Closing the Indigenous accountancy gap

Demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander accountants is far outstripping supply. What, then, is stopping Indigenous students from pursuing the field of finance?

There are just 38 Indigenous accountants with a professional accounting designation in the whole of Australia. What can be done to attract more Indigenous youth to join the profession?

Shelley Cable ASA, a consultant with PwC’s Indigenous Consulting (PIC), says it was her entrepreneurial spirit that attracted her to accounting. Interested in business, she knew a good understanding of money would be key to success and an asset she could take anywhere. It could also help achieve her goal of improving opportunities for her own Indigenous community.

“I came to realise that in the bigger world, money is power,” says Cable, a proud Noongar woman from Perth. “The more you have, the more good you can do in the world.”

Both Cable’s parents worked in banking and she is the fifth generation of her family to earn and receive an income – unfortunately, a rarity in her Indigenous community. Cable is fully aware of the advantage this has given her. She completed her degree in commerce at Curtin University in 2015, and took up a graduate financial analyst role with Shell Australia, before joining PwC.

Shelley Cable, PwC Indigenous Consulting.In July 2017, she spoke in Geneva at the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, talking about the challenge of the lack of financial literacy for the global Indigenous business sector.

“A lack of financial literacy, at best, corresponds with a lack of engagement with the financial sector more broadly,” she told the forum. “At its worst, a lack of financial literacy leaves Indigenous peoples vulnerable to financial exploitation …”

Cable’s experience, however, is not typical of Indigenous Australians and the accounting profession. Of the 200,000 accountants accredited in Australia by CPA Australia and similar professional membership organisations, only 38 – just 0.02 per cent – identify as Indigenous. In a nation where 3.3 per cent of the population is Indigenous, that’s a gross under-representation.

It’s not that the jobs aren’t available. Demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander accountants is far outstripping supply. What, then, is stopping Indigenous students from pursuing the field of finance?

Accounting's 'image problem'

Richard Hurst, Indigenous Accountants Australia.Richard Hurst is a relationship manager with Indigenous Accountants Australia (IAA), a joint initiative between CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, set up in 2012 (when only nine Indigenous accountants were known to have a professional accounting designation) to attract more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to an accounting career.

A descendant of the Gamilaroi people of north-western New South Wales, Hurst says there are several reasons for the poor uptake of accounting among Indigenous students, some of them historical. For example, for most of the period of white settlement, Indigenous Australians couldn’t buy land or get a loan. 

In much of Australia, until the late 1960s – and until 1972 in Queensland – wages earned by Indigenous people were held and managed in trust accounts by state governments.

Despite Aboriginal culture being more than 60,000 years old, intergenerational knowledge of Western-style money management is limited to the last century, Hurst points out. Culturally, money is not a topic that’s widely spoken about.

Accounting also has an image problem among Indigenous youth. It’s mistakenly perceived as a predominantly white, male profession, where you sit in an office all day crunching numbers. 

“Indigenous Australians often see accounting as a materialistic, selfish pathway, and that can sit uncomfortably,” says Adrian Williams CPA, a non-Indigenous member of the IAA advisory committee, who has been advocating for greater Indigenous representation in the profession for more than a decade.

Hurst adds that Indigenous students who are keen to help their community tend to go into medicine, health and law – areas where they believe they can make a material difference. While these areas are vital, financial knowledge is also crucial in a community. The message that accountancy can drive sustainable change appears to have been missed.

As Williams says: “Financial literacy is something that can help save a community, or a hospital, so it is important to provide those linkages and languages.” 

Indigenous expertise needed

The Indigenous economy in Australia is a “sleeping giant” that needs more Indigenous accountants to unlock the potential, says Hurst.

Parcels of land under Indigenous control have the potential to generate royalties and income streams from land-use agreements. There are a number of Native Title claims underway, and many government and community initiatives focused on Indigenous issues. In all these instances, there is a deep and critical need for Aboriginal knowledge to lead the financial contracts.

Cable agrees. “Native Title is pushing millions of dollars back into Indigenous communities,” she says. “To manage that is a big jump from having nothing.”

It is important, she says, to connect accounting and finance with a bigger purpose, and empower Indigenous people to have a say in where and how the money that is flowing into their communities is invested. 

Williams believes the Indigenous community also has a lot to teach executives at the boardroom tables of Australia. 

“Indigenous wisdom is needed whenever important decisions are being made,” he says. “Indigenous thinking is so collaborative, caring, and founded in sustainable principles. That’s inherent in their thinking. It’s what is needed when a lot of important decisions are made today.”

Adding financial literacy to that collaborative, caring and sustainable way of thinking makes it a very powerful thread, he says.

Global seeds of change 

The current generation of young Indigenous people is often the first in their families to pursue a university degree or step into the corporate world. Because of this, they lack a readymade network that can link them to potential employers.

“We need to start getting businesses to connect with the Indigenous people in the area where they operate, and to assist the progression of Indigenous Australians into corporate life,” says Williams. 

He wants to see all corporations have in place a reconciliation action plan (RAP), and all accountants given cultural awareness training. 

“Research by Reconciliation Australia shows that 77 per cent of people who worked in organisations with a RAP have a high trust in Indigenous Australians, compared to only 24 per cent of people in the general community,” Williams explains.

While many employers and CPA Australia members are enthusiastic about creating opportunities for Indigenous Australians, they may feel that they lack the knowledge or time to do it well. IAA helps guide employers and their potential employees through any uncertainty and facilitates introductions to mentors and opportunities. 

"Native Title is pushing millions of dollars back into Indigenous communities..." Shelley Cable, PWC Indigenous Consulting

Hurst says Australia’s finance sector could take note of what’s happening in other Indigenous communities around the world. In October 2017, Hurst and IAA project director Mark Jones were among 1000 First Nations finance, management and leadership professionals to attend the inaugural international conference of the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association Canada (AFOA Canada). 

AFOA is a professional development body with a vision to improve the lives of Canada’s Aboriginal [Indigenous] people by boosting the management skills of those responsible for the stewardship of Aboriginal resources. Among the courses AFOA offers are two standalone Aboriginal designations: a Certified Aboriginal Financial Manager (CAFM) and the newer Certified Aboriginal Professional Administrator (CAPA). 

In Canada, Indigenous people manage their own reserves and have different taxation rules. The benefit of a specialist Aboriginal designation is that it’s tailored for the expertise needed for their community. The specialist designation is also seen as a way of making accounting more attractive and accessible to the nation’s first peoples. 

Indigenous networks 

The next AFOA international conference will be held in 2020 in New Zealand, another nation where Indigenous networks are flourishing. Since 2004, New Zealand has had a National Maori Accountants Network (Nga Kaitatau Maori o Aotearoa) focused on increasing the number of Maori in the profession and creating opportunities for them to excel in commerce.

In Australia, the Indigenous Finance and Business Association (IFBA) was established in 2016 to bring together Indigenous finance and business professionals. Although it’s still in its infancy, it is a platform on which to build greater connectivity among this community.

Hurst says getting people together and listening to those who have made the journey before is what Canada and New Zealand are doing really well. By working collaboratively with Indigenous groups in those countries, he says, there are gains to be made in Australia. 

“It’s all very well to give Indigenous people support but it needs to have authenticity,” insists Hurst. 

“If we have more Aboriginal people working for Aboriginal issues in Aboriginal communities, I think we would have our people see that and think ‘I could do that too’.” 

Professional Development: CPA Q&A. Access a handpicked selection of resources each month and complete a short monthly assessment to earn CPD hours. Exclusively available to CPA Australia members.

Aunty Irene Morris CPA: making numbers appeal to Indigenous school students

Aunty Irene Morris CPA has spent most of her 30 years in accounting working with community organisations. A Wurundjeri elder, Aunty Irene (Aunty and Uncle are terms of respect for elders) never had a desire to work for the big firms, seeing them as “intimidating and impersonal”.  

As the accountant for Victoria’s Melbourne-based Aborigines Advancement League, the oldest entirely Indigenous organisation in the country, she’s involved with all of its assorted arms, from aged care and funeral services to tenancy issues, disability services and family support.

She relishes the community involvement her work gives her. Only about half of her day is spent calculating figures; the other half involves talking to employees about program funding guidelines, how best to meet them within the current budget, and educating them on basic finance thinking, with easy templates to help them track their expenditure.

Making numbers appealing to Indigenous school students is a challenge the industry needs to overcome and Aunty Irene has some pointers drawn from her own experience. 

Aunty Irene didn’t finish Year 12. The only subjects that she passed were accounting and maths. What she connected with was an inspirational teacher whose storytelling approach highlighted the practical, rather than the theoretical, application of numbers.

She says appealing to the visual, and letting people see what accounting can offer in terms of variety of applications and its community service benefits, may be a way to entice Indigenous youth into studying business and accounting. 

Sarah Richards CPA: change agent

Sarah Richards CPAAs a teen, Wongaibon woman Sarah Richards CPA pictured herself in the business world in a suit. She was the first in her family to go to university, attending the Gold Coast campus of Griffith University. 

Her first job after graduation was with the Department of Finance, and she is now a senior associate with PwC’s Indigenous Consulting (PIC) in Canberra, working mainly in strategy. 

“Accounting gives you lots of career paths,” she says. “I can’t emphasise enough the extent of opportunity that a business degree can provide.”

She would like to see a stronger message about how accounting can benefit Indigenous communities. She also suggests students be given a taste of the profession at school.

“We need a 10-year plan if we’re to be realistic. Start targeting people when they’re 15 and, by age 25, they should have their degree and have attained a designation, if desired. 

“I don’t think it’s complicated, it’s just whether professional bodies and corporates really want to make it happen … but it takes time. Change doesn’t happen overnight.”

Building an Indigenous accounting community

Indigenous Accountants Australia (IAA) works to raise awareness of the benefits of a career in accounting for each individual, their family and communities. 

“IAA does not seek to generate any revenue from this initiative, merely to demystify the profession and create the best possible environment for uptake, if it is of interest,” says IAA relationship manager Richard Hurst. 

There is an IAA website where Indigenous youth can find out more about accounting and the opportunities it offers, and a range of resources for employers looking to recruit, support and retain Indigenous finance professionals, or to support the IAA initiative itself. 

While IAA knows of 38 accountants who hold a professional accounting designation, there could be others the organisation has yet to connect with. 

“There is obviously an identified need to address the issue of a lack of Indigenous representation in the profession, but we have no information on which to base our solutions,” says Shelley Cable, from PwC’s Indigenous Consulting.

Cable would like to see Australia’s professional accounting bodies collect data on how many of their members identify as being Indigenous. 

Hurst agrees, and welcomes contact from Indigenous finance professionals, and from people who know of an Indigenous accountant who may not be aware of the IAA initiative. 

“If you are an Indigenous person in finance – whether you’re a CPA Australia member, a bookkeeper or a Cert 3 accounting student, please reach out to us,” Hurst says. 

“Your story can inspire others, and you can help to build an Indigenous community of people with financial expertise.”

To get in contact with IAA, visit indigenousaccountants.com.au or email Richard Hurst.

Read next: Balancing the deficit of Indigenous accountants


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March 2018
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