The Accounting Profession In Society Accounting Essay

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Accounting has traditionally been viewed by society as boring, tedious and monotonous number crunching. Consequently, students who have perceived that they are not 'good with numbers' may have steered away from accounting as a major course of study and as a career choice. Initially, the literature review examines secondary school students' perceptions of the work of an accountant and the accounting profession. It is followed with a review of the key factors influencing students' perceptions. Lastly, the status of accounting compared to other professions will be examined.

2.2 The Accounting profession in society

Typically, accountants have been referred to as number crunchers, focussing on numerical accuracy, routine recording and calculation methods (Parker, 2000). Albrecht and Sack (2000), Cory (1992), and Garner and Dombrowski (1997) attributed these negative perceptions to misinformation or lack of information about what accounting is and the nature of the duties that accountants performed.

Napier and Carnegie (2007) noted that accounting has been described as an increasingly social practice rather than a technical practice as it competes with other professional groups and occupations to attract and retain talents. As a career, accounting has come under scrutiny in many ways (Ajibolade, 2008; Adeyeye et al., 2010), particularly in eras of corporate collapse.

Research conducted by Mladenovic (2000) showed that students tend to perceive accounting as primarily numerical, objective and non-controversial, and are less able to perceive the importance of creative judgement and communication skills for accountants.

In Malaysia, several studies have shown that accounting professions are still popular amongst the students (Goon, 1975, Samidi and Tew 1995; Hashim et al, 2003 and Said et al., 2004). For example: Goon (1975) found that the majority of her respondents had chosen accounting as a profession. Samidi and Tew (1995) reported that the profession is still the most popular choice 20 years later. Said et al. (2004) found that the accounting profession ranked amongst the two most preferred careers given by the public and private university students.

Mladenovic (2000) found that Australian university students tend to perceive accounting as primarily numerical, objective and non-controversial, with an affinity towards mathematics and statistics. Futhermore, studies conducted in the USA, Canada and the UK (Luscombe, 1988; Cohen & Hanno, 1993; Fisher & Murphy, 1995) show that many students form an impression that 'accountants are dull, boring number crunchers.' Moreover, studies in the US have found that secondary school students believe that a degree in accounting would be useful to someone who wants challenging work (74%), or to be President or CEO of a major company (81%) (Hartwell et al. 2005). Hartwell et al.'s (2005) study also found that contrary to the stereotype, only 39% of respondents agreed that accounting is predictable and stays the same, while 56% indicated that accounting would be useful for someone who wants variety in work.

The accounting profession certifies certain levels of expertise, education, and experience of individual accountants and these certifications can be added to their list of credentials so the client can expect a certain level of competence. Accountancy is one of the leading professions, well sought after by many in society today. For some time, as a career, it has enjoyed a relative advantage in terms of salary, prestige and job satisfaction.

2.3 Images of accountants

According to the AICPA (2000), most students cannot accurately describe the work of accountants, their responsibilities or the opportunities available in the accounting profession. These views are further supported by a number of authors. Cobbs (1976) belittles the profession for failing to inform the public on what accountants do and questions the ability of the profession to do so. Parker (2000) blames the ineffectiveness of professional body advertising on the lack of understanding, and Smith & Briggs (1999) blame inactivity of the profession on the poor perception. McMurdy (1997) sees the language used by accountants as confusing the public and keeping them in the dark about what accounting is.

Various research surveys have been conducted to determine how learners (who are still at school) and students (who are studying at tertiary institutions) perceive the work of the accountant. Students and learners perceive accountants to be fairly isolated (Oswick, Barber & Speed 1994; Coate, Mitschow & Schinski 2003; Heiat, Brown & Johnson 2007:96), boring (Cohen & Hanno 1993, Hunt et al. 2004; Byrne & Willis 2005; Heiat et al. 2007:96), formal and introverted individuals (Coate et al. 2003), concerned with detail (Hunt et al. 2004) and compliance-driven (Byrne & Willis 2005).

Researchers have also concluded that little or no progress has been made in dispelling the unflattering image of accountants, despite the profession's representation of contemporary accounting practices as dynamic environments requiring people with creativity and critical thinking skills (as depicted in table 1) (Fisher & Murphy 1995; Mladenovic 2000; Coate et al. 2003; Byrne &Willis 2005).

But other research, major accounting firms grew very quickly during the 1980s. The proportion of university graduates entering traineeships with accountancy firms peaked at over 10% in 1987 and is currently running at about 8%.

In other several studies in the education literature also have identified that students shared a common belief that the accounting environment offer a higher supply of jobs compared to other areas of business (Paolillo and Estes, 1982; Wheeler, 1983; Cangelosi et al., 1985; Kochanek and Norgaard, 1985). Of consequence, such belief plays an important role in choosing their career decisions in accounting. Students often perceived accounting career as highly rewarding in terms of finance and status. These perceptions often come from their collegiate experiences. However, these perceptions in reality may not be true.

2.4 Perceptions of Accounting Study at School

The need to recruit students interested in accounting as a profession, has led many researchers gathering evidence from high school students in relation to the exposure they have received about accounting. Byrne and Willis (2005) found that the main factors to influence secondary school students' perceptions of accounting were the study of the subject in school, the factual media and their teachers. In the Byrne and Willis (2005) study, students who were studying accounting at secondary school had a less negative image of accounting compared to those not studying accounting. However they still held a traditional view of the profession and of the work of the accountant. Byrne and Willis (2005) found that the reason for the findings was due to the fact that the nature of the accounting pedagogy being experienced by secondary school students was not significantly dispelling pre-existing negative perceptions or giving them a realistic impression of accounting practices. In fact, prior research undertaken by Byrne and Willis (2001) into the secondary school accounting course provides evidence that secondary schools emphasized mechanical bookkeeping and assessment promoting rote learning. This approach is probable to confirm rather than challenge students' traditional stereotypical view of the work of an accountant and the profession. Byrne and Willis (2005) recommended that the profession should seek to influence the content of the syllabus in secondary schools to ensure that the work of an accountant is seen as less definite, precise and compliance driven and more interesting.

These finding are similar to that of Inman's et al.'s. (1989) study. Students' experiences with uninteresting accounting coursework and rote learning may also discourage the best students from pursuing an accounting major (Inman et al, 1989). Students are more likely to choose an accounting major when they consider accounting interesting and enjoyable (Saeman & Crooker, 1999). Tan and Laswad (2009) showed that a higher proportion of accounting students than other business students decide on their major prior to university study. Therefore they recommended that the profession should promote the positive aspects of an accounting career not only to pre-university students but also to the public, as this strategy would enhance the public profile of members of the profession. There is evidence to suggest that the accounting curriculum in secondary schools may be playing a part in terms of students' perceptions of accounting, which may not necessarily indicate the true nature of the profession.

2.5 How to give a positive perception of Accounting to students?

According to Albrecht and Sack (2000), one way to increase the number of students majoring in accounting would be for the profession to communicate more effectively what jobs accountants actually perform. The wide range of career options available to accountants should be emphasized particularly to high school students and college freshman. By effectively communicating the attributes of an accounting career, the widespread perception that the work is boring and uninteresting should be countered.

Another way to successfully recruit students to accounting is to stress the long-term financial rewards and jobs security of the profession. It appears that those who choose to major in accounting realize that potential exists for both a high income and stable employment in their careers. Given the recent negative press surrounding the accounting profession, layoffs and ethical problems could ultimately prove to be a much bigger barrier to selection of an accounting major that has traditionally been perceived. The horror stories of failed careers of Anderson employees may well have a negative impact on accounting enrollments, because accounting majors place a high emphasis on job security. Finally, accountants must be judicious and proactive in maintaining the image of accounting as a prestigious profession. Failing to address the recent wave of scandals is the incorrect approach. They need to communicate that the accounting profession has historically been regarded as the epitome of ethical and professional conduct and that the profession will once again rise to the challenges it faces today.

The AICPA and some state societies have introduced several programs and marketing materials designed to attract students to accounting. Employers and universities also have a stake in attracting students to accounting careers.

L.Hartwell, S.Lightle and Maxwell suggested that recruiting efforts should begin early and should emphasize the challenging nature of accounting work and provide specific information about starting salaries. Rather than avoiding discussion of the recent accounting scandals, recruiters should consider using them as an illustration of the critical role accounting plays in our capital markets.

Reversing the decline in accounting enrollments will not happen overnight, and cannot be achieved in isolation. It will require creativity and cooperation among educators and practitioners, and possibly changes in the profession itself.

A special task force, Accounting Careers for Tomorrow (ACT), have studied research and discussed the issues surrounding steep enrollment declines in college accounting programs. They determined that the WICPA must create awareness of career opportunities among high school students, and teachers, as well as others. ACT has concluded that the WICPA and its members must generate these positive perceptions about the profession:

Accounting is a profession, not a job

Accounting is interesting, challenging and strategic

An Accounting degree is a good basis for a career

2.6 Status of Accounting Compared with Other Professions

Students are more likely to aspire to a career that is held in high esteem by society. Irish high school students ranked accountants behind doctors, lawyers, dentists and architects as professionals (Byrne & Willis, 2005). However, in the Byrne and Willis (2005) study the actual ranking of accounting as a profession varied between accounting students (who ranked it 5th) and non-accounting students (who ranked it 7th) of ten professional categories. In the US the Gallup Organisation (1991) reported that university students rated the profession last among the six professions of law, medicine, teaching, engineering, financial planning and accounting.

In a New Zealand study incorporating the views of high school teachers, the results showed that the accounting profession was of lower ranked social status to the professions of law, medicine and engineering (Wells & Fieger, 2005).

2.7 Perception on pursuing professional examination

Some accounting students think that it is difficult to pass the professional accounting programmes and just few finalists passed with only one attempt (Omar, 2009). Jackling (2002), examined Australian undergraduate students and discovered that skewed images toward the accounting profession has led to a failure in attracting students with creativity and people-oriented personalities that are so desperately sought by the profession. Some students also believed that professional accounting programmes are more difficult than degree programmes, hence it is only suitable for those who are disciplined and highly committed students and only those with excellent cumulative grade point aggregate (CGPA) can pursue professional accounting programmes (Omar, 2009).

Some students feel that it is better for them to pursue other programmes rather than professional accounting programmes because of these perception that they heard, mainly about the number of attempts that most of the professional accounting students needed to make in order to complete the professional study (Omar, 2009). This shows that students still have bad perception toward the professional accounting programmes.

According to the study by Mazlina & Mohammad (2012), questionnaires used was adapted by Omar (2009). They were distributed to 120 final year accounting students in a public university in Malaysia. Majority of the respondents were female students than male students and about 69.9% of the respondents were female and most of them (96.2%) were single. The study suggested that close to 70% of the respondents would like to work immediately after graduation and another 30% would like to pursue their studies after graduation. This finding suggested the importance of accounting lecturers and practitioners, as well as the related ministry to actively promoting and providing information about being the professional accountants to the students, in order to positively influence their perception and attract them to be a professional.

2.7.1 Skill requirements to be an effective accountant

Professional accountancy bodies have long been advocating that in order to become a member of that profession, specific skills should be acquired. Table 1 summarises the skills requirements of the following professional accountancy bodies: the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA), the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA), the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA) and the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA).

Generic skills

ICAA (2011)

CICA (2011)

ICAEW (2011)

AICPA (2011)

NZICA (2011)

SAICA (2011)

Problem solving

*

*

*

*

Communication

*

*

*

*

*

*

Strategic thinking/ change management

*

*

*

*

*

Business awareness

*

*

*

*

Professional and technical ability

*

*

*

*

*

*

IT skills

*

*

*

*

*

Report writing/ presentation

*

*

Table 1: Skills requirements

From this list of skills requirements (table 1), it can be deduced that accountants need to be effective communicators, able to think and act strategically, able to solve problems, be aware of business issues and be professionally and technically competent. The accountant therefore needs to have satisfactory interpersonal skills because of the regular interaction with clients, to be creative in solving problems, making decisions and planning for the future and to be effective communicators.

2.8 Key Factors Influencing Perceptions of the Accounting Profession

The accounting education literature has suggested that students' perception derived from various sources. Several factors have been linked to influences on a student's career choice in accounting. Harrison (1998) points out that it is not only students' own perceptions that affect their career decisions but also the perceptions of those around them. The twelve factors that influenced the students' decisions included career opportunities, interest in the subject, instructor, money, parents, enjoyment, previous experience, life style offered because of the career, challenge, prestige, usefulness in operating a business, and other students.

Therefore students may be influenced by their teachers at school, parents, relatives or friends. However, prior research on the impact of teachers on a student's decision to major in accounting has produced inconclusive and mixed results. Some studies have shown that teachers do not play a significant role in students' choice of majors (Cangelosi et al., 1985; Gul et al., 1989). In contrast, other studies (e.g.Paolillo and Estes 1982; Hermanson and Hermanson 1995; Geiger and Ogilby 2000; Mauldin et al., 2000) have found referents to have an influence on students' decision to major. The evidence regarding the influence of others, e.g. parents and friends is also inconclusive.

Other studies have also examined students' perception on the accounting career. One issue being examined is the criteria in choosing accounting as a career (Carpenter and Strawser, 1970; Poallilo and Estes, 1982; Haswell and Holmes, 1988; Gul et al., 1989; Carcello et al., 1991; DeZoort et al., 1997). These studies generally found salary as one of the top five criteria influencing career decision (Carpenter and Strawser, 1970; Haswell and Holmes, 1988; Gul et al., 1989; Horowitz and Riley, 1990). Specifically, Carpenter and Strawser (1970) found that the top 5 criteria are first, nature of work, followed by opportunities for advancement, starting salary, working condition and job security.

On the other hand, Haswell and Holmes (1988) found job availability as the top criteria, followed by prospects of promotion, salary, job security and job satisfaction. Paollio and Estes (1982) found that availability of employment as the most important factor. Earnings potential, years of education required, aptitude for the subject and teacher influence have a greater impact on career choice for accountants compared to the other professional groups. Other studies found that opportunity for advancement considerations to be influencing the choice of a career in accounting (Trump and Hendrikson, 1970, Barnhart, 1971, Zikmund et al. 1977). Shivaswamy and Hanks (1985) reported that job security is ranked first by accounting students in their study.

Kim et al., (2002) conducted a study on business majors (e.g. accounting, finance, general business, management, marketing, MIS/CIS, and double major). They discovered that the top five reasons for choosing a major were: interest in a career associated with the major, good job opportunities, "good fit" with respondents' abilities, a desire to run a business some day, and projected earnings in the related career. The least selected reasons for choosing a major were the reputation of the major at the university, the perceived quality of instruction, the parents' influence, the amount and type of promotional information, and the influence of friends.

Yayla and Cengiz, (2005) determined five factors that play a role in choosing an accounting career. Those factors were students' own choice, family and close environment effect, interesting profession, earnings expectations and career opportunities.

In contrast, Dinç (2008) utilized factor analysis and determined the following seven main factors in deciding career choice: great earnings expectations, career expectations, job experience, knowledge and ability, family environment, social status, and education environment.

Factors as recounted above about choosing a career in accounting field or not can be divided into two main groups: internal and external factors. The internal factors may include personal abilities, mathematical competency, and interest in the field. These factors do not depend on the students' geographical area. Whereas the external factors, such as career opportunities, level of salary a career offers and the social status that the career would provide are variable in various geographical areas. For example, while there are good job opportunities in one geographical area, another geographical area may not offer the same opportunities.

2.9 Gender Effects

Turner & Bowen (1999) examined the gender gap in choice of major, specifically, the under-representation of women in the sciences and engineering in the 1990s. They suggest that this phenomenon may by cultural and that gender and socialization skills/expectations may lead males and females to have different career-choice preferences. The Taylor Report (2000) states that compared to college students in general, accounting majors are more likely to be female.

To the best of our knowledge, only two studies to date have examined the moderating effect of gender on the choice of business/accounting as a major. Leppel et al. (2001) found that female students are more likely to be influenced in choice of major by a professional father, and that women from "high" socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to major in business. Both statements were found to be the opposite for males. Lowe & Simons (1997) found that female accounting majors ranked "the inherent nature of the subject matter" more important than did male accounting majors; females in their study placed a higher value on the "ability to succeed academically in the major," in the major being "intellectually challenging," and in "coverage of interesting subject matter" in their decision to choose a major. This was not true for all female respondents, only those choosing accounting as a major.

Research into gender differences regarding perceptions of accountants indicate that males, compared with females, perceive the accounting profession as more interesting and requiring a higher degree of interaction (Heiat et al. 2007:94).

There have been some changes in accounting. In New Zealand, chartered accountant membership numbers for women have been rising and women are more frequently becoming national councilors and other office bearers. However, even in the Institute women have still to reach a position of equality with men. Women may have been able to enter the accounting profession but that has not necessarily meant that they have been as successful as men in occupying all areas of the profession. Wootten and Kemmerer agreed with Ciancanelli et al. (1990) and Welsh (1992) that "gender transformation of a workforce does not necessarily mean gender transformation within a workforce".

In New Zealand in 2001, Whiting & Wright carried out a postal survey of public accountants. From this they noted that only five percent of female respondents were partners, or held equivalent senior positions, while forty percent of male respondents were partners. Women in the United States were more involved in what was considered the less demanding and hence lower paid auditing work and less involved in the self directed and autonomous areas of consulting. They were not encouraged to undertake high profile work or deal directly with clients. Whether or not these occupations required university level qualifications, women have been over represented in them. In New Zealand in 1984, almost seventy percent of the full-time labour force in bookkeeping and cashier-type occupations were female as were ninety three percent of part-time bookkeepers and cashiers. Today women are over-represented in the College of Accounting Technician within the New Zealand Institute. The majority of New Zealand chartered accountants are still male and most accounting technicians are female.

In New Zealand throughout the twentieth century, there have usually been a higher percentage of women than men in professional occupations. However, studies of these figures have consistently revealed that the majority of the professions have remained male dominated and women have concentrated in a few professional occupations. Davies and Jackson showed the significance of the rise in numbers of women in these formerly male dominated professions in New Zealand between 1971 and 1991. For example, the legal profession had a twelve hundred percent increase in women becoming lawyers in those twenty years, while dentistry had an eight hundred and forty one percent increase. Accounting's increase was a slightly smaller at seven hundred and thirty eight percent. Many professions showed similar rises with most being of a proportion that was greater than one hundred percent.

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