Sonya Rees | 40 Outstanding Global Women 2023
Sonya Rees, a Partner at tax, accounting and business advisory firm Blick Rothenberg is a passionate advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in all its forms, including financial wellbeing for women. Sonya is using her experiences to help change perceptions and redefine the workplace for the benefit of everyone.
Relocate Think Global People Award-winning Blick Rothenberg is in the business of looking after people’s assets worldwide. Key to its success is looking after its people. This ethos runs through the business – from the CEO, to Partners, managers, graduate recruits and mid-career returners – supported by a dedicated Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Angela Cooke. Its practices are meeting the demands of the current and future workforce.Together with her colleagues at Blick Rothenberg, Sonya Rees, US/UK Private Client Partner, is breaking the mould around inclusive talent management. A passionate advocate for true inclusion across every aspect of intersectionality, Sonya is an outstanding leader, a co-founder and former chair of the company’s Women’s Network, and a tireless champion of making working life better for everyone.
” One of our female audit graduates noticed that she didn’t have any female Partners, directors or senior managers at that point and wanted to know where her path was. She reached out to one of our Partners and we all got talking about setting up a women’s network. ”
Sonya Rees, Blick Rothenberg
Within Blick Rothenberg’s inclusive culture, Sonya’s personal values and leadership style exemplify how DEI is all our business. Core to this is Sonya’s lived experience and her appreciation of the importance of knowing your own value and appreciating the worth of others.
In her previous role, which she joined straight from university, Sonya was made a Partner relatively early in her career. She also negotiated a part-time role while at this senior level. “Ten years ago, this wasn’t that common,” says Sonya. “Obviously, now we know flexibility is very important and Covid has moved us on at least five years, but back then not many places offered it.
“I’ve been very lucky with where I’ve got to. I want other people to have that opportunity. For example, flexible and part-time working shouldn’t be a seniority-led benefit. If you can make everybody’s lives easier everywhere, they are going to perform better. You are removing barriers and giving them opportunities.”
Sonya traces the origins of her personal leadership style to her childhood. “I come from a male-dominated background and have been surrounded by male influences my whole life. My mother died when I was relatively young. I was at home with a dad and a brother. I went to a school when I was eight in the first year they took girls, so I was one of 16 girls in 160 children.
“I subsequently went to a very male-dominated college at Oxford and then into accountancy. I was used to being friends with men and quite frankly, feeling their equal. I was very lucky to have a lot of opportunity in life. I never felt the barriers to progression that some women face in my journey to partnership.”
People and purpose
In common with many other women featuring in Think Women’s 40 Outstanding Global Women series, starting a family was a critical point in Sonya’s career. “It wasn’t until I had my first baby that I really started to gather a sphere of female friends who were showing a very different experience to mine,” says Sonya. “In the area I lived there were a lot of like-minded people. The experiences that we shared and the support that we got from that led to me thinking, ‘how can I support other people?’”
Around this time and after 17 years with the firm, Sonya bucked the expectation of a life-long career in the company and started to look for a new opportunity that aligned more with her values. This led her seven years ago to a boutique US/UK tax start-up company; a company that was shortly after acquired by Blick Rothenberg, which was starting its own acquisition-led, transformation journey.
The start-up was seeking a Partner-level technical specialist to work three days a week. This requirement had put other applicants off. However, it was this “stars aligning moment” that offered Sonya a platform and workplace culture to continue to share her experiences. Today she helps influence policies and practice at Blick Rothenberg – a place where she says she has “found her people”.
“One of the biggest benefits of the move for my career is not tax and accounting related,” says Sonya. “What has really been interesting, and what I’ve loved doing, is the diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) journey. Nobody at Blick Rothenberg had really thought about that before.
“About a year in, one of our female audit graduates came to us when our gender pay gap figures first came out. She noticed that she didn’t have any female Partners, directors or senior managers at that point in time in her audit part of the business and wanted to know where her path was. She reached out to one of our Partners and we all got talking about setting up a women’s network. Its role primarily was to connect women like her to senior women in Blick Rothenberg. Until then, we were there, just not in her line of visibility.
“That developed into the women’s network, to ‘what do we want it to be?’, into today. Five years down the line, we’ve now got a head of DEI. That was one of the biggest things we managed to achieve; getting the firm to put some money behind a non-chargeable role and to have the support of our CEO to do that.”
The Women’s Network remains as strong as ever. Now it is helping shape Blick Rothenberg’s thinking on policy and practice around menopause and fertility planning, for example, as well as continuing to connect people within the business. Sonya also continues to work with other leaders in Blick Rothenberg to heighten understanding of individuals’ unique circumstances, including emerging work around social mobility, neurodiversity and financial wellbeing.
Recognising how formal education does not include key financial life-stage skills, Sonya has run popular lunchtime drop-in sessions for new graduates on the wealth-related aspects of homebuying, parental leave and pensions. “If I had more time, I’d campaign on financial wellbeing,” says Sonya. “You aren’t going to balance society if you don’t balance those easy things.”
These sessions are alongside Blick Rothenberg’s very successful offer of personal financial coaching to all employees; something that is particularly important for women – and increasingly, men – if they take family-related leave because of the impact on lifetime income and pensions savings. This has seen a firm-wide 61% take-up rate for a financial consultation in partnership with Octopus Financial.
“One of the biggest things I like to talk to anybody going off on maternity leave about is that we can give you all the opportunities at work – that is quite structured,” says Sonya. “The bit that people don’t talk about that much is what is happening at home. If you don’t set that up equally, and it’s so easy for that to happen, then it’s going to be harder to succeed. The mental load must be more evenly balanced.”
In the office too, everyone – not just women – is encouraged to work flexibly and feel safe about being open when it comes to their external commitments or wellbeing needs if their circumstances need it. This includes paying attention to perceptions around childcare for example. “The thing that I try to do and enjoy doing is picking up on language,” says Sonya. “If people are saying dad is babysitting. He’s not – he’s looking after his children, the same as their mum would be. It’s just so important – for both parents – to get that right and not create difference with the tone of conversations. The language, as well as the impact of shared caring arrangements, needs to be balanced.”
Offering advice to young people entering the labour market for the first time, Sonya says: “Be confident that what you want is there for the taking. Find the firm that is right for you. The wrong firm will have barriers and you don’t have to settle for that. There are opportunities for hybrid and flexible working so you can make your life work, flourish and achieve your dreams.
“Days like International Women’s Day are so important for raising awareness around this and for influencing others. There is too much lip service paid to gender and other equity issues. Talking about what we and others are doing in practice and what you need as an individual makes an impact.”