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Series Fourteen, Episode Six: Allies, Advocates and Active Bystanders: Privilege and power for change


In this episode, host Julia Streets is joined by Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer for Aviva Plc. As an ally, Danny shares her views about the privilege of allies, how allyship can drive meaningful change and the ways in which advocates and active bystanders can support and amplify the diversity and inclusion agenda. Together they explore the generational range within the financial services industry, the impact and effects of office attendance and hybrid working models, and leaves us with a compelling analogy from Star Trek to boot!

host Julia Streets is joined by Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer for Aviva Plc.
Danny Harmer, Chief People Officer for Aviva Plc.

Danny Harmer

Danny was appointed Chief People Officer for Aviva Plc in February 2020. She leads Aviva’s global People and Culture strategy and is passionate about supporting our people and keeping things simple for them so they can focus on putting our customers at the heart of everything they do. Before joining Aviva, Danny was the Chief People Officer at Metro Bank for over seven years. During that time Metro Bank was consistently recognised as providing market leading service through its unique approach to people and culture. She previously held a variety of roles in HR and business leadership at Halifax, HBOS, Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays.

Series Fourteen, Episode Six Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equity, inclusion and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. Before we get started today, I just want to take a moment to thank our friends at City A.M. They have given diversity podcasts, a new home at Impact A.M. their pages dedicated to ESG, impact investment, DE and I and more. We really appreciate that they publish and promote both our episodes and our supporting blog series so their readers can stay right on top at the very latest diversity, equity and inclusion debate. So, thank you to City A.M.

For this episode, I’m delighted to be joined by Danny Harmer. Danny is the Chief People Officer for Aviva PLC. She leads Aviva’s global people and culture strategy. She’s had a prestigious career and throughout this she has held a number of HR and business roles at Halifax, HBOS, Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays and including the Chief People Officer role as Metro Bank. She was recognised as one of HR Magazine’s most influential practitioners for some five years in a row and has been named as the FT outstanding LGBT+ ally and the HERoes female role model. Danny, it’s wonderful. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Danny: Thank you very much Julia. It’s wonderful to be here.

Julia: I’m really intrigued. Tell us what you are focused on right now.

Danny:  I am very lucky to have, I don’t know, fallen into or planned by way into HR. The people gendering organisations is just fascinating because of the breadth of the landscape that I can get involved in the job. The job’s never done. I think sometimes I haven’t even started it, but I think particularly when applying a diversity and inclusion lens and just thinking about what a strange time the world has come out of over the last couple of years. I’m just really thoughtful about what the impact of hybrid working and how that plays through in organisations and of course particularly for my own, how that’s going to impact on inclusion.

For example, we’re starting to look at early data and just going, as people come back into work and we’re getting into a rhythm of what offices are for, are we starting to see a gender difference in terms of office attendance? If we do see a gender difference, what might the unintended consequences of that be three to five years from now? We’re all working hard on narrowing the gender pay gap, supporting women, if they want to have families, to come back to work. How might that change if women go, “Do you know what? I take more of the caring responsibilities in my relationship, therefore remote working probably helps me more, therefore I might be in the office less.” Well, if leaders give the work and the promotions and the recognition to people they see because that’s probably how leadership and management has worked for the last hundred years, what might that do for the gender agenda and what are we potentially sleepwalking our way into? That’s definitely top of my mind at the moment.

Julia: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Because we talk a lot on the podcast about enlightened leadership and particularly as we’re navigating the recent history and its reality in organisational structures, organisational behaviours, the feeling and the concept of inclusion and belonging and what that really truly means to people. It really requires some enlightened leadership to recognise that there are risks and pitfalls, but also there are huge opportunities. There are great opportunities out there.

I wonder if I could start with a question, I mentioned in your biography about the fact that you are an LGBTQ+ ally and I suppose it aligns with this discussion of enlightened leadership and how people are stepping forward as allies. I’d love to hear from you about your position as an ally and what do you see that gives you in terms of agency and power for change?

Danny:  Great question. I think the thing about being an ally is you’re speaking out for an agenda that is not yours. That’s key, that you are speaking out for others because it gives you much more power. When I speak out, supporting women in the workplace, I am a woman, I am clearly talking for myself as well as for women in general. I’m straight, when I speak out for lesbians or gay colleagues, it’s clearly not about me. And it does give your voice much more power as an ally to support that agenda. People, rightly or wrongly, it’s just human nature, I think they listen more carefully because they know this isn’t about you. This is about something more than that.

One of the things about the privilege of leadership is that we have a responsibility to think about where we should be allies and certainly from an inclusion perspective at Aviva, we have six communities and each of them has a couple of members of the leadership team as sponsors and allies. 

I think it’s absolutely critical that leaders get stuck into this agenda. With the power of leadership comes some responsibility and find something you’re passionate about. I’m passionate about diversity and inclusion generally, but certainly the LGBT+ agenda and I have my mother to thank for it, strangely. I was thinking about it when I was travelling into work today, that she just is one of those inclusive people and from a very young age was very supportive of people in the LGBT community and therefore, it’s just been something that I’ve lived around from a young age and it makes such a difference. That’s what inclusion’s about, understanding what it’s like to walk in other people’s shoes and the more exposure we have to it with reverse mentoring and sponsorship and attending events and getting involved in anything that you can that broadens your perspective, has such a positive impact.

Julia: As the chief people officer, I mean, you have a degree of authority to say to others very, very senior leaders, part of your role is to step up as an ally. But we know that doesn’t necessarily work because also we deal with allies who are reluctant allies necessarily either. Tell me, how do you influence others and how do you encourage other people to follow in your footsteps and become allies themselves?

Danny:  I have to say I’m very privileged. The team I work with at Aviva are all really passionate about this agenda. I mean Mark Versey, who’s the Chief Executive of Aviva Investors business has a dual role actually because Aviva Investors comments on the ESG environment, social and governance approach that other organisations take and they are really strong on the diversity agenda. And similarly inside Aviva, he’s one of the executive sponsors of Origins, which is our community that looks at ethnicity and faith, diversity from that perspective.

So, I am privileged to work, all of them have real passion for the communities that they sponsor. I think 10 years ago possibly, you might have had to had a different conversation. I’m sure there are some less enlightened leaders out there, which is that when people go, “Oh yeah, but why do I need a diverse long list? Really, do I?” And I think there aren’t many people who still think like that. But for those of you who are out there, let me tell you, if you have a long list or a short list that only has one gender on it, maths says you are missing out 50% of the talent. Why would you do that? Why would you limit your opportunity to find the best people by 50%? And bear in mind that your customers represent the entire community that exists in your market. And if you only have half of that community or 20% of that community represented, you’re not going to be designing products and approaches and appealing to all of your customers.

It doesn’t make commercial sense, it doesn’t make sense from a talent perspective, just doesn’t think about it logically. Look at the society around you and make sure that your team reflects that. There’s also all the research and data about the fact that diverse teams make better decisions. They manage risk better because you’ve got more inputs and perspectives. I hope now the case for diversity is made and actually, the challenge for businesses is to go, “Right, it’s going to take time. How do we accelerate what we all want to do?”

Julia: I love the fact that you look at this very much from a commercial point of view as well because it’s heart and soul and what makes organisations successful. I think we have moved from this being a peripheral discussion and nice to have, but being whole and hearty if you like, to commercial success.

I’m just intrigued to just return to the question about allies as well because it sounds to me like you’re very, as your expression was you’re very blessed that you’ve got leaders who also run P and Ls. I’m curious as you look at the industry, because I have seen this a little bit, it tends to be the same sort of people who step up as allies and as enlightened leaders, but they don’t necessarily run the commercial part of the business. Are you seeing a shift in that way?

Danny:  Oh definitely. If I look at the P and L leaders across Aviva, Jason Storah who runs our Canada business is the co-sponsor of the LGBT, the Pride community in Aviva with me, which is brilliant and obviously we try and compete to be the best sponsor.

Julia: Of course!

Danny:  Whenever the committee asks one of us and not the other, we’re like, “Hang on a sec, why did you ask him and not me?”

Julia: I love that. I love the fact it’s bringing out the competition between the two of you as well.

Danny:  It does.

Julia: Very happy.

Danny:  When the communities come and talk to the executive committee about how they’re doing and what support they need, just so that everyone’s staying connected, and also we think about the intersectionality, you do see a slight element of competition of, can I make sure that when my community comes in they’ve got the best support and they do a great job of explaining what we’re doing and the agenda and the support we need? That’s the reality of business. They’re all totally out for it. I don’t think I can take the credit for it. I would really love to. I don’t think I can take the credit for it, I think I am blessed to work with an enlightened bunch of people who understand that this stuff matters and they’re passionate about it.

Julia: There’s another expression that we’re sort hearing kicking around the industry quite a lot, which is allies versus advocates. Some people are going, “Well, we’re advocates of a network, or a community, or a employee group,” if you like. Can you just talk to us about what you see as being the difference between the two?

Danny:  Allies is “I’m here, I support”. I think advocates is one up, which is I take action, advocate. I speak out for, even when it’s difficult maybe. Then you carry on with the active bystander which is that I will proactively go into something. I think ally is, you might sit there quietly nodding. Advocate is, this is something really important we should do. Active bystander is, I don’t like the way that we are doing this and we need to change it. I think that’s the continuum that we’re talking about.

Again as leaders, your position brings you power and influence and I think you have a responsibility to use it in a way that people perhaps who don’t have the positional power and influence in the organisation but maybe identify with some of the minority groups and communities in the organisation don’t have. I think as leaders, it’s really important that we are thoughtful about how we can influence this agenda.

Julia: One thing I want to pick up your remarks there is about the whole point about you stand up and as you say, advocate for other people as well. And a lot of organisations are going, “We want to create this speak up culture, this call out culture, where microaggressions and certain entrenched behaviours are no longer welcome.” But it’s quite hard to do that. It’s quite hard to encourage people to actually take those active steps. Love to hear your thoughts about how do you encourage people to step up and speak and call out on behalf of others?

Danny:  It’s not easy because as humans, we never want to make anybody uncomfortable. I remember one of my former bosses, he was really comfortable and strong in the LGBT ally, advocate space but felt much less sure of himself and the language when talking about race and ethnicity. He and I were having a conversation before we went to an event he was speaking at and he said, “What if I use the wrong language?” I said, I think if you use the wrong language, and brilliant leader, very emotionally aware, I said, “You’ll notice because you’ll go, ‘Oh, should I have said that?’ ” I said, “Call it out, apologise.” He said, “I would be horrified if people thought I was racist.”

That’s part of what we are dealing with here is that people want to do the right thing and they go, “This terrain, the language is new, it changes a lot, it evolves. How do I make sure I’m doing the right kind of thing?” So, what we are working on at Aviva this year, we do an engagement survey every year and last year we did a deep dive on inclusion as part of that and asked more questions than we normally would, to just go, “Right, let’s hold up the mirror here and have a look and say where could we be better?”

One of the bits of feedback we got was that people were experiencing microaggressions and, I mean, the language about microaggressions, I know some people sometimes go, “Oh but I wasn’t intending to be.” No, but you just need to think about how it’s landing on people and it can be the tiniest things. The one that comes up a lot is when you say to a group of people, “Okay guys, how are we doing?” Now, if you have somebody in that group who was born as a boy, they identify as non-binary, or they’re transitioning, or have transitioned to be female, just imagine how that feels. Because what they hear is, “You’re still male.” It’s not about how you’ve meant it.

“Well, I call my family guys and they don’t mind,” that’s fine. But actually, some people do. Based on the feedback from the survey last year, we’re doing two things. We’re rolling out inclusive behaviours training for all of our people, just digital. I shouldn’t say just, that’s really unfair on the learning team because we did an anti-racism course last year and it’s absolutely amazing. I mean, some of it took your breath away. Brilliant learning that they did. So we are doing another one this year which is inclusive behaviours, which is broader than race and ethnicity, which takes into account some of the feedback we’ve had.

For our leadership teams across the organisation, we’re doing inclusive leadership training, which specifically covers microaggressions, active bystanding, what you should do, how you should address it, how you make a safe space for people to say, “Listen, when you say that, this is how it makes me feel.” As leaders, we’ve got to create an environment where it’s okay for people to challenge and it’s definitely not easy. There are occasions where people in my team have given me feedback and said, “Can I just let you know that?” And you go, “Okay.” You really have to, deep breath, suck it up and go, “Thanks very much for telling me I appreciate you letting me know.” And then go away and lick your wounds because it doesn’t feel very nice. But you were in the position of power. So, if it didn’t feel great for you, imagine how it felt for the person who had to summon up the courage to tell you and imagine how they received it.

Anyone who has children or teenage children especially, they will give you much education and feedback about inclusion and diversity if you’re prepared to listen. They are enlightened. The conversations we have around the dinner table in my house sometimes, where they will talk about gender and sexuality and hang on a second, my daughters particularly will challenge my husband if he says, I’m going to make him sound old fashioned, but she is. And he goes, “Should you be wearing that?” And they go, “Whoa, hang on a sec. That’s not about me. That’s not about what I’m wearing. That’s about how you think some men are going to react to it. That’s not my problem, that’s their problem.” And you see him go, “Oh yes, you’re probably right.”

Julia: This fascinating, isn’t it? Because when we think about call out cultures where we talk about the feedback that needs to be given and also active bystanding and advocating, what I’m fascinated in the generational spectrum if you like. At one end, if the more senior you are, the more seasoned you are, and it’s not saying that those two go hand-in-hand. You probably have the self-confidence to speak out in the workplace and you feel that it won’t necessarily compromise your career if you do. However, actually there’s a generation there you’ve just talked about, that’s just going, “Well actually, if you want feedback, we’ll give you feedback, by the way and we’ll give it to you in spades.”

But when we come into the workplace, we may not feel that it’s going to help our career journeys if we speak out on this stuff too actively. The privilege of having you on the podcast, I’d love to get your thoughts on that.

Danny:  Certainly. Like anybody, my children are much braver at home than they would be in school or at work. The thing is, I always say to my team, “Listen, if there’s feedback you need to give me, please give it to me.” If you can remember I’m human and I’ve got an ego, that is really going to help us both because I will be able to hear it better. But ultimately, you just need to tell me. There’s responsibility on the receiver and the giver of the feedback. Just saying to somebody, “Well, I think you’re being racist or sexist,” is not going to be as helpful or constructive a conversation as, “Listen, when you call us all guys, bear in mind I’m the only woman in the room, or I’m the only trans woman in the room, or I’m the only gay man in the room. You make me feel like I’m excluded.” It’s about helping both the people who likely to be the receivers of feedback but also the people who want to give the feedback, giving them some sort of guidance on how to be constructive. But you’ve got to create a culture where people know they’ll be listened to and heard. That’s not necessarily always easy for all of us, right?

Julia: Right. And action will be taken based upon what we’ve heard and what we’ve learned and what we take forward and accountability that goes with it. I mean, as you look at this, I mean, these pathways have changed because we’re all on the journey. Every organisation’s on the journey. And as you say at the very beginning, if you’re not, then you’re missing out, enormously. Is there anything that we should be paying attention to? What do you think we’re at risk of overlooking?

Danny: I do think we’re at risk of overlooking the impact of hybrid working and the gender one just stands out for me because in society, women tend to see themselves as the primary carer and as a carer, I know my children are much older now, it was easier to manage my life when I was at home. I do think just the broader impact of hybrid working. Young people coming into the workplace now, what is their experience of work going to be for organisations that choose to go, “We’re remote first.” And I know financial services has a challenge on inclusion and we’ve got a way to go. But I think one of the brilliant things about the workplace is that you are put into an environment with lots of people who are not like you. And therefore, for most humans, that means you are accelerating your learning about diversity and inclusion.

When I look at my friends who don’t work, all wonderful humans who want the world to be an inclusive place, but they are surrounded by friends and family. And friends and family tend to look and sound like us, and tend to have the same backgrounds. When you do that little exercise where you go, “Right, name three people at work and three people in your home life. List them down. Right, first thing, what’s their religion? What was their education level?” And you will find that definitely the people in your personal life, going to go, “They’re me.” And then potentially the people in your work life as well, even in work where there’s this wonderful smorgasbord of brilliant, different people, you will gravitate towards people like you, even in an environment where it’s broader.

I think that the fact that organisations create a much more diverse environment, if people don’t come into the offices physically, how does that work? Because I don’t think you get the nuance and the joy of other humans in the same way in the two-dimensional environment. I think we just need to be really thoughtful about what we’re doing by making work. Remote-only work, are we making it transactional rather than cultural and relationship based? What might that do to the cultural organisations and the inclusion agenda more broadly? I don’t know the answer and people keep telling me I’m old fashioned for thinking that you can’t build relationships in a two-dimensional thing. I think you can maintain them, but I think building them is very different.

Julia: I think that’s a great moment to turn to Cynthia Akinsanya with some research to support today’s discussion.

Cynthia: The 2020 Understanding The Pandemic’s Impact On Working Women Global Survey from Deloitte reported that seven out of 10 women experienced negative shifts in their routine as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and believe their career progression will slow down. Women were also asked what they consider is required to move up in their organisation and the causes that have made them question whether they want to progress. 30% cited non-inclusive behaviours experienced, such as microaggressions, exclusion from meetings and projects. 29% cited a lack of flexible working arrangements. 27% cited the expected working hours, while 27% don’t agree with the organisation’s mission or values.

Julia: Cynthia, thank you very much for all the research and let’s take a few moments to remind everybody how to find DiverCity Podcast. You can find the links to the research on the website, Don’t forget, that’s DiverCity with a C, not with an S, divercity And there you’ll find all our episodes and you can sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Do also sign up for our newsletter called DE and I That Caught Our Eye and that’s where we share news stories and updates, so you can stay on top of what’s current.

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Danny, I’m really keen to come back to you. Thank you for all your thoughts so far and it’s been wonderful to hear what’s on the very top of mind right now as well. But I do know that we’ve done a bit of research, and there’s this point we’ve observed, I feel like we’ve been stalking you but there’s something we’ve observed about how you like to describe inclusion and how you use a phrase called inclusion represents you. Can you just explain what you mean by this and how do you, as an enormous business, make sure this is truly reflected in everything you do?

Danny:  We’ve talked about the fact that we have our six communities at Aviva, and we’ve touched on the intersectionality, but actually, the communities are helpful to bring together common interests. But ultimately at Aviva, we have 22,000 individuals and I want every single one of those individuals to feel like Aviva is for them. Aviva is for everyone. Actually, we’ve recently changed our job ads a bit to just make them a bit more inclusive, particularly on gender because some of the research about how women approach job adverts versus men and we’re just going, “Look, Aviva is for everyone.” The brilliant thing about having this organisation that’s so big and diverse is that we can offer everybody a career and we’re big enough that our people should represent society and the communities that we’re in. How do we just focus on what the one, the one in 22,000 and make sure they feel they belong?

It’s part of the stuff that we look at when we do our engagement surveys and do you feel you belong? Do you feel you can speak up and can you be yourself at work? I think we get some pretty good feedback on those questions. I think that’s what really matters. Can I be me? Professional, not the me that sits at home and sometimes sits in my pants and a T-shirt eating ice cream with socks on because that’s what I want to do. It’s fine. I wouldn’t do that at work. It’s professional me, but still it’s me with all the stuff I bring because to be you but different is really hard work.

I remember somebody as an analogy once using Star Trek and the Klingons with their cloaking. You can’t go into warp when you’re cloaking because cloaking uses too much energy. And there you go, that is my analogy for the Star Trek fans out there, how to make sure that you’re not wasting your energy on the wrong thing. Because what I want is everybody here to be in warp. Not, “Oh, I don’t think I can really be me because they keep talking about husbands and wives and I’m gay and I have a partner.” Or, “I don’t think I can really be me because they keep saying guys, and I’m not a guy.” Or, “I don’t think I can really be me because I cannot see anybody here in a senior role who looks like me.” It’s that that we need to think about.

Julia: Incredibly important. And as I’ve talked before on the podcast, I’m a gay woman in the city and the narrative around my career for decades was do not come out. It will destroy your career. And also you get strategies, you build strategies of trying to avoid the single question, which is, what did you do at the weekend? Monday mornings, I had strategies to not be anywhere near the kitchen or a water cooler to be asked that question. It’s exhausting. I mean, to your point, just to build on your point, the reason why I talk about this is because it is exhausting and it is therefore your energy is used in the wrong place, in the wrong way. It’s actually very harmful in many ways.

Danny:  And you spent Monday mornings being very thirsty.

Julia: Being very thirsty. I know, and all I wanted was a coffee. I can’t believe how time canters by on these podcasts, but I just want to ask you the same question I ask everybody. And that is, particularly as we are going through interesting times and with interesting difficult pathways ahead economically, I have a deep seated concern that diversity, equity and inclusion could well fall down the corporate agenda. Give us your compelling reasons about why it’s so important it remains high.

Danny:  Well, it’s not going to because we’ve said it’s a commercial imperative for all businesses anyway. And actually, I do think businesses genuinely are leading the way on diversity and inclusion, which is brilliant to see them adding that back into the communities who are their customers, this virtuous circle. And actually, it mustn’t either because, as you say, challenging times just behind us and ahead. And some of those might impact on people who are less privileged, which tends to be minority communities anyway. And as businesses, those are our colleagues, they’re our communities, they’re our customers, and we need to be making sure that we’re including everybody when we think about everything we do as an organisation. It’s the world we’re in.

Julia: Danny Harmer, it’s been a joy to have you on the show. Thank you for all your thoughts, all your insights. It’s been very considered, but I have to say you’re the first episode in five years that has brought a Star Trek analogy. Love that. Thank you so much.

Danny:  Thanks. Lovely to see you.

Julia: And as always, thank you to all our listeners for tune in, I hope you’ve enjoyed the episode as much as I have. I’ve been Julia Streets. Join us again soon for another wonderful episode.

Cynthia: This episode of DiverCity Podcast was produced by Roshan Roberts on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. You can find out more about the guests from this week’s show on our website. That’s That’s DiverCity with a C and not and S. Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates. All our episodes are available in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app. If you enjoy diversity podcast, remember to share on social media and give us a rating or review. And finally, our Twitter handle is @divercitypod. Thanks for listening.