Meet Inclusion Activist:
By Wura Obisesan on 4 July 2022
Q. Tell us about yourself, in particular what led to your interest in advancing equity and inclusion?
A. I’ve always enjoyed meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures. From the age of seven I’ve had a stutter and, although it’s unnoticeable most of the time, it comes out when I’m tired or under pressure. I was at consulting firm EY for over 30 years, including 21 years as partner. There came a time about 15 years ago when, after what felt like several public stuttering disasters, I realised that I was still allowing my stutter to hold me back. I decided to find out more about stuttering and what I could do about it. The biggest thing I learnt was to accept it as part of me, not a weakness, in fact often a strength.
In 2011, I founded the EY Stammering Network with generous support from the D&I team. Then in 2013, I co-founded the Employers Stammering Network with Norbert Lieckfeldt from the British Stammering Association (now Stamma), a national organisation. I left EY in 2017 to focus on executive coaching and to devote more time to my passion for breaking the stigma and bias against stuttering in the workplace.
In 2019 I gave a talk at a stuttering conference in Japan, which became the launch of our ’50 Million Voices’ campaign – it’s now an ambitious global network of leaders who stutter from 13 countries and six continents. Our aim is to transform the world of work for people who stutter while benefitting employers and society too.
Q. What outcomes are you wanting to achieve and why do these need to happen?
A. There are at least 50 million adults of employable age in the world who stutter. However, this is a huge pool of under-utilised talent. Unfortunately most cultures regard stuttering as a weakness, often something to be laughed at and mocked. For the stutterer it becomes something to be ashamed of and hidden.
Consequently, people who stutter often struggle to find work that reflects their talents, or indeed any work at all. They suffer lower levels of employment and higher levels of social anxiety. In the USA, there is a documented stuttering pay gap with women who stutter faring particularly badly.
Stuttering is a neurodiverse condition which creates a different way of speaking, just as autism and dyslexia offer different ways of thinking. People who stutter often develop strengths in listening, resilience and empathy – all invaluable skills in the 21st century workplace.
In 50 Million Voices we’re working for stuttering voices to be accepted, respected and welcomed in work just like the voices of people who don’t stutter.
Q. How is your work helping to achieve these outcomes above?
A. We focus on employment because having a job is so important for economic security, self-esteem, lifestyle and health.
We recognise that, as only 1% of adults stutter, changing the world of work means helping the 99% who don’t stutter to feel more knowledgeable and confident about recruiting, developing and promoting people who stutter. We’re lucky to have so many wonderful allies who don’t stutter who embrace our vision, support us and actively get involved.
We work with some great employers where the DEI leaders are enthusiastic about welcoming stuttering voices and being stuttering-friendly employers. It’s always wonderful to see how working together with them has been a catalyst for change in their organisations.
For example, last year publishing company Reach Plc included working with us as one of the reasons for them being recognised as a top 50 inclusive employer. Compass Group UK & Ireland created posters highlighting our work and how to be great allies with colleagues and customers who stutter. Several other employers recruited people with a stutter who they’d met on our practice interview events. Read more about our impact.
Q. Who or what inspires you to do what you do and how do you keep focused and energised in challenging times?
A. It can be challenging trying to encourage employers to be interested in stuttering as an opportunity for them, whether that be for them to gain some measurable benefit or simply to “do the right thing”.
That’s why I truly treasure the relationships we have with those allies and employers who support our work.
It’s always inspirational to hear feedback from people who have benefited from our work. They may have attended one of our events and improved their confidence and skills. Some tell us how it’s directly helped them to get a job, whereas others may say, “I met someone else who stutters for the first time and now I don’t feel so lonely”.
Our 50 Million Voices leaders are amazing with their enthusiasm, talent and courage to create change in their own countries and globally.
My own memories of growing up with a stutter, and how this felt lonely at times, keeps me going. In some ways, I’m not the chair of 50 Million Voices, it’s seven-year-old Iain, because his pain is part of what keeps me going when things get tough.
Q. How can individuals support your work?
A. As part of thinking about supporting our work, it’s worth knowing that, in spite of negative cultural assumptions, people who stutter are just as smart as everybody else and are often very loyal employees. There are countless examples of stutterers who are, or were, leaders in their field and great communicators too – Sir Winston Churchill, Amanda Gorman and Joe Biden to name a few. More examples can be found here.
For people who stutter, there are several opportunities to get involved with 50 Million Voices. They include participating in one of our events, talking to your DEI or HR team about hosting a talk or workshop, or offering your support as a volunteer.
Q. How can allies and employers specifically get involved?
A. A good ally will take time to learn and understand stuttering, perhaps acting as a buddy, mentor or career sponsor. Allies are very welcome at our events and often play a leading role alongside people who stutter. We’re very flexible and can adapt what we offer to suit different employers. Some specific examples we’ve run are:
- Lunch-time sessions on creating a stuttering-friendly culture
- Talks on stuttering as a neurodivergent difference
- Workshops on attracting and realising the full potential of employees who stutter
Q. What next?
A. The next six months look exciting! They’re about scaling up while also strengthening our operational and fundraising side. We’ll be announcing a programme of activities for the autumn, culminating in an event for International Stuttering Awareness Day on 22 October.
In the meantime, we’ll be giving more talks for employers and leading a main stage session at the global stuttering conference ‘StammaFest Global’ from 24- 28 August. On a personal note, I’m excited that my TEDx talk from TEDx Frensham will be released soon. It’s called ‘The Gift of Stuttering’.
Find out more and get involved:
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.