What is the importance of role models within business? Navigating the race & gender divide with Mary Agbesanwa

role models. female leaders, group of women

Mary AgbesanwaFrom her position as a Management Consultant at PwC UK, Mary Agbesanwa strongly believes that “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it” when it comes to helping young professionals believe in their abilities to grow within a business.

After being named as the number one Future Leader in INvolve’s EMpower Role Model List 2020, Mary has already taken steps in demonstrating her dedication, commitment and understanding of the importance of providing opportunities for underrepresented groups and taking chances in order to succeed in business.

While identifying that there are individuals working tirelessly, giving up their free time and creating opportunities to celebrate underrepresented groups, Mary outlines that organisations can celebrate upcoming talent and role models through sharing best practice to create an inclusive culture. Afterall, as she asks: “if I can’t see that happening, how can I make it happen myself?”.

Mary continues: “In celebrating role models, you are celebrating the people who aren’t usually celebrated. A lot of the diversity and inclusion work that these people do is outside of their day jobs, because they care about the cause and they are passionate about it.

“Celebrating role models is about noticing these actions and recognising their impact on creating change and actioning improvements and awareness of inclusion across all levels of the business.”

She also recognises that in order to be able to recognise role models within business and ensure that organisations make real change to improve diversity and inclusion, a multi-pronged approach is required. Mary explains: “It’s a complex problem so there is not one easy solution. I think there are multiple steps. The first is in making sure your Black colleagues are okay and that you are listening to them. You need to ensure you are having those conversations to check-in on their wellbeing and provide the mental health resources that they may need.

“When it comes to the second step, this is about setting really clear targets for your organisation and for yourself around what you want to achieve, how you are going to do this and actually respond to and understand the data. Challenge yourself to look at the data, hold a mirror up to your organisation and ask how many Black leaders do we actually have?

“That is a really powerful tool for change.”

An integral part of increasing diversity and inclusion, and in turn celebrating role models within an organisation, is to promote the visibility of underrepresented individuals. This offers the ability to showcase the array of talent across all levels of a business. Mary understands that for professionals entering an industry, to see, for example, a woman, or an ethnic minority individual succeeding and thriving is a motivator to drive future success. She comments: “2020 has taught us a lot about inclusivity and thinking about where or not there are diverse individuals in the company and whether they are succeeding.

“That visibility is hugely important, and it is a signal to new joiners, or to customers, of the way of thinking of that organisation. It has a really strong hold on individuals and their lived experiences within that organisation in helping them to rise through each level”.

As Co-Chair of PwC’s Multicultural Business Network, Mary leads the London Steering Committee and in 2019 celebrated the success of a Black History Month initiative in London, where virtual and augmented reality created an immersive exhibition of Black British role models. This exhibition later toured regional offices across the UK.

However, celebrating individuals that are championing diversity and inclusion comes under strain when it is pushed down the agenda by such situations as the current public health crisis. This was of particular concern to Mary, who was apprehensive that organisations would stop talking about it altogether as employees stop interacting in the same ways as they usually would. She said: “I have reflected, and D&I is now a more pressing issue than ever. We need to be having these conversations, regardless of the economic pressures we are facing. D&I is a business-critical issue. We need organisations to have a mindset shift to invest in staff and understand that this is more than people feeling disgruntled within society – leaders have to make meaningful changes from within and celebrate and recognise individuals that are standing up for the cause.

Although the case for diversity and inclusion can come under question, Mary highlights that now is the time to draw upon the thoughts and experiences of the whole team. She outlines that with everyone mostly still working remotely, it’s a great time to have conversations that are democratic and have real meaning. “Everyone’s voice can be heard,” she begins. “If you’re in a meeting, a senior member of the team may automatically take the lead, whereas this is now an opportunity for more voices to be heard and encourage diversity of thought.”

It is important to recognise that there now needs to be a shift in the mindset of senior leadership figures in order to bolster teams, improve diversity and provide a platform for employees to grow and achieve successes within their industry. As Mary explains, the onus is no longer just on the employee to mould their pathway. “People, regardless of their gender, should be afforded opportunities to excel and be in leadership positions. This should not always be women putting themselves forward, for example, this also needs to be organisations actively seeking out top talent.”

To make change happen, then, it is now time for organisations to take steps to identify rising talent and support this rise to more senior positions.

Mary has also contributed to PwC’s Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting report, led the delivery of a Colour Brave training session to over 500 colleagues and pioneered PwC’s staff-run peer mentoring circles where staff support each other with career guidance. Her commitment to actioning change is both passionate and commanding.

Within the professional services industry, she has noticed that there has been an improvement in the representation of ethnic minority individuals in the UK. “The challenge continues to be concerning progression and ensuring that most if not all ethnic minorities can succeed beyond entry-level positions,” she said.

“Access to opportunities and resources is really important in professional services, and across a wide array of sectors and functions. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to align universities and schools with the graduate programmes and entry-level positions that are available within larger organisations.

“Part of improving representation is ensuring that you are retaining the talent that you currently have. Is your workforce truly inclusive? You need to listen and have conversations with the whole team about improving this. Do you have specific initiatives that spotlight talent and help to diversify your organisation?”

Mary is encouraged by the collaborative approach that can be taken when working towards increasing opportunities for someone from an ethnic minority background too. She explained: “This is a complex problem, but I believe we can all play a role to help. For instance, being a peer mentor to someone in your workplace, sponsoring or advocating for someone from an ethnic minority background in rooms they aren’t in and actively creating team environments that are truly inclusive and welcoming.

“I believe in the power of micro-actions like these that help people bring their authentic self to work and help amplify hidden talent within organisations.”

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