About a year ago, Emma Whalley-Hands moved to Canada from London, England, where she’d lived all her life.
“London is one of those places where you get caught on a treadmill of earning more, spending more,” Emma reflects. “But your quality of life tends to diminish.” She and her wife wanted to kick that habit. They wanted to raise their daughter with all the vibrancy and opportunities of a city, but also be able to pursue their love of the outdoors.
She’d been with PwC UK for 12 years, and together Emma and her wife began looking for their new home. A chance encounter with a Vancouverite had brought Canada’s West Coast to their attention, but speaking to Joe Rafuse, Partner, Value Creation in Deals, there was too good a growth opportunity to pass up in Toronto. Emma took a position at PwC Canada as Director, Value Creation in Deals, in Toronto and she would later learn that Joe would be a person she could count on in the firm — he would be her sponsor, living PwC values by genuinely caring about her career progression and personal wellbeing.
Momentum in their new life was just building when their two-year-old daughter fell ill and was diagnosed with epilepsy. In those first awful days at the hospital, after being airlifted to SickKids, they didn’t know if she’d have brain damage or was even going to survive.
A couple of months later their daughter was finally doing better and Emma was resuming her regular work when she got a call from the emergency room: her wife had fainted and severely injured herself. During both emergencies, Emma’s colleagues stepped in so that she could stay at the hospital to be with her family.
These two incidents forced Emma to show her vulnerability to her new colleagues. “I was on my own in a new country, with an injured wife, a sick child, in a relatively new job, with no family around for support. I had PTSD and was suffering anxiety attacks.” When she opened up, her colleagues were extremely supportive and gave her the time and space to focus on her family and personal well-being. They were unequivocal: “Family comes first.”
Her wife is doing better now, and her daughter’s epilepsy is under control, but it has been a long recovery process.
Emma has also discovered a tremendous support network of strong women in business through the award-winning Women in Leadership (WiL) program, which she completed in 2018. “I was completing the WiL program as my personal life was falling apart,” she says. “My WiL network was my source of strength and support. It’s because of WiL that I had the confidence to acknowledge I needed to ask for help.” As a woman and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she says the importance of mentors, sponsors, role models and allies in leadership positions cannot be overstated.
Emma credits Joe with being one of her greatest allies in the firm: “He’s the reason I did WiL and he’s the one who stepped up when I needed cover while I took time off to be with my family.”
Perhaps it was in the British army that Emma first learned to be resilient. At a time when military personnel weren’t allowed to be openly gay, the experience shaped her courage and helped her to develop the leadership skills to get where she is today.
In the British army at age 18, Emma was one woman in a battalion of 750 men. “I learned how to relate to people from multiple different backgrounds,” she says. “I learned how to navigate the complexities of a severely patriarchal system that was not geared toward women or diversity at all.”
Little things constantly reminded her that she was different and didn’t belong — such as being told to wear more appropriate gym clothing because her army-issue shorts were distracting the men. “But it also gave me strength and courage. I was an officer, with all these men saluting me every day. That reminded me that it didn’t matter: I could still gain respect and build camaraderie and work with people who were vastly different from myself.”
In some ways, entering a corporate environment straight from university was a similar experience. “There was nowhere near the kind of diversity that we have now,” she recalls, for example, there were no openly gay managers or senior leaders. It’s one of the reasons why she became active in PwC’s LGBTQ+ Inclusion Network in the United Kingdom and is now part of the same network in Canada. “These employee-led Inclusion Networks and leadership programs give us the opportunity to be transparent about the different types of leaders that we want to support and develop.”
It comes back to being open about who you are. Through her recent struggles, Emma has learned the value of showing your human side. “You cannot bring authenticity to a project or a program or your own teams without bringing you,” she says. “Whether you’re a woman married to a woman and have a child, or you don’t have children but you have dogs, or you go cross country skiing or some other activity at the weekend: these are the things that make you human and relatable.” Sharing even the smallest part of yourself with others brings an element of vulnerability and authenticity.
Sometimes being too strong and inaccessible is a weakness. “We’re all expected to run at our best and greatest capacity every single day. But I was putting a huge amount of pressure on myself to perform,” Emma explains. “So when things didn’t go my way, I broke.”
Dropping the suit of armor she’d perfected in the military and worn for the first 12 years of her career wasn’t easy. The incredible support she received from the PwC Canada team throughout her daughter’s illness and her wife’s subsequent accident helped her to see that vulnerability didn’t have to be a weakness.
“I’d always had this view about leadership, needing to have that stiff upper lip, presenting a highly polished and infallible facade,” she says. This was particularly true in a more traditional market like London, where she’d risen to become one of the younger directors in the group. Her colleagues have taught her to not feel guilty about taking time out to be with her family or attend her weekly therapy sessions. PwC offers financial support for staff and partners for therapy sessions, such as these, through an enhanced mental health benefit.
Emma says a culture of genuine flexibility at PwC isn’t just about working part time — it’s about being able to organize your work schedule around your life. For her, that means getting up at 5 a.m. to clear out some work before her daughter wakes up so they can enjoy porridge together (her daughter’s current favourite) and she can still take time off in the afternoon to go to a therapy session.
Whether it’s coming out or letting your superiors know what’s going on in your life, being yourself takes courage. “But if I can tell people one thing,” Emma says, “it’s that there’s always somebody who’s going to have your back.”