It Doesn’t Matter if You’re Black:
Unconscious Bias and Open-Mindedness at PwC
PricewaterhouseCoopers describes itself as one of the world’s ‘leading professional services networks’, helping organisations and individuals create value by delivering quality in assurance, tax and advisory services. In order to facilitate this, the network’s member firm in the United Kingdom has adopted an increasing emphasis on achieving diversity and inclusion in its workforce. Among the methods being used to establish a culture which assigns a positive virtue to difference is the operation of Open Mind, a ‘long term behavioural change programme’ which ‘aims to address the cultural barriers to diversity’ and ‘focuses on tackling the unconscious biases that limit our ability to build an inclusive workplace’.
Participation in the programme, launched in March 2011, is mandatory. In other words, ‘PwC’s board felt the unconscious bias training was so important that they made it mandatory for all employees, the first time they had done so for non-regulatory training. Failure to complete a mandatory course can result in disciplinary action.
One would have thought that anyone with a cursory knowledge of 20th-century history would be aware that compulsory thought-realignment programmes created using ‘techniques drawn from neuroscience and positive psychology’ have more traditionally been deployed not for the cultivation of open-mindedness, critical thinking and personal integrity, but for their elimination.
A prominent figure in the drive towards behavioural change at PwC UK and throughout the British workplace in general is Andy Woodfield. Mr Woodfield is the primary contact for PwC’s business network for Gays, Lesbians and Everyone Else and PwC Partner Sponsor for the network. He was also chosen as Stonewall Senior Champion of the Year 2014 for his crucial work ‘in transforming organisational culture and furthering equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff.’ A member of the Judging Panel at the forthcoming British LGBT Awards 2015, amongst his other achievements he lists taking 39th position in the 2014 World Pride Power List, 84th position in the Independent on Sunday 2013 Pink list, 85th position in the World Pride Power List 2013, 83rd position in the Financial Times 2014 Executive Diversity Top 100 List and being placed Number 6 in the Out at Work top 50 list of LGBT executives.
In short, Mr Woodfield is a highly placed and influential individual playing a key role in transforming organisational culture and furthering equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. As a senior figure within PwC UK, it is of course axiomatic that he gives his unqualified support to the Open Mind educational programme for long-term behavioural change to eliminate unconscious bias.
In an interview he has made available online, Mr Woodfield gives details of his journey as a Partner at PwC UK. His narrative focuses mainly on a time when as a development exercise he was seconded to work with a drugs charity in Glasgow. At the outset he had many options about the organisation he would be seconded to and the location of his secondment. In the film he explains why he chose Glasgow: ‘I chose Glasgow, because I knew Glasgow’s a particularly rough, can be a particularly rough area’.
Glasgow a rough area? Mr Woodfield says he is from the south of England – doesn’t he remember the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, the 1995 Brixton riot, the 2009 Upton Park riot or the 2011 riots in several London boroughs, to name but a few examples? To make his point clear, he adds that he wanted the experience of his secondment to ‘maximise the pain and the suffering ... so I chose Glasgow’, and he makes these assertions about Glasgow despite the admission that ‘it was away from home, completely different alien environment, I’d never lived or worked in Glasgow before in my life’.
Having spent several years in Glasgow, this writer knows the city and its people well, and can confirm without hesitation that both the city and its people are wonderful, although this experience is not a requirement for raising objections to Mr Woodfield’s language. Furthermore, while it is true that the city does have a need for a drugs crisis unit, it is also the case that an identical need exists in numerous locations across the south of England. Open-minded readers will want to listen carefully to the inner voices in the second Open Mind training film about having an open-minded and meaningful conversation and techniques that are critical to being inclusive and appreciative of difference. They will be interested in Tony’s inner voice at 00:43-45: ‘Great, I’m in the hands of a novice.’ Now let’s imagine a similar scenario, only this time it is Mr Woodfield meeting the younger colleague. He sees the address on her CV, and says out loud: ‘Oh, Glasgow – Glasgow’s a particularly rough area, isn’t it?’ With the voice-over asking: ‘Isn’t it better if you don’t make assumptions about the other person?’ and the caption at the end (02:31-35) urging us to ‘value difference’, is it not the case that Mr Woodfield’s language about a rough area and an alien environment is not only based on a combination of assumption and ignorance but is also xenophobic?
Mr Woodfield also features prominently in the film promoting the PwC UK business network he runs, GLEE@PwC. In this film, his contribution on the subject of diversity includes the following words: ‘Doesn’t matter what our difference is, whether you’re gay, straight, lesbian, black ...’. To the cognoscenti of body language, the brief hesitation which follows, the intake of breath and the closure of the eyes will speak volumes. Readers are invited to watch the third Open Mind training film on diversity as being good for growth. Imagine that after the section focusing on disability (01:36-56), the film presented another, similar scenario, with the new hires being introduced by Mr Woodfield making the above remark. Isn’t language of this kind more usually referred to as negrophobic?
Unfortunately, Mr Woodfield’s language betrays yet another aspect of bias, and this time it certainly cannot be called unconscious. In January this year he took exception to a remark made by a politician. One has to ask why it is that someone in his position doesn’t know how to ask open questions. Readers are invited to look carefully at the responses he elicited with the question ‘am I wrong to be offended?’ What Mr Woodfield has in effect done with his tweet is to whistle for his dogs – the people who have commented are, after all, his followers.
In order to illustrate the gravity of this problem, readers are invited to take another look at the third Open Mind training film on diversity as being good for growth, this time at the section on insensitive conversation (01:04‑34). Let’s turn the scenario around, and imagine that the lone young man joins the group and enters the discussion by saying he thinks ‘same-sex relationships are a lifestyle choice’. Mr Woodfield looks round at the group and says: ‘am I wrong to be offended?’, and instead of expressing their opinions using rational arguments the group responds with comments like ‘c**t’, ‘next he’ll be claiming child sex abuse survivors are conspiracy theorists’, ‘Jeez’, ‘You’re talking out of your tree’, ‘twat’ and ‘OMG’. In other situations this would be called orchestrating hate speech.
Is PwC succeeding in its stated aim of tackling the biases that limit an organisation’s ability to build an inclusive workplace? It would be important to know if any of these followers of Mr Woodfield are employees of PwC, members of GLEE@PwC or in some way representatives of Stonewall – an interest group which has a champion operating inside PwC and which even awards him for doing so. Has the PwC Board asked this question, and more importantly, is it able to act upon the answer?

Peter Nicholson

12 April 2015