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Student Insights

Standing together

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 29 Jun 2021

Diversity and inclusion

A powerful inclusivity tool, allyship comes in many forms. Here, two ACA students and ICAEW’s Communities Manager tell us what allyship means to them, and how we can all play a part in creating a more inclusive profession.

“Allyship should be for everyone”

Hamzah Ahmed, ACA student, Leeds

Diversity and inclusion are definitely on the agenda. Regardless of the role or company or area you work in, you are going to be exposed to it, especially in the last year. The pandemic, and events such as the death of George Floyd, have brought these issues to the fore, and people are being forced to address them.

At PwC I’m very involved in the D&I scene, and it’s something that is really being pushed now. Whereas before we were discussing things but it felt like not much was being done, since the pandemic started we’re actively looking for practical solutions. PwC has clear reporting on areas such as gender, ethnicity and pay, and we’re trying to be open and honest about the discrepancies. We’re not just talking anymore, we’re taking action.

A lot has changed since I joined PwC in 2017. When I applied, I knew that I would likely be working with majority white staff, that the partners I would interact with would more than likely be white. I didn’t foresee myself working with diverse individuals to be honest. But we’ve come a long way since then – now there will be incoming graduates who apply to the Big Four on the basis of their diversity and inclusion initiatives. There’s a long way to go – there’s still a lack of female and ethnic representation at the top of the profession – but we are moving in the right direction.

I think of myself as lucky that I’ve never experienced direct racism. But there is passive racism, what we call unconscious bias, where people inadvertently treat you differently from others. I’ve experienced that, particularly growing up. But things have definitely improved. Some people may not be willing to adjust or to acknowledge these more progressive times, but if they don’t become more accepting themselves, then hopefully their children or their grandchildren will.

To me, allyship is simply someone who supports you, whether that’s through your career, your life, or through particularly difficult times. I don’t believe allyship should be specific to minorities, or those who are underrepresented – it should be for everyone. I also don’t believe it’s about one group being responsible for uplifting another. The minute you do that, it becomes a case of ‘us and them’. We should all work collaboratively, and respect and support each other.

As a minimum, allyship is about getting to know each other. That individual on the audit team who seems a bit quiet or reserved? Reach out to them, say hi, show them that they’re included. And then at the senior level, it’s about understanding the individuals you’re trying to support. What are they about? What are their beliefs and principles? Take me for example – I’m a practising Muslim, so I pray five times a day and I have my special prayer on a Friday. So as my manager you might think, “Let me just reach out to him and let him know that he’s got that flexibility to pray and that I completely support it.”

I’m the communications and social media lead for the Muslim network at PwC. We have over 1,000 members, and we’re one of the biggest corporate Muslim communities in the UK. Our members aren’t just Muslims – how could we be truly inclusive if we didn’t include non-Muslims? For a lot of our non-Muslim colleagues it’s about knowledge – they want to learn a bit more, or understand the Islamic perspective. During Ramadan we invited our non-Muslim members to take part in a fasting challenge. We partnered people up: for each Muslim there was one or two non-Muslims taking part. And what we found was that people didn’t engage because they felt obliged to; these were genuinely interested individuals who wanted to learn more about the concept of fasting. People came out of the challenge with a new appreciation for Muslims and what they take on in this month. It was beyond anything we expected.

My advice to everyone is don’t be afraid to reach out. And don’t worry about the risk of offending: there’s a risk in every conversation that you might say something the other person doesn’t like, but don’t let that risk stop you from interacting with your colleagues. Just because a Muslim staff member dresses modestly and wears a hijab, that doesn’t mean she wants to be left alone, or that if you speak to her you may offend her in some way. Don’t let that worry consume you, because I feel that’s something that really stops people from building those connections.

I’m optimistic that we’ll reach a point where, as Martin Luther King said, people will not be judged by the colour of their skin – or what they’re wearing on their head, for that matter – but by the content of their character. Hopefully in the next five to 10 years, we should see some real change.

Diversity and inclusion

“It’s the small things that make a difference”

Nic Moss, ACA student, Derby

I came out openly as a lesbian when I first went to university. I had come out to my family before that, but I wasn’t out at school or anything. I just didn’t feel comfortable – I’d suffered bullying through the fact that I was a really sporty girl, and I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. But when I went to university it was a completely fresh start. From the off it was just easy to be myself. It was a nice transition: going from somewhere where everybody knows you – but they don’t actually know the real you – to just being yourself and not worrying about it.

It was important to me to find diversity and inclusivity in my first career move. When I started looking at graduate schemes, I had a perception that the bigger, more corporate firms would probably be a bit more forward thinking and be leading in the D&I space. When I went for assessment days, it was definitely a question I asked: do you have these networks? Is there something I can get involved in when I join? PwC really stood out as somewhere that had so many different options – there’s a Shine network for LGBT, and a HeForShe gender equality network where men are allies for women in the workplace. That was reinforced on my first day, when the senior office partner – who is a straight, white, cis man – came in and spoke openly about being the sponsor for the Shine network and how he really wanted to get involved. It was really nice to have that visibility, and for the senior partner to show that much openness.

There is still disparity in the profession, and I think that will probably continue for another 10 years or so until the newer generation starts to move into more senior roles. A lot of the disparity is client side as well. That’s where I feel it the most: when you’re having that pre-meeting chat and talking about what you did over the weekend, and there’ll just be that assumption when I mention my partner that it’s a guy. It’s hard to know whether to correct them or just accept it and move on to avoid any awkwardness or potential judgement. But one thing I’ve really liked is that PwC has taken a stand and said that if clients aren’t in line with our values and our morals, then we don’t feel obliged to keep them as clients.

For me, allyship is about those who aren’t part of a particular community being willing to listen and understand and try to empathise. You’ll never understand exactly what somebody else has gone through, but it’s about starting those conversations and empathising with their struggles. I think sometimes people presume, “Oh you’re gay, you must get homophobia” but only see the obvious signs of it – the violence or the verbal bullying. But it’s the small, everyday things you might not consider: the fact that when my partner and I go away for a weekend and book a double room people assume we’re sisters.

I can deal with intolerant people – I’m not going to lower myself to their level – but it’s the everyday lack of understanding and awareness that we can change. And I think that’s where allies can really help. If my colleague in that client meeting speaks up and mentions that my partner is a girl, it not only lessens the pressure on me, but also hopefully makes the client feel less embarrassed that I haven’t had to call them out. It’s the same with things like pronouns on email signatures – making it a normal thing that everybody does rather than putting it on the transgender or non-binary person to do it first. It’s not necessarily about massive gestures, it’s the small things that really make a difference.

One of the good things to come out of the pandemic has been getting to know people a bit more, just from needing that social interaction. When you’re on a video call with somebody and you can see a poster or something personal in the background you might ask questions you wouldn’t ask if you were just sitting in a meeting room with them. I hope that continues and that people are more willing to share their personal stories, because it’s definitely helped relationships within the team and the firm, and with our clients. People have been a bit more open to exploring what they can do to put their wellbeing at the forefront too. In the midst of the pandemic, there’s not much else you can do except try and be as happy as you can be. And at the end of the day, nothing else really matters.

“It’s about listening, learning and acting”

Marcia Dyce, Communities Manager, ICAEW

I had a varied career with Lloyds Banking Group for many years. I also ran my own wedding business and worked with the London 2012 Olympics for just under a year, which was one of my career highlights! I joined ICAEW as a Client Services Manager in 2013, became Business Development Manager and am now Communities Manager, responsible for Diversity & Inclusion, Women in Finance, Career Breakers, Young Members and Life Members.

Part of my role is to engage with members and make them aware of how we can support them. I work within all areas of the institute, as well as with other corporate and institutional organisations. My focus is to develop the necessary outreach for our Life Stage Members, such as organising workshops, webinars and networking events, while also helping to build and retain talent. 

The murder of George Floyd really opened the topic of diversity and inclusion. The monumental impact of his death changed the world. It’s a sad legacy, but a legacy nonetheless that has instigated change – and ICAEW is at the forefront of this change. Diversity and inclusion is our of the key strategies for the next 10 years. We have introduced the Black Members Community, and I am proud to say that ICAEW is the first professional body to sign the Black Talent Charter. There is still work to do, but I personally believe we are moving in the right direction. Inclusion, equity and belonging are key focuses to enable more talent into the profession, and becoming an ally will help to make people feel motivated, valued and part of this journey.

I think allyship needs to start with those with privilege and power. I think the power of using your voice is crucial. That voice of empathy, that voice of support for those who feel underrepresented. I also think it is important for those with privilege to diversify their circles, educate themselves on issues of social justice and act upon it. You can’t simply see or perceive the experience of what other people or groups are facing unless you put yourself in their shoes. By learning, listening, speaking up and educating yourself, you can become a great ally.

I hope I have been a good ally and positive role model to those who have come to me for support. It is all about building trust and empowerment, to make people feel they can achieve anything they put their mind to. I have faced challenges within my life, and suspect most of us have, but I have had some great allies to talk things through and move forward with a positive mindset. My greatest ally was my father – he instilled in me the values of life, self-respect, strength, confidence, wisdom, and gratitude.

Through my lived experiences in my working life and as a black woman, I have faced and witnessed indirect and direct discrimination. Sometimes small, sometimes significant, but always impactful. I remember watching it happen to a colleague many years ago, feeling angry and helpless because as a young person, the worry and fear of speaking out at the time could have cost me my own job.

Fast forward to now, the working environment has positively changed over the years, but there is still a long way to go. It is the responsibility of leaders to support their teams, because that is where you will see career growth and the retention of great talent. The best leaders are those who get to really know their WHOLE team (not just their direct reports). They will ensure they have their team’s back in a crisis. They will be fair and just in challenging situations which will gain trust, commitment, and longevity. 

The words we want to hear from our leaders: “We see you, we hear you, and we’re going to try and understand.” That’s the key to being an ally and creating a harmonious workplace.

Find out more about Diversity & Inclusion at ICAEW, and our Diversity & Inclusion Community