Diversity & inclusion: “Collective dimension to generate shared value”

Vinciane Istace has held a wide variety of roles throughout her career at PwC Luxembourg, where she began in 1992, including diversity & inclusion leader since 2003. Mike Zenari

Vinciane Istace has held a wide variety of roles throughout her career at PwC Luxembourg, where she began in 1992, including diversity & inclusion leader since 2003. Mike Zenari

For PwC Luxembourg, fostering diversity goes beyond just checking boxes. Diversity & inclusion leader Vinciane Istace reveals the quantitative and qualitative forces behind their approach, what’s evolved over the past ten years and her vision for the next decade. 

Natalie A. Gerhardstein: You’ve been in your role as diversity & inclusion leader since 2003. Can you tell us how these aspects have evolved over the last ten years? 

Vinciane Istace: Most of the diversity and inclusion actors started enthusiastically as ambassadors. It’s probably the way the dimension was pioneered, and for our own story at PwC Luxembourg it came out of a reaction more than an action. We reacted to a portrait of our company that didn’t really depict it [or] what we wanted to be as a corporate. And at the time--more than ten years ago, by the way!--it was mainly acknowledging the fact that there was a kind of inherited, historical male dominance. I don’t want to judge, but we simply noted-- it was a visual recognition--that when you could see any given picture that portrayed leadership of the company, you could observe there were more men than women.

We asked ourselves, where was it coming from? There was no bad intention, no plan to be like that… you may learn some leadership skills, but ultimately you become a leader because you are practicing it, experiencing it. I don’t believe in school of leadership. I believe in genuine, professional exposure, with some forms of mentoring, support, and women were not perfect, and as a result they were not exposed to very revealing professional assignments, so they were lacking the opportunity to shine. And the shortcut was, if they don’t shine it’s because they’re not shiny in a sense. They were, but you need a space [and] spotlight to show to the world your capabilities.

What concrete steps were then involved?

The first step was about understanding it… we started digging, and it was probably the first kind of sociological analysis of our population. We started collecting figures that were not assembled with this purpose before. Then we started conducting interviews. 300 people were asked just to describe the routine of their daily life, just to be able to understand if there was something beyond the workplace that was influencing this allocation of roles. There were questions [asked at the time] like when was the last time you drove the kid to school? Who empties the dishwasher?

Vinciane Istace at PwC Luxembourg in February Photo: Mike Zenari 

And we started getting that it was a multi-factor equation, with so many dimensions. We came to the conclusion there are many stereotypes preventing both women and men to evolve. So it’s no longer a women’s issue. It’s a societal issue, and if we wanted to make an impact, we need to really include both the men and the women in this adventure… The next step was when we started questioning what social norms mean. Then you have gender, sex, sexual orientation, so many additional elements entering into the perception of the other person. Then diversity came, and how to define diversity, so we all started with counting and compliance… the regulatory framework started evolving and became a bit more robust, and there were six categories of diversity that were initially gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, age and religious beliefs. It started with a kind of transactional approach to ensure we are compliant. But this mechanical approach was by far insufficient because ultimately, what was the impact that we wanted to make? We wanted to be sure that our workplace was a safe place for anybody to come and work while feeling respected, valued, with no need to disguise [oneself]. The notion of inclusion appeared then, which is not to put people in silos. It’s about ensuring that individual differences be respected and valued.

Being data driven has been at the core of what PwC Luxembourg is doing in this realm. Can you tell us more about that, and how this mindset can truly be ingrained into company culture?

You cannot control culture. You can only relate to individuals whose behaviours you believe you may influence. If you succeed in influencing the behaviours, they may start changing thinking, expand their vision, and they may shift a few degrees. That’s very difficult. But if they shift a few degrees, and if you can replicate it across a reasonable number of people, then culture starts taking the direction you wish it to have.

The first thing is to stop advocating… It’s a dynamic phenomenon. The more you advocate, the more you create rigidity [and] reinforce these invisible walls, making us belong to a certain category [and] we prevent ourselves from connecting to the larger human potential.

[But] we cannot turn into passive actors… Because of the data [and] technology around [it], you can gather those data and make them talk for you. The first step is to look at the situation in an objective manner, that’s where all journeys start, and when you see your point of origin you can ask: does it suit me as a leader?

Sometimes you will see things that you hadn’t imagined were existing in your own organisation… that’s this data-driven approach, you can [even] do it with Excel… For us, we’ve made analysis about introducing gender in the way we recruit, promote, train and remunerate, so at each key intersection in the HR cycle, we are checking what’s happening… when you look through other criteria, such as the seniority in the role, the leadership position, objective elements, you see that there are still some gaps there… We have progressed, but many companies are encountering this plateau phenomenon, and that’s why we need to remain determined…

But it’s not always on the employer’s shoulder. When family roles are not allocated, you will slow down a woman [or] accelerate a man… the pandemic to a certain extent has been for some useful. The family dynamic has been revisited for some… there’s not enough energy and time spent really digging into what’s happening at the level of the organisation.

You talked about the pyramid structure. The PwC Luxembourg Fund Governance Survey 2020 revealed that women in the grand duchy were underrepresented on boards, making up barely one-fifth of board members, despite a clear interest in making boards more diverse. Why the gap?

[It’s] how human beings are wired deeply into their structures. The gap is there because there isn’t enough pressure on the system--it’s as simple as that. The phenomena we are observing for the moment across the planet [include] how children are treated when they’re put to work at a very young age, how women are treated in the Hollywood industry and art scene in general, [etc.]... There are so many things that we know that aren’t right, and we don’t make a proactive change. In gender and diversity, you have to shift opportunity to distribute them differently…

You talked a bit about the health crisis, which has impacted work-life balance. Have you seen ‘pressure’ linked to that and our new ways of working?

It’s a very multidimensional shift. There are very positive phenomena and negative ones. One interesting trend--[and] this is my perception… [is that] the crisis situation generated multiple effects on men and women, some of them are very positive. We observed that women have a greater voice digitally speaking than compared with events… when you needed to stand on the stage, we had more male speakers.

Digitally, it’s easier to have a more diverse panel because you can connect to many people much more easily. So that’s positive. On the other hand, when it comes to work-life balance, it depends… it may be either positive, neutral or a negative experience…

Covid has put an enormous social silence on us all, our personal and professional life. But when everything becomes silent, you don’t have these fancy events anymore to check the box, [say] I’ve done something for diversity and inclusion. And then you see the cracks. Because once the world has become silent, once a number of events has really decreased, you can listen to what is truly happening or not in your organisation…. This is the revealing and hurting effect of this crisis, and to a certain extent, we need to reconnect to this serious awareness to engage more genuinely and to have the C-suite jump to the next stage… Diversity and inclusion aren’t just the right thing to do. We need it.

Are you optimistic about the next decade with regards to diversity and inclusion?

I don’t see any other position than being optimistic in general. Especially now, whatever news we are bombarded with. I believe that we are wonderful beings and we’re capable of doing great, great things--[even if] we haven’t done [something] yet, we should not have a single doubt about our ability to do so. And it’s never too late. That’s the source of my optimism and determination and courage.

The next debate coming ahead is equity. That’s a subtle nuance. In large organisations, equality often results in unfairness, a negative perception of unfair treatment… A simple example is about premium… let’s say we bounce back, and as a leader I distribute the same premium to everyone, I should be aligned with fairness. And I’m not at all… Similar is not always the golden rule for diversity, but equity is key… one size does not fit all, and that’s the challenge of the employer, to customise the HR proposition…

If you could name the priorities that need to be tackled now in order to be in a better place in ten years, what would they be?

Women need to step into roles of leadership, men in roles of caring. We need women to embrace more STEM opportunities, etc… Shifting the roles in all senses. As long as you’ve not done it, words are powerful, but they need to be aligned with your experience.

Second, and this is for me an enormous challenge, relearning the collective dimension. This is essential for the entire civilisation… We are to a certain extent trapped in an ocean of individuality. Diversity and inclusion are not about affirming or positioning your individual rights [but rather] your ability to welcome the difference of the other person into your own world and believe it will enrich you, empower you… And this collective dimension, I don’t see it anymore. That’s why we cannot produce shared value that easily.

Shifting roles and relearning the collective dimension will enable us to generate what is no longer value, but shared value. I am accountable to create value for myself, but this value created should never be to the detriment of anybody else around me... That’s what diversity can bring to the world.

A longer version of this interview appeared in the March 2021 issue of Delano magazine