Gareth Wilson CA explains why we should look past neurodiverse labels
New member of ICAS’ EDI Committee, Gareth Wilson CA explains why viewing the workplace through a ‘neurodiverse lens’ enhances outcomes and opportunities for everyone
From the outside, it wasn’t always obvious Gareth Wilson CA would pursue a career in finance. An accomplished pianist, he graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a music degree in 2006.
“I realised fairly early on that music was just a hobby for me,” says Gareth. “Like exercise, it was really something therapeutic to unwind to. I spent some time thinking of possible career paths. My grandparents were really into investing, which led to me researching possible careers in this sector and applying for a job in financial reporting for an investment management company.”
It is hard to imagine a less obvious degree subject than music to put on a job application for a role in investment management. “The only reason I even got that job was because they allowed me to do the psychometric tests first – and I did really well in those, particularly in maths,” says Gareth, who is now Senior Audit Manager at M&G.
But he also believes the link between the two hemispheres is closer than might be immediately apparent from the outside: “In some respects music is also about numbers as you are working out subdivisions of time as you play. When I was studying music, I also did a course on acoustics in the physics department.”
During his time at university he decided to pursue a further qualification – and from there the germ of the idea to go into accountancy began. “When I was doing my master’s in investment analysis, I thought, ‘Where will I go with this?’ I focused on the Big Four and thought it would be a diverse exposure to the business world – and that I would get a professional qualification off the back of it. I really enjoyed the financial reporting and analytical elements of the course, and that’s when I decided I was going to pursue the CA route.”
Gareth joined the banking and capital markets team at EY, where he was able to begin the process of training for his CA, then moved to corporate governance. “With ICAS it didn’t matter what degree you had – music, art, politics,” he says. “Some people might have done accounting and finance, but you all go to the same assessment centres, do the tests, then you join the company to train to be a CA. They’ve always been very accepting. You’ll get on-the-job training at the company and at the end of it everyone’s a CA. It’s always been quite diverse in terms of academic backgrounds.”
Most CAs acknowledge the ICAS exams are some of the hardest they have ever done. But Gareth wasn’t perturbed: “I wasn’t all that stressed about them, to be honest. I’ve always been able to learn enough in a short period of time. It’s just the way I learn. I didn’t necessarily get super-high marks, but I was comfortable going in and knowing I would be able to pass.” Despite this, he attended the ICAS ceremony, unlike those for his graduations, because it was the one for which he felt the greatest sense of accomplishment.
Lose the mask
Is his confidence an example of a type of neurodivergent neuroplasticity that allows people to learn new skills quickly and enjoy fresh challenges? Gareth is quick to discourage a one-size-fits-all attitude to people on the spectrum, and shies away from “superpower” tropes. “I can definitely understand for some people who are autistic and are really focused on one topic, that can be a kind of superpower. But that’s not me. I have photographic recall at times. But not all the time. The strengths and challenges of being neurodivergent are very individual.”
Being confirmed with neurodivergence relatively late – his formal diagnosis came through in October 2022 – has been challenging to some degree. “I had a mix of emotions,” says Gareth. “I suppose one of them was to feel ashamed. I don’t know why, I’ve no reason to be. I’m still the same person and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
This – hugely common – reaction was soon followed by a sense of relief. Viewing life through a different lens has been positive. “I look at life and how I interpret things differently now. I’ve become a bit more accepting of myself. I’m able to adapt to things better and be more conscious that maybe I need more breaks occasionally. It’s helped me to be more open with my colleagues, and more open talking about it as well.”
Gareth is less interested in the label that came with the diagnosis, and more the opportunity to see how the working environment can be tweaked to make the team dynamic more inclusive. “I don’t find labels that useful,” he says. “People ask what it actually means. For example, it could mean someone is more sensitive to sound and would benefit from noise-cancelling headphones to concentrate at work. I think there should be more understanding of other people’s approaches, and how to work to the best of their abilities, rather than conforming to a certain kind of stereotype.”
One size clearly fits none, and Gareth believes neurodiversity as a topic is seldom well understood. Looking back on his training, it was never specifically addressed by anyone. “The audit team I worked in during training was actually a very diverse team in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion…” he says. “That was a while ago, but even today diversity is not all that well understood. It just wasn’t a topic you thought about in the workplace and it’s something I didn’t really understand myself until a few years back.”
He now recognises that “masking” – hiding traits of your neurodivergence in order to fit in – was a problematic technique he used to cope in demanding environments: “It’s really detrimental to your health when it’s a daily thing. Even if you are neurotypical, you may be having to mask just to fit into a certain situation.”
Masking is an indirect consequence of pressure to be on brand, within a corporate structure and wider society. For those on the spectrum, it is inevitably harder. People skills was an area highlighted as a potential weakness by senior managers for Gareth earlier in his career. “It was hard to develop [skills] like maintaining eye contact,” says Gareth. “I don’t naturally do it, but I’ve learned to, even though it’s more difficult, because I was told if you’re not maintaining eye contact, you’re not being authentic – you don’t look confident, and you may not come across as credible as a result.”
It would have been easy to limit himself to a backseat approach in the face of such frank feedback, but typically he exceeded expectations. “From that early time, when I was told my people skills weren’t so great… skip to the end of it and I was going along to board meetings for FTSE 250 companies to help them present complex topics,” says Gareth.
Enjoying the moment
Greater awareness at the time may have helped Gareth limit the development of a kind of imposter syndrome that prevented him from both fully celebrating his achievements and advancing as quickly as he might have done. “I was always feeling like I didn’t belong there,” he says. “Even to this day, if I’m given good feedback, it doesn’t have any effect on me. I miss out on that. I need to make myself stop and be happy about the things that I’ve achieved.”
This is a trait Gareth is keen to help others avoid. The need to relentlessly build on successes without first enjoying the moment means there is never any sense of achievement, which creates a perfectionist feedback loop. And, ironically, the fear of not getting it right can prevent getting anything started at all. It is the kind of mentoring Gareth knows would have helped him – and will undoubtedly help any young CAs coming through today. “I read recently it is possible to get mentoring specifically for people who are neurodiverse. And I was like, wow, if that had existed 10-15 years ago, that would have really helped,” he says.
A quote often attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire has stuck with him. “My boss said, ‘Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good’ – that’s it in a nutshell. Sometimes it’s OK just to get going. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.”
So how does Gareth see the landscape for trainee CAs contemplating a career in finance? He has some key messages for those diagnosed: “Firstly, if you are autistic, and you’re thinking about this as a career path, then you can absolutely do it. Don’t be put off. ICAS is very accepting. Secondly, focus on your strengths because that’s what’s going to carry you forward.”
Gareth is keen to encourage people to embrace a late diagnosis, bringing as it does a fresh perspective on an established career. “Don’t be afraid to talk about it with other people,” he says. “There’s a worry there will be a stigma attached to it. Some people may well judge you as a result. But the more people talk about these things, the more other people will be accepting and understanding. And, actually, you’re not that different from everybody else, you just think about things in a different way.”
Ultimately, Gareth says treating people as individuals in the workplace is the most inclusive way to approach diversity, stripping stigma from such labels: “If someone finds it hard to concentrate with bright lights and glare, how can we help with that? Just approach everything in a way that’s more accepting.”
Looking ahead to working with the ICAS EDI Committee, Gareth adds: “A friend told me to look past the label and find out: what does it mean for you? What traits do you have that come under this umbrella term, and how do you need to adapt things to make them work for you? Understand that and you make things easier and more manageable. But looking past that label is really important.”
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