly programs. This could be interpreted as men being expected to belong to the work domain, while women were expected to be more focused on the family.

Diversity reflected more among women than men: In terms of the presence of non-White individuals in the photographs, there tended to be more women than men. This could be interpreted as a focus on two layers of diversity (gender and ethnicity), or that women recruits were expected to be more sensitive to diversity and inclusion. Interestingly, women and non-White individuals were often portrayed outside the workplace or as less powerful firm members.

To further explore depictions of diversity and inclusion, photographs within two recruitment documents of two different firms were chosen by the researchers because of the ample opportunities the photographs provided for examining the portrayal of gender and race.

Portrayals of success suggest hierarchical preference for White men

The first recruitment document researchers analyzed was meant to help applicants prepare for a job interview. It included three photographs: one depicted a young White woman, the second showed a young Asian man and the third showed a young White man.

When gender and ethnicity were not considered the individuals on the photographs could be considered young, energetic and happy. A closer look reveals conflicting accounts of inclusiveness. The White man’s appearance is the most professional, plus he is the only one in an office setting, suggesting he might be the most successful in an interview. The woman’s demeanor could be interpreted as flirtatious and could suggest that women could achieve career success in public accounting by using their charm and femininity. Of the three photographed individuals, the Asian man was the least professionally dressed. These symbolic attributes could imply differential preferences for new recruits based on gender and race within public accounting.

Ethnic diversity is absent from depictions of women’s career success

The second recruitment document appeared to be geared towards attracting women. It detailed how women are highly valued and supported within the firm, proclaiming that the firm’s percentage of female partners is higher than industry norms. All three photographs in the document depicted formally-dressed White women of various ages and were taken in formal settings in a gilded age décor and style reminiscent of early 19th century family photographs. The photographs were taken in a sitting room with high-backed chairs, heavy drapes, patterned carpet and decorative molding on the fireplace.

Interestingly, the women in the photographs were presented together, but were not interacting with each other, suggesting women may need to succeed on their own, without the support of female peers. Additionally, the representation of White women of various ages suggests the firm is open to having women represented throughout all levels within the firm. However, the absence of non-White women in the photographs could be interpreted as being exclusionary based on ethnicity. Moreover, given the period evoked, non-White women would likely have been the unseen servants. These pictures suggest that for White women, “making partner” is achievable, but visible minority women remain absent.

Implications for accounting firms

Accounting firms show inclusiveness by matching the gender and ethnic makeup of the population in their recruitment photographs. However, this study argues that achieving ‘fair’ representation demographically, does not necessarily equate to openness and inclusivity. Authors of this study saw evidence in accounting recruitment documents and websites that Whiteness and masculinity continue to be presented as the norm for achieving power and success in the profession.

Showing inclusion is important for accounting firms, but also for prospective employees and others who want to know if a firm strives to attract the best recruits regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or other aspects of their social identity.

This study suggests if inclusion is to be achieved, that photographic depictions of diversity and inclusion in recruitment documents may need to be deliberately composed and targeted to appeal to diverse potential recruits.

Specifically, the study suggests accounting firms consider the following to strengthen their diversity recruitment efforts:

  • be aware of depictions of diversity and inclusion within the accounting profession
  • be aware of the range of interpretations possible of their recruitment photographs and how these interpretations may conflict with their intended message
  • consider using focus groups of women and non-White accountants to pre-screen recruitment materials
  • critically evaluate their recruitment websites, documents and processes to ensure their intended messaging and depictions of inclusion align with potential interpretations

Beyond recommendations related to the portrayal of inclusion for recruitment purposes, the study also suggested how accounting firms could attract non-White recruits. Suggestions included, providing scholarships to encourage specific demographic groups to join the profession, engaging in advocacy initiatives to reach out to minority communities, and identifying women and non-White individuals as role models.

When asked about the implications of the findings for accounting firms, Dr. Bujaki said the following.

“Doubts on whether a firm is open to their job applications and contributions, may discourage qualified women and non-White individuals from considering a career within accounting.”

She went on to say, “Being cognisant of the range of interpretations of the photographs is one of the first steps accounting firms can take to achieve greater diversity and inclusion.”

Article Notes

Research Highlight writer: This Research Highlight was written by Fiorella Jansen-Nicorescu. CRIW’s Research Highlights share relevant and actionable information about workplace inclusion with a broad audience.

References: This article references work of other scholars, a list of references is available in the published study, Conflicting Accounts of Inclusiveness in Accounting Firm Recruitment Website Photographs.

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This study was made possible, in part, through the generous support from the RBC Foundation.

About the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW)
The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) is a research centre at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, focused on conducting and sharing research that advances diversity, equity and inclusion at work. By making research findings available to the public and connecting academia with the broader community, CRIW aims to advance knowledge and drive change towards more inclusive workplaces that welcome and support greater participation of all peoples.