Profile: Ashley Steel, standing up for diversity in the City

Profile: Ashley Steel, standing up for diversity in the City

KPMG board member Ashley Steel was the only City figure to appear on a recent list of the most influential gay people in the country. She says that professional services firms have a long way to go if they want to be seen as progressive employers

High achievement was always going to be on Ashley Steel’s agenda – it’s
almost written in her genes. A PhD and member of KPMG’s management board,
Steel’s sister is professor Karen Steel, a world-renowned expert on hearing, and
her brother Dr Duncan Steel is an astrophysicist who regularly corresponds with
Arthur C Clarke.

Indeed, some of his research was the inspiration for Clarke’s novel Hammer of
So you see it had to happen. Steel had to compete with all that, get the
doctorate, climb high through the ranks of KPMG and generally impress everybody
with her intellect and ability to succeed.

Steel has certainly managed to attract press attention, but it’s for an
entirely different reason. Indeed, she has come to public notice after being
named in an Independent on Sunday pink list of the most influential gay people
in the country.

In a list of 100 gay screenwriters, playwrights, musicians, actors,
advertising execs and a couple of civil servants, Steel was ranked at number 30
and was notable for being the only City-based worker on the list.

Installed at KPMG now for almost 20 years, she’s been in and around the City
for much of that time and as a result was ‘gobsmacked’, she says, at the dearth
of City people included on the list.

‘That’s because of the lack of progress we have within the City’s
professional firms. Where were the legal firms in that list? Where were the
other accounting firms in that list? And where were all the banks and the
insurance companies?’

Steel is not angry when she says this. If anything, it’s more like a plea
born out of
the deep-seated experience of feeling that, while she would not deny her
sexuality, she certainly couldn’t broadcast it about the firm either. She
clearly feels that the list was a disappointment, as far as the City was
concerned, and that there is much, much more room for improvement.

At the same time, however, she is very keen to point out that KPMG has been
supportive and that her position of authority at the firm affords her the
opportunity to be more outspoken.

Steel joined the firm in 1985 – the only job interview she says she has ever
had – after growing up in Somerset with entrepreneurial parents, who ran an
independent cinema, second-hand caravan business, while also owing a clothes
boutique and a hair salon.

Steel says the entrepreneurial spirit was set in her teens with lessons she
has never forgotten and which she sums up as being a ‘good grounding’. She adds:
‘You’ve got to generate cash, keep debts to a minimum and market your goods and
services properly.’

After a degree and a masters from the University of Westminster, the PhD at
Henley Management College followed. A competitive nature emerges here as she
reveals that, while her sister and brother may have earned their PhDs before
her, she won hers at the younger age of 25.

After Henley came the job advert in The Guardian for consultants to join KPMG

and she has not looked back. While not an accountant, she has worked her way up
the ranks at the Big Four firm to become a partner, and then to the board, while
taking on various other roles. She is currently global head of transport for the

While a woman rising to such a position within a professional services firm
is worthy of note in itself, Steel’s elevation is even more unusual for the fact
she is gay and fully out.

But it wasn’t always that way. Steel’s decision to come out at work came
about after a spell working abroad for KPMG in Silicon Valley, just 45 miles
from San Francisco. Her partner Angie accompanied Steel during the stay in the
US where they found it much easier to be out in the open as a gay couple.

‘If you can’t be out in San Francisco, where can you be?’ asks Steel.

On returning to Britain, she was determined to make a permanent change and
decided that she had to be out for everyone at work. Steel says the decision was
preceded by years of keeping things to herself in order to keep her career on

‘You keep it a secret because you do not want it to get in the way. If you
are ambitious and you want to be appreciated for what you are and for what you
can deliver in a business environment, why put up a hurdle that is unnecessary?

‘But, ultimately, I got to a point where I thought “this is wrong”. I had
felt what it
was like to be out in California and I had got a taste for it, I liked it and I
wasn’t discriminated against.’

Come out in an institution as conservative as a British professional services
firm, however, and there are a lot of people to consider. Colleagues, bosses and
clients all might have some influence on the way the news is welcomed, or not.

Steel, however, says her emergence at KPMG as gay has been a positive
experience. The firm, she says, is pretty advanced in its thinking on these

But could it be a problem for clients though? And would KPMG react if it was
a problem for a client? In the past, Steel admits, discussions with clients have
had to take place to resolve issues they may have with KPMG staff. But would
they withdraw from a client if they found they could not work with a KPMG staff
member from a minority group?

‘Put it this way, we’d speak to them first. If I found one of my clients was
discriminating against one of my black members of staff, I would be the first
one in there to have that conversation with the client. If they still found it
difficult, for whatever reasons, I’d be the first to say we should withdraw from
that client.

‘But that is a difficult policy decision because it’s about tolerance and
it’s about our tolerance at a slightly different level. I’m happy to say we have
had those sorts of conversations, but I’m not aware of us having to withdraw
from a client because of that.

‘Some people have difficulty with gay people and I don’t want to impose
myself on other people who have difficulty with people who are gay or female. I
just want to be respected for being a person and for what I have to offer KPMG,
clients and society in its widest context.’

Having gone public, though, there is always the danger of being seen as an
activist, and political activism of that sort is likely to be something of a
turn-off for the predominantly white, middle-aged and male nature of UK
business. Steel, on the other hand, denies that hers is a political act in that

‘I’m hesitating because as I’ve now come out, some people may perceive me as
being an activist. Because I’m sitting here doing this interview, some people
may see me waving the gay flag saying, “hey, you guys out there, you’ve got to
look up and respect us”. That’s not what this is about.

‘I know there are a lot of gay people in the community, in our clients and in
KPMG who go home at night and don’t feel good about themselves because of what
other people think about them, and I don’t want that to happen. I went through
years of that. I just want people to be themselves.’

After this, Steel is slightly more emphatic. ‘I suspect some people still
find it hard to be in my company. I suspect some people possibly don’t like it.
But that’s their problem. I’m not about to rub it in their faces. I can’t help
being a woman and I can’t help being gay. I just want to be treated like any
other person. The difficulty is theirs.’

After partnership and membership of the board, will the top job at KPMG
beckon Steel? Impossible to say. She says she doesn’t see her future at any
other firm. She has had a varied career at KPMG and sees no reason why that
should not continue.

For the time being it’s more of the same, only now her colleagues know more
about Steel than they once did.

Integrating diversity

Integrating diversity into the day-to-day work of a company is more than just
about having policies, processes, goals and objectives on diversity in place. It
is about transforming the way organisations work.

The Opportunity Now taskforce, part of Business in the Community, was
commissioned to research how integration has been achieved in different
organisations, how it contributes to the success of mainstream business
activities and how integration can be sustained in the long-term.

The findings of the study show employers are beginning to integrate diversity
into a range of business functions, including marketing, product design,
community affairs, suppliers and corporate governance.

For some of the case study organisations, transforming culture is also about
integrating diversity into processes such as appraisals, selection and promotion
criteria. For others, it is about setting up networks, encouraging role models
and supporting a better work/life balance.

One of the key drivers for integrating gender diversity in business functions
is the growing influence of women as employees, clients, consumers and

The findings also suggest that the business case for diversity is
increasingly about managing reputation risk and improving brand management.
Indeed, many organisations integrating diversity see clear links between
diversity and corporate social responsibility.

Integration works best when leaders, particularly senior men in
organisations, actively support progress on diversity. Engaging senior staff at
a personal level can be an effective strategy for winning support for changing
an organisation’s culture.

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