The Role of Intersectionality in Accounting and Why It Matters

Gusto Editors

Cultivating diversity and inclusion is an ongoing process. It’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come, but it’s just as important to keep taking steps toward an ever-more inclusive, equitable workplace. 

Gusto’s mission is to create a world where work supports a better life for everyone, no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, or any other identity. That’s why we presented another episode of On the Margins: LIVE, with hosts Caleb Newquist, Gusto’s Editor-at-Large, and Will Lopez, head of Gusto’s accountant community. The two welcomed Twyla Verhelst, Head of Accountant Channel at FreshBooks, to discuss diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

Twyla Verhelst is a self-described modern CPA who is passionate about technology, advisory, and cultivating diversity and inclusion. She is the Women in Accounting Mentorship program creator, which empowers women, gives them a voice, and helps build gender equality in male-dominated spaces. She’s also an experienced entrepreneur in the fintech space and the co-founder of Helm, a global technology platform. She was recognized as one of Practice Ignition’s “Top 50 Women in Accounting” in 2018 and 2019.  

Intersectionality and how it applies to women at work

What is intersectionality? It is a valuable lens through which to understand discrimination and oppression. Intersectionality is about acknowledging that multiple factors, such as race and class or race and gender, can intersect within individuals. This intersection creates conditions that set the stage for the workplace and societal inequality. 

Intersectionality demonstrates how a one-size-fits-all solution to inequities isn’t enough. For example, a Latina woman may face discrimination because of both her gender and her race. There are two forces that are preventing her from achieving the same leadership status that someone else might get more easily.

Applying an intersectional lens to a workspace means acknowledging the many factors that create unequal conditions and acknowledging that we need to take multiple steps to mitigate them. It’s an understanding that discrimination is complex and will require changes in attitudes and behaviors on multiple levels, such as economic and social policies. 

Close up of a group of designers putting up sticky notes in their office.

Understanding intersectionality can help firms better support marginalized people in the accounting industry, including women. Women have made huge strides to gain more equal footing with men in the past century, but our society still has a long way to go to obtain gender equality. 

Women make up a significant portion of the accounting industry but hold far fewer leadership positions for a variety of reasons. The fact is women and other marginalized individuals are up against both internal and external barriers resulting from centuries of discrimination. This won’t disappear overnight.

Twyla pointed out that one of the biggest internal factors is a lack of confidence, which many women inherited because of centuries of unequal treatment. Current conditions—such as a boys club mentality in professional industries, sexism in the media, and subtle discrimination at school, at home, and in the workplace—can also erode self-assurance.

“[Historically], women have been the ones who can lack confidence. … [If] they don’t have somebody who understands the challenges of being a woman or being a caregiver [while holding down] their career as their cheerleader and their mentor and their supporter, then [they] aren’t fully supported. Then things like burnout or imposter syndrome [can] sneak in, [which doesn’t happen] as often or as frequently for our male counterparts.”

– Twyla Verhelst

Women also tend to face more external pressures and responsibilities in their personal lives. They usually take the caretaker and caregiver roles at home while also holding down demanding jobs. Historically, a man would be the breadwinner, and his spouse would likely be the one to take care of the household, the kids, and other personal matters. 

The challenges for women in the workplace

Now, women have more access to powerful career positions, but they don’t necessarily have the same support that men had in previous decades. They’ve taken on both roles as caretaker and breadwinner. As a result, women are overburdened and overtaxed, making it difficult to climb the career ladder in the way that they want to.

Some women will even take on multiple caregiving and caretaking roles, which hinders their progress even further. For example, sandwich caregivers—people who take care of both their children and their aging parents—are primarily female. A lack of adequate social safety nets, such as affordable healthcare and daycare, makes these tasks even more demanding.

“Even though there’s a big evolution in our industry, there’s still a grind when it comes to making partner and getting to that spot of being a leader. And women have more than one commitment in a lot of cases. They’re trying to raise a family, or, … depending on their age and where they’re at in their life, they might even be … a sandwich caregiver.”

– Twyla Verhelst

Another challenge for those seeking leadership positions is the lack of female role models. We all need people to look up to and to see how they navigate new territory, which mindsets and beliefs serve them, and how to carry themselves through challenging circumstances. A lack of role models can also lead to a scarcity mentality in which marginalized people feel they have to compete and fight for the few roles available to them.

“It’s the shine theory, where it’s like, ‘I don’t shine if you don’t shine,’ … and I think that’s changing. Women used to be quite competitive with one another, and now as you kind of peel back the layers, you realize that … we were fighting for a couple of spots at the table. … That’s now transforming.”

– Twyla Verhelst

As Twyla pointed out, the way women relate to each other is changing. Not only do women need role models, but they also need to lift each other up. This is especially true for women of color, who face the dual barriers of gender and race. One of the best ways to support fellow women is through consciously creating community support. 

How Twyla Verlhest supports women in accounting

Two women having a serious discussion during their one-on-one meeting.

Twyla Verlherst is helping women break through barriers in the accounting industry by giving them a voice and a supportive community. Her Women in Accounting Speaker Series on the social audio platform Clubhouse is making waves in the community.

“It [gives] women an opportunity to be spotlighted, to be showcased, and to perhaps take the mic for the very first time. … It’s identifying a woman in our industry who you may or may not know, and it’s bringing them to the mic and letting them share. … It’s letting other women ask questions because there’s so much we can [learn] from one another.”

– Twyla Verhelst

When people of marginalized communities come together, they dissolve the divide that historically kept them in competition with one another. It’s easier to control, ignore, or take advantage of communities experiencing division. Being united creates strength and opportunity. As Twyla pointed out, there is still a way to go when it comes to creating the conditions for women to express themselves safely.

“There’s still a lack of opportunity to really give some of these women the mic and the stage and the leadership roles. And I think that as women … we are guilty of some of [those] problems or challenges because we haven’t seen other women as leaders that we can [look up to], and we almost are fighting for the same jobs because we think, ‘Okay, of the ten people at a table, two or three of them are women, and we’re all trying to fight for those same roles.’”

– Twyla Verhelst

Shifting the scarcity mentality takes time, but Twyla is committed to the cause. Her networking program, Women in Accounting Hub, is a heart-centered, safe space for women to bond, lift each other up, and grow their careers together. It’s a place to seek out mentorship, mentor others, host and attend discussions, collaborate, or just connect to other women in the field. 

How to support marginalized people in the workplace

While Twyla acknowledged that the nuances of supporting women may differ from those of other marginalized groups, there is still significant crossover. For one, any marginalized group needs to have a supportive work culture. Companies need to go beyond simply hiring diverse recruits. They need to create supportive conditions and upward mobility within their organization so these hires actually want to stay. Otherwise, any progress you make toward diversity will rapidly disintegrate.

“If you go out and say, ‘Okay, I need to hire more women, and I need to hire more people of color,’ but you haven’t done the internal housework, you’ll always be chasing [new hires]. There’s so much internally to be done around things like language and things that are just in our blind spots that bubble up all the time.”

– Twyla Verhelst

Work culture can play a big part in making someone feel comfortable or uncomfortable. While most people know to stay away from outright offensive language or behavior, discrimination and sexism can still creep in. 

“We had a conversation last week about how somebody was using the word ‘bossy’ and how that’s not taken lightly by a woman when you call her bossy. The man who said it considered it a compliment [because] she was good at taking control and leading a team, but just that language alone can really make people feel uncomfortable.”

– Twyla Verhelst

To combat this, organizations should go beyond the basics of workplace discrimination policies and communicate about diversity regularly. Leaders can also create a culture of inclusivity by having honest conversations about what needs to improve, acknowledging what needs to change, and demonstrating that they value equity. If they do this publicly—such as through creating content on the company website—this can also set the tone for the firm and attract the kinds of people who are committed to equality.

Group of employees working together in a modern office.

The way people feel at work has a huge impact on their ability to succeed in their careers, especially during times of transition. As the accounting industry navigates uncharted territory and as some CPAs evolve into advisors, they need to feel confident and empowered more than ever before. If they don’t, they’re facing challenges right out of the gate.

“Let’s talk about whether or not people of color or people who are from LGBTQ communities or women … feel confident [enough] to be advisors. That’s one of the things that I work [on] with a lot of women. They lack the confidence to have these conversations with their clients that are the human piece of advisory. I think that’s one piece first because if they don’t have the confidence to deliver the services, then we’ve got an early roadblock.”

– Twyla Verhelst

Failing to support marginalized people in the workplace will not only impact them—it can also impact your business. Having a diverse team means there are more avenues to reach clients, including different types of clients. Without those staff members, you are more limited.

“People want to work with people who are relatable. And so there’s such an opportunity for all of these different groups of people to then work with their communities … and extend these services to others who may have felt intimidated or … like these services were not within their reach. [Clients respond when they can work with] somebody that was personable that they related to [and] that they felt they could have that human connection with.”

– Twyla Verhelst

Valuing intersectionality in accounting won’t just help to create a more equitable world and a happier workplace—it creates a ripple effect of positivity as diverse firms reach new markets that otherwise would have been out of reach. Your clients, your team, and your business will benefit from a commitment to diversity. It’s an all-around win.

Learn more about diversity initiatives

To create a team in which everyone can thrive, firms need to take diversity and inclusion seriously. Hiring diverse candidates isn’t enough. Leaders can support diverse team members by creating work conditions that are supportive on all levels. If they don’t, they risk losing those team members. To thrive, businesses need many different perspectives and they need to serve diverse clients. Intersectionality matters.

Creating inclusivity in the workplace is an ongoing process. To learn more about why it matters, check out our other article based on the same webinar: “It’s Time for Accounting to Be an Inclusive, Diverse, and Equitable Profession.”

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Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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