Women at BDO: A discussion with Michelle Bennett

What is most rewarding about your role at BDO?

I am new to the firm, so I am most excited about the chance to experience a great culture and add to the positives. After 25 years in professional life, I realise that I get a buzz out of helping people recognise and overcome their challenges – be it clients, my team, or my fellow partners. I love helping people see things differently and find their solutions.

What progress have you seen on gender equality throughout your career?

As a child, it never occurred to me that gender equality would be an issue in my life. Maybe that was lucky because I didn’t let it impact my expectations, but there is no doubt it is part of our reality.

On one hand, I thought we would be further progressed on issue such as the pay gap and women’s representation in leadership by now. However, on the other hand, we have come so far from the times when I was younger and I would be the only woman in a meeting. Seeing women in senior positions is ordinary now, and the fact they are so rarely the ‘first’ or the ‘only’ is something to celebrate.

Why do you believe gender equality is so important?

I believe in equality of, and, for all people. If equality is not afforded to everyone, we fail before we even look at the many other types of discrimination people face. More practically, defined gender roles limit opportunities for people of all genders.

When we limit any individual’s opportunity, we pay the price in lost potential. Be it to create great art, make a medical breakthrough or simply see people make the most valuable contribution they can in their daily lives. If we limit opportunity, we all lose the benefit of what an individual might otherwise bring to our society.

What value do you think women bring to leadership?

An equal value to men, but often with different experience and a different perspective to men in an organisation. As you increase the number of women, the diversity of perspective and experience naturally increases.

But there is also a critical mass issue – as the number of women increases, so does the volume of their voices. Only then can the broader group hear those perspectives, and then that breadth can impact the analysis and decision making. Also, when there is diversity in a group, people become braver about bringing out their own individualism. I believe we get more and better input from everyone.

Have you ever had to overcome gender bias? If so, how did you tackle it?

I have rarely been aware of gender bias directed towards me. Still, I have had the opportunity to intervene when I saw the potential for it to be directed towards others. My preferred approach is to always ask questions about what sits behind statements, to both understand and give people the opportunity to reflect on the concern. For example, whether the behaviour being assessed is actually problematic or merely different and equally effective.

In my experience, if people are given a chance to look at things from another perspective and reflect without being judged, they are usually more open to differences in style and approach.

What should be done to increase awareness of the need for equality in the workplace?

This is a culture and mindset issue, so we need to see it as part of who we are and embed that kind of thinking in how we see everything. Part of how we see things reflects what we actually see: who our leaders are, who they recognise, and which faces represent the ‘boss’ in our training and marketing material.

We have come a long way on that front, as leadership represented by men and women is so much more the norm. I think helping people identify bias and having constructive conversations about it is our most useful tool.

What do you think future opportunities look like for females in our industry?

I see future opportunities for women as limitless. I don’t know whether this looks like equal representation across the board, but I think there is an equal opportunity to decide how far you want to go or where you want to set your work-life balance that has never existed before.

It’s not perfect yet, perhaps. But there are genuine opportunities to decide what your career looks like and how much of your life it represents.

How would you suggest workplaces break the bias against gender equality?

Bias is a product of the way you have been taught to see the world. Changing how you think is difficult and sometimes confronting. No-one feels great when being told their thinking is wrong, so most of us will disengage from an uncomfortable conversation if we feel attacked. To keep people in the conversation, bias - conscious or unconscious - must be approached with genuine curiosity and empathy to understand what it represents and, in some cases, how hard it might be to let go.

This applies to how we deal with others and how we reflect on ourselves. This isn’t about protecting existing privilege but about first recognising that it exists, often in ways we will struggle to see or understand. We can then decide for ourselves, be it as individuals, organisations, or a society, that we place enough value on equality to keep challenging our own thinking and moving forward. I personally believe the people and organisations who do that are the ones that will thrive.

Read more stories from women at BDO