“Belonging is dancing like no one’s watching”

A conversation with Wenche Fredriksen, Nordic I&D Lead at Accenture

Inclusion and diversity (I&D) are two concepts that often divide people. On the one hand, the amount of interracial or multiethnic households is increasing in countries like the United States. On the other, movements like Black Lives Matter have shown us that the fight against racism is far from over. Similarly, while there has been progress on LGBTQ rights in many places around the world, bigotry is still common and can creep up even in today’s most progressive work environments. To discuss these topics, we had the pleasure of speaking with Wenche Fredriksen, Nordic Inclusion and Diversity Lead at Accenture. Wenche is a well-known I&D expert and has made it her life’s purpose to build a more inclusive world. 

Wenche, can you tell us about yourself and your role? 

I am the Nordic Inclusion and Diversity Lead for Accenture Nordic, this includes Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Latvia. I’m responsible for driving the Nordic I&D agenda, based on our global I&D strategy. The role ranges from strategic planning to operational I&D work. Our ambition is to build a company where everyone is valued for their differences and unique strengths, and feels a sense of belonging. An inclusive company where all people have equal opportunities to perform and be successful. 

Culture change takes time. It means that we have to be patient, resilient and have stamina. It also means that we have to take action against disrespectful behavior and misconduct. Every time we experience misconduct, our core values and our culture are put to the test. How strong is it? We have to demonstrate that we, as an organisation, are able to take action against disrespectful behavior and misconduct every single time. If not, we will not be credible and trustworthy for our employees. 

In order to secure progress, we have to combine this with bold targets. Accenture has set a 50-50 gender mix target, aiming to achieve this by 2025. This means that I have to stay close to our core talent processes, make sure that we mitigate bias and monitor progress. 

A very rewarding part of the role is to support and follow up on our employee resource groups (or I&D networks). Our employees are actively engaged in our gender equality, cross cultural, LGBTQ and mental health networks. I also spend quite a lot of time facilitating I&D training for our leaders and employees. At times, I also promote our I&D work at external events, which I really enjoy doing. I have been invited to speak at many conferences, both in Norway and abroad. The highlight was when I was invited to be a panelist during the HRH Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Norway visit to Canada in 2016.

How do you develop leadership in this area? 

Mostly through training and individual coaching. All leaders have to complete a 3,5 hour training in Strategies for Inclusive Leadership. In addition, we have quarterly gender mix reviews with the leadership. At Accenture, we have gender mix as a KPI for our senior leadership. Not reaching the KPIs will impact their performance assessment. So in my role, I provide education on various inclusion and diversity topics. We focus a lot on building inclusive leaders, so that all of our people feel seen and valued for who they are, can be their authentic self at work and through vulnerable life phases. 

Nordic countries have a good reputation when it comes to gender equality. Can you talk a bit about that?

Yes, Nordic societies seem to have it all: a historic tradition of women’s entrepreneurship, modern welfare states that provide support to working parents, outstanding levels of female participation in the labour market and populations that strongly support the idea of gender equality. Thus, it may come as a surprise that Nordic countries, in one international ranking after another, are shown to have few women among top-managers and business owners. Another surprise is that the three Baltic countries, which have more conservative societies and a smaller-government approach than their Nordic neighbours, have more women managers, top executives and business owners.

In the book “The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox (nordicparadox.se), Dr. Nima Sanandaji shows that the apparent paradox has a simple answer: Nordic welfare states are – unintentionally – holding women back. Public sector monopolies and substantial tax wedges limit women’s progress in the labour market. Overly generous parental leave systems encourage women to stay home rather than work. Welfare state safety nets discourage women from self-employment. On the other hand, the much-avowed affirmative action laws in Norway have not helped further women’s career possibilities. 

Dr. Nima Sanandaji believes that Nordic gender egalitarianism, rooted in the Viking era, deserves to be admired by the rest of the world. However, it needs to be combined with a more free-market approach to truly blossom in the 21st century. 

Thus, there are very high expectations for gender equality from the outside, which we have not delivered on, especially on the number of women in leadership positions. At Accenture Nordics, we have reached a gender mix of 40%, which is above the average in IT and Consulting companies. Globally we have a gender mix of 46%; pushing for 50/50% in 2025.

Are there other topics that you focus on?

Yes, part of what I do is to ensure that we address all segments of diversity. There are some segments that are more sensitive than others. Ethnicity (or race) is one of those topics. In our historic context after the second world war, race has been too sensitive to talk about in Europe and especially in the workplace. 

As an adoptive mother with kids of colour, I knew that racism and microaggressions were, and still are, happening in our schools and in our streets. You still hear people using the word “negro” or other racial slurs. I have seen the contempt in people's faces (and how they grab their purses) when my son walks into the elevator. My son has experienced other kids making monkey sounds at him - where have kids learned this? My sons are often stopped in extra security checks when we travel. My son has been stopped by the police and asked where he was going. When I share these stories, people are very surprised that these things are happening today; in Norway. Let’s not be naive and pretend this doesn’t happen. It does. Every single day. I have seen the pain in my kids. It has been heartbreaking. Thus, this has also been a topic that has been very close to my heart. 

When the police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests happened in the United States, we finally decided that the moment for us to talk about race is now. We have over 80 different nationalities and many different ethnicities represented in our Nordic workforce. Celebrating cross-cultural holidays like Diwali and delivering cross-cultural awareness training is a nice thing to do, but not enough. We simply had to address the elephant in the room and get uncomfortable. 

We had great support from Accenture’s global Center of Expertise for Inclusion and Diversity and from our colleagues in the UK, as we realized that we did not have the knowledge and the language to talk confidently about ethnicity and race. 

We spent a whole week in January having a conversation about ethnicity. We learned that our colleagues have painful stories to share about invisible barriers and behaviours they experience. We learned about microaggressions and how the terms ethnicity and race mean different things across the world. We learned that it is not enough to say that you are against racism, we have to be ANTI-RACIST. We have to stop being silent and we have to speak up. We have to use our privilege to support those who do not share the same privilege. 

Some weeks ago, we also hosted a listening session in Accenture Sweden to get a better understanding of how this is experienced by people from various ethnic minorities. We will use this to create a targeted action plan for the way forward in Accenture Nordics.

Accenture’s global leadership is very bold when it comes to Inclusion and Diversity and that is one of the things that makes me the most proud of working for Accenture. 

How have personal experiences shaped the path you chose in your career? 

My background was different from the start. I come from a working class background and was the first one to go to high school and university in my family. Most of my colleagues at that time came from generations of academic families. I did not have the “right background” when I started working at Accenture. I felt different, like I wasn’t quite “good enough.” It didn’t help that we have a strong performance culture with high expectations and forced distribution of ratings (which meant that 40% of the people were average and that 5-10% were simply not good enough). In 2000, I experienced a total burnout. I was 37 years old, I had achieved what I had planned for my life and had been promoted to manager. I planned to enjoy my achievements, but ended up completely burnt out. I felt like I was a total failure. 

This was at a time when mental health was a taboo topic and people who burned out, just quietly disappeared and were not talked about. When you experience mental illness, you feel invisible and unwelcome. I experienced what it was like to be different; to not feel included. So I decided to do something about it. I knew we needed to talk about this. I knew that it was neither acceptable, nor sustainable, to treat people like “resources” and not care about their long term wellbeing. We are not “resources,” we are human beings with a full life, and with flaws and shortcomings. As human beings, we go through different phases of life. We experience different challenges. The phase between 30-40, with high expectations of achieving a career and starting a family at the same time, is very tough. I simply wanted to prevent burn out from happening, and if it did happen, Accenture should be a soft place to fall.

I always say that experiencing the burnout was a blessing in disguise. I’m not here to make a career, I want to make a difference. My life experiences gave me a voice. So I used it to speak up for others. I’ve been blessed with Accenture giving me the opportunity to use that voice. I worked myself through my pain and I’m grateful. I’m also proud to see that I’ve encouraged other people to share their experiences too. To this day, I often use my personal experiences to challenge Accenture. Accenture is a totally different company today with a strong focus on being Truly Human and mental health. 

That’s very inspiring. You’ve been through quite a life-changing journey. How do you define inclusion for those who are interested in making a difference too? 

Before talking about inclusion, I’d like to talk about diversity. Diversity is the many ways in which people may differ, and a wide array of other characteristics and backgrounds that make a person unique. Diversity is a fact. It is present in all organisations in some form or other, whether you do something about it or not.

Inclusion is about building a work environment where everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, has equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organisation’s success. Inclusion is a choice. It’s making an active choice to make sure that all people feel valued, that they matter and have equal opportunities. 

Diversity is often more visible in the lower levels of an organisation, but not so much at leadership level. As you move up through the levels, you will see more and more white men. Talent is equally distributed, but opportunities are not. This is why we have to focus on building an inclusive culture where people have equal opportunities to perform and be successful. 

We have to move from counting the numbers (diversity) to making the numbers count (inclusion). Another quote that I love is “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance” (by Vernā Myers). It’s also good to add: “belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.” Feeling valued and included is what unleashes the power or potential of diversity. That is when the magic happens, and innovation and creativity thrives.

The last few years we have seen much debate about diversity and inclusion. Why has this become such an important topic and why so late?

There are several reasons for this. In the corporate world, it has been propelled by the changes in the marketplace that we have experienced over the last few years. The marketplace has become much more complex.  Leaders across all industries and geographies are being challenged to solve complex business problems in new ways, with different constituents, at a new pace and scale, and with bigger consequences than ever before if they get things wrong. Building inclusive cultures with a strong psychological safety net, unleashes the power of diversity, enables innovation, and helps develop solutions which embrace the diverse needs of society.

We have also seen a shift from viewing inclusion and diversity as CSR and charity, to extensive research from academia and major global companies like McKinsey. These studies have found a positive correlation between diversity, innovation and business performance. 

Companies also understand that today’s workforce (especially the younger generations) values diverse and inclusive organisations. They simply expect nothing less. So, in order to attract talent, companies now understand that they simply have to focus on I&D. If they don’t, they miss out on the best talent. 

On the other side, we have also seen debates pushing back against the I&D agenda in large parts of the world. As our Nordic society has become more diverse with increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees, the frustration level has increased in parts of the population, claiming that the welfare state is threatened and putting vulnerable groups up against each other. 

As human beings, we are naturally attracted to people who look like ourselves, and are sceptical and biased towards people who are different. Thus conflicts arise. A focus on I&D is seen as being “politically correct” and there have been discussions around “cancel culture.” We have seen how movements like #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter have swept across the world via social media engaging large groups of people to say “enough is enough.” 

The conflict level has increased over the last years, most likely inspired by what we have seen in the US under the previous administration. 

All in all, I would say that we should be beyond the business case for diversity, but that is not fully the case. 

That’s true. If you look only at the argument of economic value, it takes the value of people away. I have 2 daughters, but I don’t see them as a business case.

Yes! It’s about being valued and respected. Talking about the business case gets people’s attention. If you use business language and show them the research, sometimes they listen. At the end of the day, it’s also about the kind of organisation you want to be. Do you want your team to feel inspired and like they belong? Do you want to bring the best out of your people? 

People perform better when they are valued. So it gives you a business advantage, but you also see that young people expect it. You get shamed as a company if you are not diverse. Customers demand it as well. 

How do you convince people that this is an important topic, especially when it fuels such anger in many?

Talent is distributed equally, but opportunities are not. I can refer to the research, but I use storytelling to help them empathise. Of course, there will be friction when people feel a loss of privilege. Even today, you hear males saying they won’t be promoted because they are not female. But gender equality is not a zero sum game. Gender equality impacts all of us. Diversity benefits us all. This means that we have to stop making men the problem, and instead include them in the solution. We need to fix this together. 

The Netherlands is lagging behind when it comes to female workplace equality. Which countries are doing better here and what are the most important learnings we can take from them?

Well, a lot of people often look to the Nordics because we have so many women in the workplace, but if you look at leadership positions they are male-dominated, as I mentioned before. We haven’t cracked the code. There are more women in leadership positions in the US.

We see that Accenture Latvia has made tremendous improvements with the gender mix in Latvia. They were used to the problem in the Nordics. However, today, they are leading the way and have made amazing progress.

I don’t have the answer, but I hope that with men sharing more of the burden at home, life outside of work will hopefully be more equal as well. We have to take baby steps to fix this. COVID-19 has set us back many years when it comes to equality. We have people who are tired and exhausted. On the positive side, we have more flexibility in our work life with people working from home. It’s an ongoing fight. 

Say that a certain company hasn't given much thought to inclusion and diversity. What would be a good starting point? 

At Accenture, we started by looking at the gender gaps for our core talent processes: recruiting, staffing, performance ratings, promotions, and who left the company. This helped us refer to facts and data. Doing the groundwork of understanding where we were and what our pain points were gave us a good starting point and leadership acknowledgement that we did have a problem. I would also advise organisations to start educating leaders and employees about inclusion and diversity issues. When we know better, we do better.

How do you measure your progress?

We measure all kinds of data. Mostly quantitative data like gender mix. We also have extensive qualitative score cards for LGBTQI+ and People with disabilities ++. We measure the level of misconduct via our own Conduct Counts survey. This is a very important survey, as it is crucial that we, as an organisation, act on misconduct. If we turn our backs to disrespectful behavior, we allow it to continue. Then inclusion has no value whatsoever. 

Can you tell more about Accenture's diversity and inclusion policies and share some learnings with us?

First of all, we need to have a diversity lens on all our policies. Second, we need to make sure that the language is inclusive, for example that we use gender neutral language. Third, we have extensive policies for conduct in which we give concrete examples of what amounts to misconduct in Accenture. We measure quite a lot of things. However, at the end of the day, it is all about how each single employee feels. We want all our people to feel that they belong, that they are valued for their uniqueness and that they actively use their voice to let their perspectives be heard.

Diversity and inclusion are very important to Accenture, have you seen that this attracts a new population of applicants? 

I think so. In the old days, it was just whether you were from one or two different schools in Norway. Now, we recruit people from all over the world. We have 80 different nationalities represented in the Nordic workforce. The language barrier is a challenge both for Accenture and for the individual employee. We encourage people to learn the local language within a year, as that also makes them more attractive as resources. However, we fully recognize that it is hard to learn a new language within one year and last but not least, perform well with limited language skills. 

Would you say Accenture is a pioneer in this field?

In some areas, Accenture has been surprisingly bold. I love that Accenture is setting really bold gender and ethnicity targets (ethnicity targets are only for UK, US and SA). I love that we are talking about the importance of being anti-racist. I love that we have included transitioning costs for trans people in our health insurance scheme where possible. I love that if you consciously misgender or dead name a trans person, it is a policy breach. Thus, I would say that Accenture is a pioneer within the LGBTQI field. 

If you could have an hour with any person in the world to talk about diversity and inclusion, who would that be? Who do you think needs this conversation the most?

I would love to talk to Rosa Parks, an American activist best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. She is one of the bravest women I know. I would like to learn more about where her courage came from, what made her into the brave black woman that she was and how this impacted her life. I would definitely need this conversation the most. I also know that it would be a great inspiration for me. 

Visma Connect recently launched an ESG reporting platform. During the development of this platform we spoke to many experts in the field of sustainability. When we talk about sustainability we tend to think about climate change, plastic soup, deforestation, but not about equality, diversity and inclusion. What can be done to get these topics higher on the agenda? 

I&D is a crucial part of sustainability. When people cannot get access to equal opportunity because of their race, their religion or their gender, it’s a waste of talent. This is not sustainable, it’s all about our choices to give people equal opportunities. 

An example of many aspects of sustainability coming together is the climate strike organised by Greta Thunberg. She was (and still is) attacked for being young, for being a girl and even Asperger was weaponized to attack her. This sends a message that only people of a certain age, gender and brain configuration have the right to speak up. At the same time, it brushes off the topic of climate change. What do you think about this?

I think Greta is awesome. I admire that she was able to take control of the conversation. I think she is a proud young woman using her voice. We need more voices like her. We need to listen to them. She is a hero. The way she is treated is not good, but she is smart. She is breaking gender norms and is not bothered by those who do not like this. She is brave, authentic and confident, it’s just amazing to see. 

You have given twenty years of your professional life to diversity and inclusion. What achievement are you most proud of? 

I am very proud of the work we have done for LGBTQI inclusion. I’ve taken this from “not a topic” to taking actions in countries like Finland or Latvia, where they actually told me there was “no need to come to Finland as we have no gays here.” The year after, 200 Accenture people participated in the Pride parade in Helsinki. I am also very proud of having been the key driver for organising the very first Oslo Pride Business Forum, after being invited to speak at the Prague Pride Business Forum the year before.

What do you still want to achieve?

I would love to embark on the same type of journey to fight racism. I fully believe that we actually can make a difference together; if we want to. It is all up to us at the end of the day. How inclusive are we? 

I also want to challenge and engage other workplaces to commit to giving immigrants or refugees with master degrees a chance. Together we can make a difference. Imagine if each company gave ten talents an opportunity to work for a year in a relevant role to give them a chance to build relevant skills, and then hopefully hire them after the year was completed.

I will also definitely do a TED talk. It will happen, I know it will. 

I’m sure we will hear more from you in the future. To conclude, why is this so important to you?

Because I’ve seen the pain of not belonging, of being different or not fitting in. This is the footprint I want to leave behind me. It’s my passion and purpose in life. I have found my voice. It took a complete life crisis to figure it out, but I’m glad I did. It was a blessing in disguise.

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