How this EY Ireland partner was prepared to 'sacrifice her career' by speaking about being gay publicly

When EY’s Catherine Vaughan agreed to speak publicly about her experience being “out”, she didn’t initially consider the possible detrimental impact the speech could have on her career.

As a founding member of the firm’s LGBT+ network, Unity, Catherine had been vocal in-house about diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues for some years but had never spoken externally.

Newly admitted to the firm’s Irish partnership, Catherine shared with how she was faced with a dilemma on that evening before her first podium speech: her workplace equality commitment or (potentially) her professional career.

“When the opportunity arose to launch GLEN’s Diversity Champions programme six years ago, I was excited to share my passion and experience on a public stage. But some well-intentioned advice from a relation caused me to pause and reflect on the potential negative impact on my career,” she said.

“While I’d been campaigning in-house for a long time, I was reminded that I would be addressing people I didn’t know, people with viewpoints I wasn’t aware of, people who could be influential clients of the firm. What if it went badly?”

After much discussion and thought, Catherine decided that she was willing to sacrifice the impact on the the professional life she had dreamed of since she was a child, despite the ‘health warning’.

Instead, she spoke about how important it was to be one’s self in the workplace, to create an environment that was truly inclusive, that all channels of diversity were considered equally important. Shortly afterwards, she made a similar speech at the Fine Gael LGBT Spring Conference in April 2013.

“I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself if someone else went through a bad experience because I wasn’t willing to stand up and talk about mine,” she said.

“When I got off the podium, I thought that it had gone really badly as everyone had been on their phones. But they were actually all tweeting about me and what I had been saying.”

Based in Dublin, Catherine is EY’s Global Compliance Leader, a role which sits as part of EY’s Executive Management group. With her goal of making partner achieved, her bravery in speaking about being “out” publicly has done little harm.

In fact, while working her way to the top and “doing her actual job”,  she has helped to develop and implement the firm’s D&I strategy and has continued to speak publicly on the importance of a culture of workplace equality.

Three years ago, she was named Inclusion Champion of the year in GLEN’s inaugural Workplace Equality Index and Senior Leader for LGBT Equality the following year.

Just last week, she was recognised as an Executive Role Model by OUTstanding, an accolade that she believes “really shows that what I’m doing really does make a difference”.

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However, Catherine’s experience hasn’t all been plain sailing, and that rough course has inspired her continued efforts into raising awareness and making a difference in the D&I arena.

“I went straight from college to training in London for five years. I essentially went back in the closet after college and focused on getting through exams. When I did come out in work, it really didn’t go as well as I thought it would,” she said.

Her openness were met with overheard whispers like “she’s a threat now as she’s not going to run off and have babies”, and responses such as “are you sure?” and “I can knock that out of you”.

It was 1999 and Catherine had met her girlfriend Marian Buckley – who would later become her wife – in The George in Dublin while on a work trip in Ireland and decided to go for a job here.

She decided to be open from the outset, and when asked about the motivation behind her move during the interview, stated that she had met a special someone – a “she” – and wanted to make a go of it.

“The interviewer never flinched and that’s when I knew that I was doing the right thing. A large part of my motivation was because I had found this person and I didn’t want to be gender neutral when talking about our weekend together etc. I wanted to be open about her.”

Catherine mentions that one of her best days at work was when a colleague came to her looking for advice when a young relative of theirs came out.

“It’s great to have that work environment that allows a colleague to speak to me about that. There can be times when you experience tired dips where you wonder if the fight is worth it, if other people are really feeling the way you felt.

“But then someone will come to you, tell you how they feel empowered from what you did and it gives you another bit of an energy boost.”

EY’s holds an annual flagship event, Diversity & Inclusion InMotion Summit, held in the Mansion House each April, where Ireland’s leading experts in D&I get together. The summit coincides with the launch of EY’s annual report on D&I, two to date, in the Irish market.

The firm’s commitment to positively changing the culture in the workplace to suit the needs of their employees is not simply a ‘tick box exercise’, according to Catherine.

Thousands of Google workers recently walked out of offices around the world to protest how the tech giant has handled sexual misconduct by some of its top executives.

It was sparked by a New York Times report that said Google gave huge sums of money to some executives in secret exit packages after they were accused of sexual misconduct.

Catherine referred to the walkout and noted that a number of other companies “shout about D&I policies but the culture isn’t really any different”.

“My advice? Get rid of your lanyards and your notebooks and do it properly”.

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