Making LGBTQ+ inclusion visible to all

Jennifer Johnson, Strategy & Transformation Leader, PwC Canada.

Jenn had been with PwC US about 18 months when she started to realise she might not be straight. The first person she told was her boyfriend. The second was a male colleague called Barry from the PwC office in Hartford, Connecticut where they both worked. Jenn and Barry had played in a PwC-sponsored softball game – and when they went for a drink afterwards, he got a bit more than he’d bargained for.

“I think we were the last two at the bar,” she recalls. “And I ended up unloading on the poor guy about everything that was going on with me. I’d grown up in a very traditional family where everyone made homophobic remarks and jokes. I felt I was living in this state of limbo where I needed to figure out who I really was. I guess I just needed an outlet. When he agreed to stick around for a few beers, he wasn't quite expecting what he got.”

Surprised or not, Barry gave Jenn exactly the advice she needed. “He was amazing,” she says. “He listened intently, and told me about a friend of his who’d gone through the same thing a few years before – which made me feel I wasn’t alone. And then he said, ‘Jenn, it sounds to me like you know what you need to do for yourself. You're just having trouble taking those first couple of steps. But when you do, I have no doubt you're going to figure it all out.’

“During my life and career, I’ve often felt like a population of one. But about a year ago we ran an internal diversity survey in PwC Canada, and 16% of our staff members said they identified as LGBTQ+. Obviously a proportion of that 16% are female-identifying individuals - yet visibility of senior female-identifying LGBTQ+ individuals has been lacking. This underlines why it's really important for me to have visibility, and for them to see somebody like me in senior leadership roles.”

He was right. Within a couple of months Jenn had moved out of the flat she shared with her boyfriend, moved into a place of her own and found a girlfriend. She’d also gained the confidence to tell the rest of her PwC team about herself. They were hugely supportive: her sexual orientation just wasn’t a thing. “We weren’t just colleagues, we became super-close friends, and I’m still in touch with most of them,” says Jenn. She’s also still in contact with Barry, whom she reached out to not long ago – 20 years on – to tell him what an impact that night had on her.

The sense of inclusion she gets from PwC’s people has been a consistent feature of Jenn’s experience with the firm. She joined in 1999 after majoring in finance at university – she switched from architecture because finance offered more job opportunities. After graduation, when PwC US invited her in for an office visit, she accepted their job offer for three reasons. First, the amazing people she met there – “they were bright, energetic, and always working in teams.” Second, the variety of the work – “I could see every day would be different.” Third, the opportunities for travel. As a parent, she’s now seen travel slip down her list of priorities – but the magnetic attraction of PwC’s people and varied work is as strong as ever.

Having joined the PwC US Operations & Risk Management team as an associate, Jenn saw her career go from strength to strength – hand-in-hand with her growing sense of belonging, and her desire to help others feel the same. While working in the Boston office in the early 2000s, she joined the LGBTQ+ inclusion group that had been set up there: “It was the first time I really felt like I had a sense of community within PwC,” she says. But in 2008, when she moved to PwC Canada’s Toronto office as Risk Assurance Director, she found there were no firm-sponsored inclusion groups at all. She and a fellow Director decided to do something about this – and collaborated with the HR team to create PwC Canada’s first ever inclusion group, which ultimately became Shine.

“To me, it’s critically important to create a sense of community, an inclusive environment where everyone can bring their full, authentic selves to work, bring all their ideas and unique perspectives without limitation. That sense of community is really powerful: it makes people feel they belong and empowers them to contribute to their fullest potential.”

In the 15 years since, as Jenn has progressed as a leader, she’s remained committed to being highly visible as a role model for diversity – while also actively supporting the creation of more PwC Canada inclusion groups for all dimensions of diversity – which Jenn actively participates in. Why? Because all inclusion groups are important to their members. “You might have been made to feel marginalised for many different reasons,” she explains. “It could be your sexual orientation, your religion, your race, your skin colour. But what we all have in common is having been made to feel ‘other than’. So I think it's important for me to support all inclusion groups – and, as a leader, to be seen to do so.”

Away from work, Jenn is just as much of a team player – she played softball at junior Olympic level – and works out at the gym several times a week. She and her wife have three children – two girls and a boy – all of whom share her passion for sport. So they have a very busy household, and spend their evenings and weekends chauffeuring their kids to various activities, with lots of carpooling. Their two dogs complete the family. Jenn also loves art, and wants to get back to drawing one day. As she admits, the difficult bit may be finding the time!

LIGHTNING ROUND: quick questions and quick answers

From your experience, how do you sum up Inclusion & Diversity at PwC?

To me, it's that we ALL belong.

What should others know about PwC’s commitment to Inclusion & Diversity?

We've been weaving inclusion, diversity and belonging into the core of everything we do, and it’s transformed PwC Canada and its culture.

Jennifer Johnson
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