Transitioning at the age of 57, and having had ADHD since childhood, has given Rachelle Harvey a unique perspective on what authenticity looks like in the workplace. Here she explains
Infosys Consulting Principal Rachelle Harvey knows that a journey to personal authenticity is sometimes hard won. Transitioning at the age of 57, as well as having had ADHD since childhood, she has had to centre herself in a positive new paradigm with profound impacts on her wellbeing, work and way of life.
Experiencing the workplace from the perspective of both genders has given her unique insight and self-awareness. Here, she talks about why authenticity is so crucial to empathy, what she has learned on her journey and why her aim is to help more people bring their whole self to work — whoever they understand that to be.
What does authenticity mean to you?
You can’t rush to build it, but authenticity, to me, is a mandatory prerequisite if you’re genuinely looking to gain trust in other people. What’s also interesting is that when you have an authentic perspective, you tend to ask, ‘how authentic is the information I’ve been given?’ and ‘How authentic are these people around the table?’ You start looking at things in different dimensions — or at least I have since transitioning. When you’ve been through any major transition or life event it creates self-awareness, and when I am coaching, I talk to people in terms of making your comfort zone who you are, not what you know. I ask them, ‘what are your values?’, and ‘where can you see authenticity as you walk around?’ There are so many dimensions to that word, but ultimately, I see authenticity as the key to trustworthiness.
How important is it to expand our understanding of gender in society?
I often say to people that I started my transition three and a half years ago, but for me, as for many trans people, the question is when does it really start? Was it when I was a child and had a recurring dream that I was being given pink baby food, or when I cross-dressed as a teenager or six years ago when I first went to a psychologist because my gender dysphoria was taking over. I don’t really remember how I got through the first time I went into work as Rachelle, but most people were very kind to me. I didn’t encounter any hostility whatsoever — and I haven’t generally, I have to say, in professional environments. I’m extremely fortunate that the senior leadership team within Infosys Consulting are passionate about diversity, equality and inclusion – and genuinely value my diversity. But I’m aware that this is not the story in all organisations.
In wider society, there is a lot of unfortunate trolling that’s going on now — and polarised discussions, which are never helpful. We need a mediation mix so people can start talking together and newer, richer perspectives can happen. And I want to be able to have an inspiring presence as part of that — to explain that it’s okay that you have some biases. In fact, if you said you didn’t have any preferences you’d be lying. If we focus on managing the bias instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, then that’s where we will make more progress. That’s why I always try to put people at ease. I’ve also noticed that sometimes people can be nervous about making ‘a mistake’, but I’ve misgendered myself in the past too. I wasn’t born a woman; I’m not trying to lie to the world and say that I was. Accepting people’s gender identity allows diversity to flourish and in doing that, society becomes a little happier, more inclusive and innovative.
What has been the biggest difference coming to the table as a man and as woman?
From an internal perspective, as a woman I feel empowered to express myself in a manner that I felt I couldn’t do before. I had a communication barrier that prevented me to some extent from using my empathy and compassion and expressing my desire to help others and felt that it would be incongruent of a male to exhibit such behaviours – or so I believed at the time. I associated those traits with my feminine identity. And I suppose being able to express these things brought it all together, along with the excitement of having a wardrobe of colourful clothes — not just a grey suit to wear to work.
Unlocking that in myself has given me the ability to build trusted relationships quicker and more deeply. I also find it easier to collaborate with others, but importantly, I’m finding it easier to help teams collaborate, which I think is a bigger need, especially when you’re looking at trying to become an adaptive organisation. Generally, I perceive a slightly softer. friendlier approach to me as a woman, which is conducive to constructive conversation. But there have also been some negatives; I worked on one project where I was amazed that with my 40 years’ experience in the industry and a Master’s degree in tech, the person directing the work felt a good use of my skills would be to manually transfer data from one spreadsheet into another. My response was to turn the negative into a positive and teach myself Python and create something that did the whole thing in 10 seconds. The other shock for me was suddenly discovering what mansplaining was — my jaw dropped when a male colleague explained something to me that I actually train people in.
Does imposter syndrome exist for men as well as women?
In my experience, imposter syndrome is much more prevalent in women, but I would say it absolutely happens to men as well. However, I think it’s a bit like ADHD in that it manifests in a different way. Men show it overtly by ‘having to have something to say’ — it’s a case of, “I’m in the room so I’ve got to say something to prove my value”. But when you see it happening, you think, what value is there in that? If we were measuring performance on how long you spoke for, you might have a point, but it’s the quality and relevance of what we have to say — not the duration — that really counts.
Is authenticity crucial to help people develop empathy?
It’s so important to be in a professional environment in which we can express ourselves, both for our own wellbeing, as well as for the reputation and the growth of the company. Diversity provides innovation and a different way of thinking. I start with the person and work outwards now, whereas I used to be very technically orientated. My theory is that we’re born with a seed of empathy, and we all can develop it, and what you are exposed to will channel that growth. If you’re exposed to positive energy then amazing things are going to happen. Authenticity comes from everything you’ve learned along the way — as well as where you are now. And I don’t think you can have empathy without authenticity, because if you haven’t got authenticity, why would you try to find it? It’s an evolution to stand in your own truth, and now, at 60, I feel this next period is going to be the most spectacular, dynamic, empowering and financially rewarding of my life.
What has helped you to embrace your neurodiversity and see it as an asset?
Growing up, ADHD was not really ‘a thing’ — and boys were just ‘boisterous’. How we react to our own neurodiversity is so important. ADHD has held me back in many ways through my life and has made me nervous, insecure and self-conscious at times. People think being on time or being organised is just a matter of discipline, and yes, it involves that — but we also know from MRI scans that people who present with ADHD have differences in their organisation and executive functioning. Context is important of course, but with self-awareness you start to understand that you have more control than you realise over these things. You can learn skills to help you, and for me the biggest one has been to accept myself. I realised that to function at my best, I need the plasticity of the world in return, and so I might be late to a meeting, or I might need help with operational hygiene, because those things are not the same for everybody. Let’s get rid of the labels — it’s diverse thinking, and it’s healthy. We should all be worried if we all agree on everything.
What advice would you give to anyone holding back from being authentic?
Hiding yourself requires significant energy and if you’re not bringing your ‘full self’ to work, you’re not bringing your ‘A-game’ to work. You’re not only depriving yourself of fulfilment; you’re also depriving the world of your greatness. I could not have been so positive, energetic and inclusive without being authentic in myself. I realise that when you’re looking over the cliff and thinking about making a decision around bringing your whole self to work, fear and survival instincts can kick in — but these perceptions are all in your head. It’s a wasted life for you not to be your true self. It might seem easy for me to say that as I have transitioned, but before I did, I thought taking that step was a 1,000-foot drop and that the sky would fall in. The sky did not fall in. I was not disowned. I’m not unemployed. While there are relationship challenges of course, I smile every day that I can dress and identify the way I want to – and that alone has allowed me to release the greatness in me. I don’t want to say that there wasn’t a drop, but the result was that when I actually jumped, it was probably only 10 feet. So, my advice is get a support network around you and take the brave step to be who you are – you won’t regret it.