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AICPA Council, Call for Change

AICPA Council (1): Rebelling against the penguin suit

Note from Donny: For those of you following our Life of a CPA series, we’ll be taking a quick interlude from that series to bring you some immediate insights from the AICPA Governing Council Meeting occurring from Sunday, October 20, 2013 to Tuesday, October 22, 2013.

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Today’s AICPA Governing Council Meeting (see twitter hashtag #AICPAGC13) kicked off with a focus on Diversity and Inclusion.  Chairman Kenneth Bouyer of the AICPA’s National Commission on Diversity & Inclusion stared off telling us about the story of a peacock on the island of penguins.  In a nutshell, the story was about a peacock who went to visit the island of penguins. He started off with his tail proudly displayed, but the longer he spent on the island, his tail drooped lower and lower, and eventually he felt like he wanted to hide his tail and put on a penguin suit.  Ken went on to explain the parallel of the story to how he felt when he first joined a Big Four CPA firm over 40 years ago and felt the increasing need to conform the the white-dominant culture of the firm.

I have to say that I actually felt somewhat the same when I first started at a Big Four firm over 15 years ago, and still feel it somewhat today as I get more engaged in the national level activities with the AICPA. My peacock feathers was a hair “tail” that I had had for over 12 years (yes back from when it was originally popular in the early 90s) that I kept tucked in my shirt when was at work.  The question had come up at a partners’ staff performance review meeting of whether it was professional or not.  Luckily a junior partner was willing to stand up for me and my performance review wasn’t negatively impacted by my tail.  Looking back, it’s very interesting to think that something so small and barely visible would cause a discussion at a partners’ meeting.

Donny StandingAs I’ve gotten more involved with the AICPA, I’ve also felt pressure to conform to the “CPA standard” dress code when attending meetings and speaking at conferences–in essence to start wearing the penguin suit.  Being from Hawaii, we don’t normally wear suits, and I had one suit that was more of a trendy suit rather than a business suit: it was black, but had a 3/4 length jacket and used zippers rather than buttons to close. This posed both a financial and utility question for me: should I purchase some suits and ties that would I only be using 2-3 times a year?  For the first couple of years, I kept using the “Hawaii card” and wore my aloha shirts and maybe just a dinner jacket, but then some people started telling me that if I wanted to move up in the volunteer ranks, that I would probably need to start dressing more “appropriately”.  So I gave in and purchased a suit–but I made sure that it was more fashionable cut and also purchased dress shirts and ties that had some more interesting patterns rather than the traditional blue shirt and red power tie.

Well this turned out to be a move in the right direction, I actually got many comments about how fashionably I was dressed and how it was nice to see someone not in the standard “penguin suit”.  The most memorable event for me was when a female CPA who worked for the AICPA asked me: “Who is your stylist? I love your wardrobe!”  I laughed and said, I wish I would afford a stylist, but luckily for me I guess I just have good fashion sense.  She told me that several staff had commented about my style of dress (positively) and to keep it up.  And that was the validation that I needed.  I realized that this was also a part of my “personal brand”; that I actually wanted to be perceived as fashionably forward (but not necessarily overly trendy) and more vibrant than the “traditional CPA” image.

Now this all comes back to a commonly raised issue in the business world: what is proper dress code?  There was even an article a couple of week ago: “Why Newsweek’s new dress code is right on the mark“.  The article shared the controversy that was caused when Newsweek published a dress code specifying “proper business attire”, which included specific examples of what was not proper.  It has caused a wave of rebellion since it included several examples of things that were currently “trendy”.  The author however defended Newsweek’s position–and I agree with her.  While I didn’t necessarily want to conform and wear a penguin suit, I ensured that I chose clothes that would not be perceived as “too casual” or “inappropriate”, but instead fashionable and progressive.

I fully believe that when you dress professionally, it puts you in a state of mind to act and think professionally.  And professional doesn’t have to be boring–it doesn’t have to be a penguin suit.  You can dress professionally and be fashionable, while expressing your personality and still “fitting in” with your community of peers rather than “standing out”.

Now Ken’s story was actually about diversity and how many of us who are non-white, feel the pressure to conform to the predominantly white culture of the CPA profession.  I think you can take the dress code example that I used above and draw an analogy into how to handle ethnic differences in the CPA profession.  Rather than trying to stand out and force our ethnic identities onto everyone else.  We should all (white and non-white) recognize that we don’t all have to conform to the conservative penguin suit to be successful in the profession.  Instead, we should seek a harmony between our individual ethnic backgrounds and fitting in with our community as a profession.

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