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Portrait image of CPA Jenny Okonkwo
The profession

CPA Jenny Okonkwo uses her experiences to foster change

The EDI champion drew from her own life as a newcomer and Black female accountant to raise visibility around issues affecting women in accounting and finance

Portrait image of CPA Jenny OkonkwoAs an immigrant, Okonkwo is aware of the systemic barriers within the profession and Canadian workplace in general (Photograph by Claudine Baltazar)

Women have a problem. In Canada alone, there are 2.4 million women and girls living on low incomes. Women still, on average, earn 89 cents for every dollar a man makes. Racialized and Indigenous women earn even less, averaging about 67 cents for every dollar a man makes. And when it comes to anything above an entry-level position, women in Canada only hold around 35 per cent of management roles (despite making up more than half of the total population) and less than 31 per cent of senior management level occupations. Of those women-held positions, women of colour make up only 6.2 per cent of board, executive, and senior management positions collectively, while Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ2SIA+ women, and women with disabilities each hold less than one per cent.

Coming from the U.K., Jenny Okonkwo, CPA, FCMA(UK), CGMA, FPAC, MBA, has been able to provide a new perspective on the situation facing women in business in Canada. While she didn’t start out as an EDI specialist, her experiences as a Black female accountant and a newcomer made her realize there was an urgent need for increased representation, support and visibility around these issues, especially in the accounting field.

As a successful CPA, author, speaker, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) specialist, Okonkwo has been named one of the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women, was a finalist in RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards, and has been recognized for her leadership, volunteer work and role modelling by the Diversity Advancement Network, CPA Ontario, MP Omar Alghabra and Women’s Executive Network among others. Currently working as an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion consultant in the public utilities sector, she is also the founder of Black Female Accountants Network (BFAN) and SherOpportunity.

PIVOT: What drew you to the field of EDI and, specifically, to launching BFAN and SherOpportunity?
JENNY OKONKWO (JO): The personal challenges of international work experience and credential recognition initially drew me in. As a newcomer to Canada, it was a complete culture shock in terms of the barriers faced in attempting to enter the Canadian labour market and, by extension, the workforce, and the need to re-certify in a field where I was already an established and highly experienced professional. According to the Government of Canada website, 62.4 per cent of immigrants arriving in Canada in 2021 arrived under the “Economic Class.” This immigration class includes a variety of professions, including accounting.

Recent research by Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) shows that immigrant women, on average, earn less than immigrant men and the Canadian-born population. They also face a higher unemployment rate.

CPA Jenny Okonkwo with BFAN team at 5th Annual Women in Leadership SummitOkonkwo (third from left) with the BFAN team at the 5th Annual Women in Leadership Summit (Photograph courtesy of Okonkwo)

PIVOT: How does being a CPA help with your work in the EDI field?
(JO): Having explored the Canadian immigrant professional landscape, I’m aware of some of the systemic barriers within the accounting profession and the workplace in general. Gaining my Canadian CPA designation was an important step to successfully overcoming those barriers and I’m able to apply these lived experiences in seeking to advance equity, diversity and inclusion. It’s important to note that EDI encompasses a myriad of both visible and non-visible dimensions that go way beyond gender and race, including ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of work experience, country of birth, country of education, immigration status, age, marital status, etc.

PIVOT: What do you see as the biggest challenges still facing BIPOC women in professional fields like accounting and finance?
(JO): Women who are classified as BIPOC continue to be under-represented in professional fields. This can lead to several issues, including a sense of professional isolation and a potential lack of psychological safety in the workplace. With respect to its membership, BFAN provides support, working to reduce the workplace representation gap, through building a sense of professional community, interaction with peers, and increased visibility of executive and senior leadership level role models, creating opportunities for access to sponsors.

PIVOT: How do BFAN and SherOpportunity help female CPAs achieve equity and promote themselves for advancement?
(JO): For racially diverse female CPAs to achieve equity, they need the appropriate type and level of supports that enable them to gain access to and capitalize on the right opportunities to showcase their skills. BFAN provides its volunteers (sourced from the membership) opportunities to develop the highly sought-after transferable skills and expertise needed in the workplace. Many members have leveraged their volunteer experience to improve their lives and those of others, introducing women in leadership forums, employee resource groups and joining workplace EDI committees.

Through its work, BFAN also provides a safe space to help both immigrants and non-immigrants get the support needed to gain their CPA designation, access to mentoring, career advice, and job opportunities through corporate relationships and established members helping other members.

BFAN was fortunate to have Pamela Steer, president and CEO of CPA Canada as a keynote speaker at its 5th Annual Women in Leadership Summit in October 2022, reflecting the extension of CPA Canada’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion in the profession and to the communities it serves.

SherOpportunity is a program that helps mid-career and senior level BIPOC women CPAs learn how to market themselves for opportunities both within and beyond their current workplaces and retain their roles once they have secured them. Through group-based activity, attendees are able to connect and learn from each other at a deeper level with respect to the skills needed to successfully navigate the Canadian workplace to achieve their career goals and aspirations.

PIVOT: What’s the next step in your EDI journey?
(JO): On December 1, 2022, I stepped back from the president’s role and handed over the leadership reins of BFAN to two co-chairs, one of whom is based in Ontario and the other in Saskatchewan. Together with the former VP leadership team, a key next step in my EDI journey is supporting the new co-chairs in their onboarding and orientation journey, as they take BFAN into its next chapter and level of evolution to achieve even greater heights in 2023.

As a speaker and panelist, I continue to be focused on sharing insights, raising awareness on EDI topics related to race, gender, intersectionality and immigration status as part of my personal mission to help create a more inclusive accounting profession. Contributing to a number of speaking events to celebrate Black History Month and International Women’s Day will provide opportunities for me to continue adding my voice to the EDI conversation in 2023. I'm also excited to see the evolution of the group work I've been involved in to develop an EDI Case Collection in collaboration with the University of Toronto, for professional accounting students and practicing CPAs.


Read Okonkwo’s advice on how to make Black History Month more impactful in the workplace. The unique challenges she’s faced as a woman in the profession. And why she believes allyship should be an integrated endeavour.