As the nation celebrates Black History Month, ICAEW members, students and staff share how organisations can create inclusive working and social environments.
Creating an inclusive workplace culture means thinking beyond the 9-to-5. Our cultural identity shapes us and influences how we behave. This is why diversity & inclusion (D&I) professionals consistently cite cultural competence as key to creating inclusive spaces where individuals feel they can be their authentic self.
Weaving diverse cultures into an organisation’s social fabric will help reduce feelings of ‘fit in or lose out’ among those who do not recognise themselves in the dominant culture or find its behaviours uncomfortable. It’s an opportunity for individuals and companies to make a positive impact by celebrating, and raising awareness of, the cultures of underrepresented groups. We spoke to an ICAEW student, member, and staff member of Black Heritage about their experiences.
Celebration is being yourself
The impetus to change so you fit in is a feeling that’s familiar to Jared Gilman, an ACA student and Audit Assistant of Jamaican heritage at RSM Manchester: “I started my training at a small accountancy firm in Leeds. The culture was male and White and drinking was always a thing – but I don’t drink that much! I now work at RSM - there are so many different people, which means there is a space for everyone.”
For ICAEW member Sharon Ordor, changing to fit in led to minimising parts of her personality shaped by her Nigerian heritage. “I am outspoken. I want to tell you what I think about certain things but if you don't receive that well, I can sense it and feel I need to reduce that side of me because I don't want to be deemed ‘too much’. That is part of working when you are a minority in a majority space.”
The act of asking questions and holding conversations is a simple way for people to start learning more. “A lot of the time, the lack of understanding is not the fault of the person but of where they’ve grown up,” observes Kim Nyawira, Head of Committees and Tribunals at ICAEW, who is Kenyan and has lived between the UK and Kenya. “If I can sit down and tell someone about my culture, they walk away from that conversation richer. And that goes all through the organisation.” It’s a sentiment that Jared echoes: “I would rather people ask questions, which did happen in my previous office when George Floyd was murdered. It meant that during that tragedy, I felt that my colleagues understood a bit more.”
Celebration is representation
Celebrating different cultures at the workplace is more than office parties and end-of-the-day fun. It also means giving a platform to different voices – with a genuine desire to learn from others and acknowledging the achievements of those that may have been overlooked.
“One company where I worked had a diversity and inclusion team. Each month they would highlight a high-achieving figure from an underrepresented group. It was not only an opportunity to learn about other people like you but also to see what they had accomplished being celebrated by everyone, and to realise that at one point in time, they stood where you were. You got to learn how they overcame their struggles,” says Sharon.
But it’s also key to integrate these celebrations as part of an authentic, and wider-reaching, strategy around inclusion. “I sometimes feel the same way about Black History Month as my husband feels about Valentine’s Day,” Kim says. “It’s great to celebrate, but it should be about continual learning rather than something done for a month. It has become better over the years, though. A lot more is being shared about African history and Caribbean history. I'm learning more myself about different cultures within the Black community and their history.”
Celebration is multidimensional
True inclusion requires a deep and nuanced understanding of different cultures. “We are not a homogenous population, everyone is different,” explains Jared. For Kim, more needs to be done to raise awareness of cultural difference: “Black culture isn't one. There are certain things we have in common, but these are not enough to group us as one. As a Black African woman, my mum instilled a strong sense of culture in her four children – she never let us forget where we were from. There is also acceptance that you are British as well. I no longer try and be one and not the other – I can be both and I can be strong as both.”
Jared agrees: “If you were to come and see what we’re like at home, you would find that, especially for Black families that have been here for a couple of generations, there are many similarities to British culture. While there are things that will always be different, understanding that there are similarities would go some way towards challenging stereotypes.”
Sharon is clear about the impact of society’s stereotypical view of Blackness: “People can have a preconceived notion of how a Black person ought to act and if you don't subscribe to that, they’ll say you’re not being yourself – or worse! Don’t make assumptions. Black culture is hard to characterise and a person is no less Black because they don't do A, B, C or D. Being open to that fact is part of appreciating the entirety of a people and a culture.”
Celebration is joy
“One of the things I enjoy most about Black culture is that we find the positives in situations and celebrate the good things,” Jared explains. “It’s important because being a Black person in a Western country is hard in ways other people probably don’t understand. Maybe you're not being held back, but it can feel that way; maybe you're not deliberately being left out, but it can feel that way. Your entire life there’s that underlying thing. So, we have developed a sense of joy and pride in who we are.”
Kim agrees: “Our ability to find joy and gratefulness is brilliant. We live in countries where we regularly experience microaggressions. I’ve applied for positions and not got them because I didn’t qualify in the UK, even though the successful candidate qualified in New Zealand. It motivated me to become dual-qualified. With that gap filled, no one could ever say that again.
“That is what my culture, my African-ness, has given me: resilience and an innate knowledge that there is always more in me. We face such hurdles as Black people but here we are breaking barriers. I have just become the first Black woman to break into senior management in the ICAEW Professional Standards department. That is Black Girl Magic!”
How to celebrate your colleagues
There is not one single way to define Black culture, but here are some ideas you can build on to celebrate your colleagues with respect and authenticity.
Be joyful. “Getting together is a huge part of my Nigerian culture. Our gatherings are about being joyful. We’re dancing, we’re laughing, we’re cracking jokes,” says Sharon.
Be inclusive. “At a cultural event, we want to see food that is a celebration of all different cultures. Give thought to different palates when encouraging people to try out new things and understand new cultures,” says Kim.
Be curious. “There is a lot we don’t know about each other and if everyone was to become more aware of other cultures, the overall culture might stop being so homogenous,” says Jared.
Be mindful of details. “It’s a lesson a lot of organisations should learn. No one is asking you to capture all Black history – because you can't. But where you choose to highlight, make sure you understand what you're highlighting!” says Kim.
Start a legacy. “Being at ICAEW, where there is a real commitment to improving diversity, has given me the chance to do something positive about it. We are changing the landscape for people from underrepresented groups and I encourage our students to continue to push through,” says Kim.