Marta Philips CA OBE on the importance of diversity in the workplace
Marta Philips CA OBE discusses her childhood in Guyana, her career journey, and what CAs can do to tackle racial inequality in the workplace.
This article was first published in October 2020.
Marta was born in what is now Guyana, the only country in South America which has English as its official language. During her childhood, the country was called British Guiana on account of it being a British colony which form part of the West Indies.
“Comparatively speaking my family was very well off,” Marta recalled. Her Mother was the Deputy Head of a large school in the capital Georgetown and her father was the equivalent of a registrar in the UK.
The education system in Guyana at the time closely mirrored that of the UK, so when Marta and her family moved across to Britain in 1969 the already high achieving student fitted in easily.
The transition was not as simple for her mother however as she was not able to continue her role as a teacher. Despite her senior position in her school in Guyana, Marta’s mother held no formal qualifications which would allow her to find a teaching job in the UK.
Marta was determined to follow her own career path which, by a process of elimination, lead her to accountancy and finance.
“The careers advisor looks at my subjects and said, ‘Why don’t you be a teacher?’ and I said ‘Nope. My mother’s a teacher, my aunts are teachers, I’m not going to be a teacher.”
Having also turned down the suggestion of becoming a computer programmer due to her older sister following that particular career journey, the next suggestion was accounting, a profession which no one in her family was attached to, which suited Marta just fine.
“I took a year between school and university because I needed to work. We came to the UK with not very much,” explained Marta.
Her family were going through a difficult time as, shortly after their arrival in the UK, Marta’s parent’s marriage broke down, leaving her mother to support herself and her six children on her own.
“My mother had to take a job at what was called DHSS, the Department of Health and Social Security, as a clerk because she didn’t have those formal qualifications,” she recalls.
Seeing her mother having to start from scratch was a strong motivation for Marta to pursue her university and CA qualifications.
Marta was also happy to be working with numbers, something she had always found easier than letters, but it wasn’t until long into her career that she discovered why this was when, in 2010, she was formally diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Marta holds several roles, mainly in the government and education sectors. In her role as Council Member and Audit Committee Chair of the Nursing and Midwifery Council, she has seen various research projects, including a close look at ED&I in UK nursing and midwifery.
This research has found that a disproportionate number of BAME nurses and midwives are referred to the Council for disciplinary procedures. Other research has shown that there are almost no people of ethnic minorities holding occupying executive-level positions.
Marta has witnessed a similar experience first-hand during her time working in the then Department for Education and Employment.
“I was one of only three non-white grade sevens in the department,” Marta said.
“They had no non-white people in the senior civil service in the department. The research that was done showed that although BAME staff were getting the same kind of performance markings on average compared with their white peers, what they weren’t getting was promotions.”
It took the intervention of Sir Michael Bichard who, at the time, was Permanent Secretary for the Department for Employment and Employment. Sir Michael, who was also a driving force in the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, introduced a process allowing staff to self-nominate to attend an assessment centre where their eligibility for applying for promotion would be independently assessed.
“This opened the doors for a whole range of people. Women, part-time workers and people with disabilities as well as black and ethnic minority staff.”
The responsibility of CAs to make a change
At work, as in much of life in general, it is important to feel comfortable with being yourself and that you don’t need to drastically change your behaviour or personality in order to feel accepted by your peers.
The exact opposite is unfortunately too often true for many black people in the workplace due to racist stereotypes connected to aggression.
This was something which Marta experienced early in her career during an annual review with her manager.
“My division manager in my feedback session said I intimidated my colleagues.
“I was absolutely appalled and shocked that this had happened.”
When Marta asked what it was that her colleagues found so intimidating about her, her manager replied: “When you are having team meetings and there is a question, you answer it,” Marta recalls.
“I said ‘Well, the answer is obvious’ and [my manager] replied ‘But your colleagues haven’t had the chance to ask their questions yet’.”
Frustratingly, Marta had to consider the notion of keeping quiet when the answer was clear to her just so her colleagues didn’t feel “intimidated”.
This along with the multitude of other issues which still exist to for BAME employees is something which Marta know her fellow CAs have the power to change for the better.
“I would really like [CAs] to sit back and think ‘What have I done today to make a difference to my staff?’
“For senior leaders, I would ask them to really examine their conscience. What have you done in your organisations to make the talk about diversity and inclusion real? What have you done to make change happen?
“It’s not about just looking at the numbers and saying ‘Oh yes, we have some [BAME people]. Its no good if they are at the most junior levels or are in the catering service or in the janitorial service, that’s a copout.
"Or if you make work placements available, have you really made them feel welcome? Do you know if they can afford the fares to get to your office? Or money for lunch? Are they able to dress so they can fit into your office? Does someone meet them at the door and walk them in so they feel comfortable? Have you arranged a ‘big brother or sister’ for them so they get the same experience as the relative of one of your existing employees? I.e. do you go the extra mile?
“There is some really good talent out there that organisations are missing out on.”
Catch up on the ICAS Insights: Challenging racial inequality at work webinar where Marta is joined by Gavin Lewis and Hamisha Mehta CA to discuss their experiences with racial inequality in the workplace.