Leading the race agenda as a white woman

What is it like to lead diversity and inclusion at one of the Big Four accountancy firms? What are the challenges of a non-minority person leading ethnicity and race change amongst 18,000 people?


I recently attended a meeting called ‘Why do we find it easier to talk about gender than race?’. In my experience, talking about both topics is a minefield. Admittedly, talking about ‘race’ and in particular about racism or inequity feels more uncomfortable.

Picture the scene: a packed room, people with professional remits to influence the agenda, polite conversation as people warmed to the topic before one comment flipped the scene on its head.

‘HR are part of the problem. Let’s face it; it’s mainly white, middle-class women leading the diversity and inclusion agenda’ (my paraphrase). I felt my white face redden, followed by a feeling of glee – now we were talking!

Leading inclusion at a Big Four firm

Two years ago, I asked to lead the PricewaterhouseCooper UK’s (PwC) organisational development strategy to support its published ethnicity targets. I did so because I care passionately about equity and at the risk of sounding like a *Girl Guide, I chose to work in inclusion because I want to make a difference. I’m also an avid learner and learn I did. I explored the subjects of race, ethnicity, nationality, identity, privilege and I thought that I had some answers.

Last summer, I led an inquiry into what it is about PwC’s culture which results in the under-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people at manager grade and above. I commissioned Dr Doyin Atewologun as an advisor and she asked me two critical questions. I now know that answering them was essential to the success of the inquiry.

‘Why is this important to you?

I grew up in a loving working-class family, we lived in social housing in London until I was ten. A strong work ethic and treating people as you’d like to be treated were the values imbued in me. When I arrived in a professional services firm in 1996 (without a university degree) I began to learn about the lives that others had lived. I felt inferior and had to learn quickly how to be if I wanted others to think highly of me. So I have a mild experience of exclusion and of learning how to fit in.

‘What does it mean to you to be white?’

To me, white is ordinary. It’s ordinary where I live and where I have lived. Most of my school friends were white, friends and colleagues too. I socialise mainly with white people who have roughly the same levels of wealth and ambition.

I do notice colour. I recall first looking for it when I lived in the Middle East where skin colour and ethnicity is linked to nationality and ascribed a value. I noticed, then I asked myself what assumptions I am making about that person and how much skin colour, clothing, context is playing a role in my assumptions. I find it impossible now not to notice.

So where does this leave me as a white woman leading this agenda?

I’m lucky I am surrounded by people whose opinions I seek. They tell me what I need to do more of, less of, and what to be aware of. For example:

‘Generally it’s not great to have a white person leading this agenda because it’s too easy to assume that you don’t understand the experiences of a minority.’

‘If I didn’t know you, then I’d think “what does a white person know about this?” I’d be suspicious and probably defensive.’

‘You’re thoughtful about learning from different people’s experiences.’

My approach is to acknowledge the context, to say ‘this is why I care’, and to talk about being white. Throughout the inquiry it was my aim to create a safe environment for people to share what they thought and how they felt and to have real conversations. As a result, PwC has concrete actions that it is taking forward.

If the gender agenda has taught me anything it is that we all need to be in this to effect change. It can feel uncomfortable and some people may question why a white person is leading this agenda, but as Emma Watson famously said in support of HeForShe, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’

Nicola Cardwell is a Leadership Development and Inclusion consultant. She never was a *Girl Guide as the club clashed with the televised screening of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾.

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