Concerning research from headhunting firm Green Park has revealed that only one of the UK’s Top 20 accountancy firms is led by a CEO from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background. Meanwhile, female leadership across the broader sweep of leading firms in the sector stands at just 15%.

The figures have emerged from Green Park’s The Colour of Power index, developed in partnership with the Guardian and Operation Black Vote (OBV). According to Green Park CEO Raj Tulsiani, “The findings … serve to underline the reasons why leaders are being confronted with a steady erosion of public trust in institutions that provide business advice. For many the absence of diversity in the accounting sector is a clear signal that firms don’t understand the need to modernise to reflect their customers.

“The upper echelons of leadership within the UK’s accounting sector in no way resemble the diverse constituents of British society and it simply isn’t acceptable.”

Meanwhile, OBV director Simon Woolley described the findings as “deeply troubling”, adding: “Accounting firms serve the whole business population and would be immeasurably more effective with a greater diversity of views to serve our increasingly multifaceted, multicultural society. By honestly recognising the challenge and effectively dealing with it, we will massively unleash potential talent which would benefit every aspect of our society.”

Since Green Park’s findings emerged, research conducted for the government’s new Ethnicity Facts and Figures website has shown that the rate of white people in work in the UK is higher than that of ethnic minorities – with a larger gap in the North (13.6%) than the South (9%). In addition, people from non-white backgrounds are dramatically under-represented at senior levels in the public sector.

Why – and how – must this intransigence on diversity be resolved?

“Diversity means that your staff will more closely reflect your customer base, which means that you will be able to provide a much higher standard of service,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James. “If you have diversity in your teams, you are more likely to arrive at better and more innovative decisions. Diverse teams are also much less prone to get stuck in ‘groupthink’, which can have a hugely stagnating effect upon your organisation and prevent it from having the agility it needs to succeed in this era of rapid and dynamic change.

“So, what’s to be done? Well, flexible working has often been cited as an excellent solution for women with caring responsibilities – but it actually has wider appeal than that. It can also attract younger people, and tends to be offered as a non-financial benefit in organisations that are constrained in their ability to pay above-average salaries. In that sense, flexible working automatically has the power to help organisations attract a wider and more diverse talent pool.”

However, James notes, there is another course of action that employers must consider, which is to radically reframe the way they advertise jobs. He points out: “Too many job advertisements are repeated from the last time the relevant vacancies came up, or even the time before that, and are altered very little from those previous versions. Many of them will prioritise the essential requirements for doing the job – but experienced candidates are likely to have those fundamentals covered. New inductees can fill gaps that are more specific to the organisation through a blend of in-house training, reading and going to conferences.”

He continues: “What a lot of organisations overlook is that if providing better customer service and nurturing more innovative capabilities are essential for survival, then those priorities should be reflected in how they pitch job advertisements. Put the qualities required to meet those objectives at the top of the pile, rather than the more standard, task-based points.

“Don’t be afraid to re-engineer job ads, or be creative with the way they are worded, in order to capture the interest of more diverse talents. What can be learned relatively quickly – and what are the real, difference-making attributes that hinge on so much more than just reading a few briefing papers or attending a handful of seminars?”

For further thoughts on appreciating diversity, check out these learning resources from the Institute