The need to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion became all too clear during the Covid-19 pandemic, or as Ama Ocansey describes it, “We were all in the same storm, but it became apparent that we were all in very different boats.”
She believes that the experiences of lockdown and working from home gave people time to think and to become more aware of society’s inequalities. The murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement raised the issue even further, making it apparent to organisations that they would have to discuss the uncomfortable.
“I think it helped to progress certain parts of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Ocansey, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at BNP Paribas, says. “The momentum has changed into strategy, implementation, awareness, and trying to do things differently. But these things take time because, to bring about change, you must look at systems and think about processes. I now think that momentum and energy have been converted into how to bring about systemic change.”
Which is what she has been doing at BNP Paribas. Ocansey took on her role at the height of the pandemic and has implemented several initiatives within the organisation in under two years, including a career development programme for women, partnering with external agencies to recruit more people of colour and those from neurodiverse backgrounds.
Her achievements prompted the company’s Pride Network to nominate her for Diversity Leader of the Year in the Women in Finance Awards 2022, which she won. It came just a week after she won the same category at the European Diversity Awards.
“It was amazing and exciting– I thought lightning didn’t strike twice,” Ocansey reveals. “Also humbling because I’ve been in this role coming up two years. I was a capital markets lawyer before that, so getting that recognition and affirmation from thought leaders, industry experts, global heads, and people who have built their names and reputations in this field was exhilarating.
“What’s reassuring about these awards is that I’m following the right path; I’m doing what people in the industry think is significant and relevant.”
Her success in helping the voices of people from marginalised and unrepresented groups be heard in the corporate world stems from her career experiences as a capital markets lawyer.
“I travelled a lot and, except when I was working in Africa, I was often the only woman in the room but always the only Black woman,” she explains. “This had advantages and challenges, and I had ideas about how to make things better for underrepresented females.”
Understanding business challenges
As Head of Diversity and Inclusion, she’s had the opportunity to implement those ideas with the backing of CEO Anne Marie Verstraeten, to whom she reports directly. Importantly, Ocansey’s corporate background and experience mean she has a thorough understanding of the challenges and priorities of the business, what she calls her superpower. This has helped to get leaders to buy into her DE&I strategy.
One of these was the women’s career development programme. A key feature of this is intersectionality to address the challenges faced by women from different backgrounds. This has attracted good representation and helped women change roles and gain promotions.
“That programme worked because I chose a supplier with banking expertise. So, we had bankers speaking to bankers about their challenges, layering the discussions with their intersectionality. It’s something I’m really proud of,” says Ocansey.
“I’ve also introduced our HR team to working with external agencies focusing on Black and Brown talent because we’re trying to build a pipeline of underrepresented groups.”
The programme brought in interns and graduates that will, hopefully, build their careers within the organisation. Ocansey is particularly proud of the partnership with a charity providing the bank with neurodiverse apprentices. People on the spectrum tend to excel at maths, sequencing, modelling and pattern recognition, skills highly valued in banking.
Ocansey emphasises that the initiative has raised awareness of neurodiversity and the benefits that neurodiverse people bring to the workplace. Also, having a mix of people from different backgrounds helped to highlight the importance of social mobility.
One area in which she has struggled – in common with many DE&I professionals – is collecting data. This is because there were many issues obtaining and explaining its use. The main challenges were encouraging people to self-report and creating an environment where decisions are based on evidence and data can be used to improve the careers and lives of everyone in the organisation.
There were also legal considerations. Ocansey explains: “In Europe, there are laws preventing the collection of information regarding protected characteristics. So, culturally, as an international bank and French headquartered, there were questions over why we needed data that wasn’t collected, for example, in France.
“It’s trying to shift the cultural mindset and get people to acknowledge its importance. So, we’re on a campaign of encouraging employees to report and feel comfortable doing so, reassuring them that their data will be kept private and used appropriately.
How would she describe success in her role? “Nothing makes me smile more than when somebody says, ‘I’ve never thought about it from that perspective’ or ‘I’ve never realised that somebody has a different challenge to me. Having that empathy, humility, and knowing that we don’t know all the answers but are willing to work through them. That, for me, is success.
“I’m going to continue the momentum with the initiatives and data strategy I’ve started and learn more about intersectionality and how it feeds into the whole employee and work experience.
“An area that needs to be looked at and developed is the multi-generational workforce and how the different generations can benefit from each other’s strengths and collaborate. And, of course, continue the areas that I already look at gender, race and ethnicity, LGBT+ and disability – lots to do.”
You can keep up to date with the Women in Finance Awards here.