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Student Insights

Free to be me

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 10 Jan 2022

Diversity main

What does it mean to bring your authentic self to work? Three members, Taha Ayyaz, Anna Spencer-Gray and Soo Fern Lee, share their experiences and advice on finding your place.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and experience?

Taha: I’m a senior associate at PwC, based in Birmingham. My dream was always to work at one of the Big Four, and I applied for a sponsored degree programme with PwC. When I started my course at 18, I was overwhelmed by the imposter syndrome feeling: everyone else was from a private school background, and I felt like I didn’t belong. And I think when you feel like you don’t belong somewhere, all your attention is focused on pretending you do. That feeling was elevated when I began my work placement in my second year; I immediately felt out of place, firstly because there was no one else who really looked like me, and secondly because of my age. But the networks and societies at PwC really helped me improve my confidence and settle into where I am today. 

Anna: I’m an audit partner at RSM, also based in Birmingham. I’ve been with the firm for 19 years, and I’m still in my first job! So I’m really proud of that. My ethnicity is Indian, and I have always been very conscious of my ethnicity in my time working in professional practice. I think that’s because there aren’t many people who look like me, particularly at partner level, and coming through the firm there weren’t many visible role models. That’s partly the reason I’ve stayed with RSM as long as I have: I’ve been conscious of wanting to make a difference and get involved as much as possible. I sit on our diversity and inclusion steering group, and also lead on our women’s network, Empower. Importantly for me as well, I didn’t know any female partners who had had a family on their way to becoming partner, and I think I knew from early on that I wanted my journey to be different. To an extent, I’ve carved out my own journey, and as a result I’m now very aware that I have become a role model myself.

Soo Fern: I’m a talent partner at EY, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I went to school and university in Sydney, and trained as a chartered accountant with CPA Australia and the Malaysian Institute of Accountants. I spent the first 10 years of my career in audit, then decided to have a change of career, mainly because of the need to balance my role as a young mother at the time. At EY Malaysia, we have more than 100 partners, about 30 per cent of whom are women – but as part of the executive committee, I am often the only female partner in the room. My other roles are as Asean diversity and inclusiveness leader, and as the Malaysian lead for EY Ripples, our global CSR programme. There are a lot of intersections from talent and D&I to looking at the long-term social value of the roles.

What does it mean to you to be your authentic self at work?

Soo Fern: Authenticity is about being free to be oneself regardless of rank, position or background, and being able to speak up. I think that’s the biggest element of bringing your one self or free self to work every day: the ability to speak up without being judged or persecuted, whether that’s perceived or real. We survey our employees three or four times a year, and when we ask people what makes them free to be themselves, the ability to speak up without being judged is often the highest response. For this to happen, we need an inclusive culture where people feel like they belong, and where success is possible for all regardless of where you come from. Taha: It can be quite intimidating to be yourself in the workplace, especially as a new joiner, because you’re trying to fit in, and what some people try and do is almost water down their personality. But I think the right mindset is to consider yourself as unique, as opposed to different. This mindset shift was difficult for me at first, but once I did, I found myself feeling liberated and part of the PwC family even more. When you consider yourself as different, you create boundaries or borders around yourself. But if you change that to ‘I’m unique’, the tables turn from ‘I don’t belong here’ to ‘How can I make a difference?’ I’m an ambassador for the Flying Start programme at PwC, and from the recruitment side, the emphasis is very much on showing what makes you you. That’s why it’s so important to be yourself. And when you are your authentic self, you can add value in your own unique way. Anna: One of the positives that has come out of working from home during the pandemic has been to see people in their home settings – not just colleagues, clients too. I’ve certainly got to know my clients on a much more personal basis than I ever would have done before. You get to see people’s kids, their parents, their pets, and you come to understand a bit more about their caring responsibilities outside the workplace.

How can we find like-minded colleagues in the workplace?

Anna: It can be quite difficult to seek help as just one person; it can often be easier and more effective to look for communities and networks that exist within your organisation. That can be more difficult to do when you’re new, and when you’re working remotely, but explore the intranet: if this organisation is taking what they do on diversity and inclusion seriously, they will be shouting it from the rooftops. Go back in time to see what kinds of things they are working on or talking about. And once you’ve done all that, be brave: reach out and find your local contacts, and ask how you can get involved – because I can guarantee that you won’t be knocked back. These networks are always looking for allies, and they will welcome you with open arms. Taha: As Anna says, the most important thing is communication. I’m part of the Muslim network and the social mobility network at PwC, as well as being an ambassador for Flying Start, and I found out about all those opportunities through enquiring myself with the relevant contacts. My advice is to be on the front foot and take the initiative in reaching out. Most organisations have networks and societies where it’s possible to meet people with shared backgrounds or social interests, so there will be a place for everyone. When I was 19, that helped me get the confidence I was looking for: I could find people I could truly engage with because I knew they were from a similar background. Soo Fern: If you have joined an organisation that shares your personal values and you’ve done the research, then hopefully most, if not all, your colleagues will be like-minded. I really like what Taha said about getting on the front foot: don’t wait for things to happen, look out for things that might be of interest to you. At the same time, coming from a D&I perspective, we also want to be mindful that diversity, both the visible and invisible dimensions, are important for better team and business outcomes. Homogeneous teams may give us a good outcome in the meantime, and you might feel very comfortable, but sometimes diverse views and diverse teams may also produce some very good outcomes. So yes, seek out people who sound like you and look like you so that you have a support team going in, but at the same time be mindful that the whole reason for joining an organisation is to push our own boundaries and make sure that diversity and inclusion are in everything that we do.

What can we all do to make sure everyone feels included?

Anna: It’s easy to say and harder to do, but be conscious of your own bias. And really communicate and get to know people on a one-to-one basis, because that’s how you will find out what makes them tick. I talked before about being conscious of the fact that I was a role model, but actually we all are in our own individual ways. And I think the more we talk about that, the more people will see it. It’s really important for people to see examples of what’s possible.

Taha: I would agree with that. I think the best thing you can do is learn about someone else’s culture. You can’t truly make someone feel comfortable if you don’t understand some of the issues or challenges they face. And to get this understanding, it’s important to learn about the tradition, the values and even the contemporary issues they face. From this we can respect other people, but then we can also empathise with them, which takes our relationship to the next level. Once we have an understanding, even the small differences – say we’re going out for a meal and we take into account a kosher diet, a halal diet, a vegetarian diet – can make everyone feel more comfortable around us and more comfortable in the organisation. So just consider the small things as well.

Soo Fern: As Anna said, understanding your own preferences and bias is the crucial starting point. If we don’t know that, we cannot do other things like seeking out perspectives different from our own. If you’re a team leader, you should be able to enable everyone to contribute, to have a go and let their views be heard. I think that’s key, and also flexing our own style to work effectively with others, understanding that we are all different.

Highlights of this panel session can be viewed here.

For more information on ICAEW’s work to improve diversity and representation within the profession, visit the Diversity and Inclusion Hub.

For tailored resources and best practice guidance for individuals on D&I topics, join the ICAEW Diversity & Inclusion Community.

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