As part of our research report Attracting, retaining and developing a diverse workforce, we invited contributors with a range of backgrounds and perspectives to share their views on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Karen Finlayson is a Partner at PwC. She is currently on the board and Audit Committee of Sheffield Hallam University and was recently awarded Professional Services Senior Leader for 2018 by the British Black Business Association.

“Last year I did an interview on YouTube called ‘Colour Brave’ where I talked about what it felt like for me being a black female in business.  I also briefly talked about how ‘privilege’ can affect your thinking about society and at work.  It is something that I believe is important for leaders to understand to create greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace, as well as to have greater humility for society more generally. 

The dictionary definition of the word privilege is ‘a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group’.  A famous sociologist described the state of having privilege as being ‘like running with the wind at your back, unaware of invisible sustenance, support and propulsion’. 

When starting my career, I became acutely aware of what it was like not to have privilege from my own personal experience when I wanted to enter the world of professional services. I went to a recruitment agency 23 years ago to enquire about how to join a large professional services firm and can vividly remember the conversation and feeling as if I was being steered away from considering working for a firm like the one I work for today.  I was told that I wasn’t the right fit because I had not followed a ‘traditional education’ route.  You see, I left school at 16 with average grades; I started my career as an apprentice and didn’t go to University full time (I did a part-time postgraduate). Thankfully, I was lucky that even back then PwC had a different view; I applied directly and was appointed 6 months later, largely based on the fact that they focussed on my work experience, rather than my lack of a ‘traditional’ education.

As I have progressed in my career, I have often wondered whether people who are not judged by the colour of their skin, gender, educational background or sexual orientation realise how lucky they are. That in itself is a privilege - not having to worry or feel self-conscious about what people might think when you walk in a room. 

When I talk about inclusive leadership, diversity and wanting to create a level playing field where everyone can thrive, every now and then I will get a comment along the lines of – ‘what does that mean for me as a white male, will I have less chance of promotion’, ‘ it’s not my fault that I had a good education’.  My response to that is always ‘No, it just means that you will have the same chance as everyone else’.   

There are some that believe that ‘privilege’ does not exist and many researchers who say that privileged individuals resist acknowledging their privileges because doing so would require them to acknowledge that whatever success they have achieved did not result solely through their own efforts, and won’t accept that in part that it is due to a ‘system’ or ‘culture’ that has supported them.  Privilege does exist. As someone who now considers myself as having privilege I can see and feel the benefits I have and the opportunities presented to me because of my success, my job title, and now in certain environments my gender. 

Anyone who denies what having privilege means is kidding themselves.  As leaders it is our responsibility to accept and challenge ourselves, our culture, every recruitment decision and promotion decision. Are we creating a level playing field where no matter where you’ve come from, your gender, the colour of your skin or sexual orientation, you have the equal opportunity to thrive and reach your full potential?”

To find out more about the Kier diversity research report 2019 click here.

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