Hayat Ihataren (PwC): ‘Diversity and inclusion should be top priority’

Diversity and inclusion have now made their way onto the agenda of almost every organisation. But how do you change the mindset from 'we need to do something about this' and turn it into a meaningful movement for the organisation as a whole? Hayat Ihataren, director of inclusion & diversity, talks about PwC's approach.

No, diversity and inclusion is not just a passion project of Hayat Ihataren and her four-member team at PwC. And no, it is not a stand-alone project within the organisation either. Ihataren and her team are incorporating diversity and inclusion into the very DNA of PwC. All managers must be engaged, all employees should understand why this is an important issue and what role they can play.

Hayat Ihataren | Amsterdam Economic Board

Hayat Ihataren

Since the summer of 2021, Ihataren has been director of inclusion and diversity at the accounting and consulting firm. “Previously, I worked directly for our clients on mergers and reorganisations. That kind of consulting work is ultimately also about people. About culture. About how to get people on board and how people work together. I wanted to do more with that. Also because the experience I have, stemming from my migration background, is different. In this role I could change things. So I applied for the job.”

The experiences she refers to have to do with the lack of role models. “As someone from a multicultural background, for a long time I mostly adapted to the prevailing culture. As do many people who are not part of the majority. That is unfortunate and does not contribute to being your authentic self, building on your individual strengths. Neither does the employer benefit from the different perspective you have to offer.”

Room for other points of view

In a diverse and inclusive organisation, there is room for a differen perspective. In such an organisation, the majority would take minorities into account. And these minority groups feel safe enough to be authentic, to be different. This is important for a knowledge organisation like PwC, but really for any organisation, Ihataren says. “So many studies have proven that diverse organisations are more innovative. By providing space for differences, we can work better together. The collaboration within our teams affects the quality of our work. To the younger generation who now come to join our workforce, diversity and inclusion is an important issue.”

At PwC, all employees get trained on this topic. There they learn to recognise their own bias, their own prejudices. Assessment processes at PwC are also set up differently. “We’ve asked ourselves how to avoid assessing a person from your own point of view. Your ideas of what success is or when someone is talented are often based on your own values and experiences. In an assessment process a third person now always joins in: someone who can ask critical questions from a more neutral perspective.”

One of the most unusual sub-projects came up after the first Black Lives Matter protests in the Netherlands, in the spring of 2020. “We then asked a few people to write in a letter to the entire organisation about their experiences with discrimination and racism. This had a great impact: some colleagues shared their experiences for the first time, which in turn had an impact on close colleagues. As a result, almost all teams organised a dialogue session on this topic and some still do so regularly.”

Top of the list of priorities

Diversity and inclusion is a strategic priority for PwC. “You have to do that in order to get anything done. Diversity and inclusion should be chefsache. “In other words, it must be at the top of the list among the priorities for the highest management. Ihataren continues: “You can try all kinds of things bottom-up, but if the board of directors doesn’t make it a priority, it’s harder to get anything moving.” Consequently, the policy around diversity and inclusion at PwC is also expressed in numbers. For example, PwC wants 30 percent of partners and 35 percent of directors to be women by 2030. And that 15 percent of partners and directors must have a diverse cultural background. These long-term goals are then translated into annual goals for hiring, promotion and outflow. A relatively large part of the colleagues leaving the organisation has a different cultural background.

At PwC, the focus is now on diversity and inclusion in culture, gender, sexual orientation and people with employment challenges. The available networks for these groups are in direct contact with Ihataren and the board of directors. Here they can report on what members of their groups encounter. To Ihataren, diversity and inclusion is also about non-visible differences. Such as having a completely different educational background. “Whether you have a background as a surgeon or biologist or studied to be a tax attorney, I think everyone brings a different interesting perspective.”

Patience and continuous dialogue

She has lots of advice for organisations that want to actively engage with diversity and inclusion. The most important: get leadership in the organisation involved. In addition, everyone needs to become aware of their own perspective and how it affects behaviour and the ability to correctly assess a situation. “Patience plays an important role here, unfortunately that is not my strong point. It is necessary to keep in constant dialogue with people throughout the organisation. Organising the occasional session won’t get you there.”

Ihataren also attends many meetings on diversity and inclusion. “That’s where I gain a lot of knowledge. For example, I was recently at a celebration of UAF, a foundation for refugee students with whom we work. Every year a number of those students get a work experience placement with us and I would like to increase that number. Not only out of social interest, but also because we as a company have something to gain from those new perspectives.”

Role during Ramadan

Meanwhile, Ihataren continues to scrutinize her own role. She gives a great example. “A few months ago I was fasting for Ramadan. At that time, I received an invitation from a department, to come and talk about diversity and inclusion. That meeting was scheduled at the end of the day and those are the hardest hours when you are fasting. At first I wanted to let it go, but I also thought: I can’t tell everyone to take a vulnerable position and then not do it myself.”

Ihataren asked if she could join earlier in the day, explained why and received a positive response. “That was already great. Then when I joined, there deliberately was no food and drink on the table. Perhaps a small gesture, but it gave me a huge feeling of connection, of inclusion.”

Text: Mirjam Streefkerk

3 July 2023

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