A few years ago, we were privileged to take part in research that examined the ‘Routes to Power’ of senior ethnic minority women in the UK. Nowadays, the experience of intersectionality (i.e. how different social categories can combine to impact specific forms of discrimination: in this case gender and ethnicity) is gaining recognition, but detailed research remains scant. To this end we thought we would share some of the most inspiring insights we gained from this project.
We were commissioned by the Government Inequalities Office and the Fawcett Society to dig into the stories of powerful ethnic minority women. Our aim was to discover, from a series of in-depth interviews, the common factors that contributed to their success, in a society institutionally structured against their rise to influence.
We interviewed ethnic women with honorary doctorates and professorships, life peerages, MBE, OBE and CBE awards, as well as a raft of other professional achievement awards. These interviewees worked across the public, private and third sectors and came from a variety of ethnic minority backgrounds.
In the words of the-then Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Equality, Barbara Follett, at the time of the publication of the report:
“The report shows that this country has achieved a lot and we have much to be proud of, but it also shows that we must do more to change the stark under-representation of minority ethnic women in all walks of life. There are 2.3 million black, Asian and minority ethnic women in England, but there are only two black women MPs and there has never been an Asian woman MP. Only around 168 out of 20,000 councillors are minority ethnic women. And in the private sector, just eight out of 961 FTSE100 Directors are of non-European descent.”
Underrepresentation is clearly still a problem in 2019. Many of the obstacles we identified in the research still very much exist. And we find the insights and advice for ethnic minority women from the research still ring true in the present day. We’ve pulled out some key themes that could benefit the career trajectory of someone you know - or perhaps your own.
Intersectionality and the expanded perspective
It may be counter-intuitive, but the research found that the success experienced by these ethnic minority women was in part due to the very challenge of intersectionality. As they saw their educational and career aspirations and options being reduced, these women acquired greater self-knowledge and a deeper awareness of their values and their skills. They did not rely as much as positive external feedback to determine what to do. Instead, they developed a stronger sense of agency and greater control over their own lives. They also gained a much better understanding of the ways in which structural or institutional factors can make or break the lives of others, even if they are talented and hard-working, prompting many to want to work hard to challenge the status quo.
To some extent, then, adversity linked to discrimination developed self-awareness, self-confidence, resilience and a sense of purpose. These are all excellent attributes for rising to the top of any profession - with an authentic and emotionally healthy ‘self’ intact.
Intersectional discrimination is a profound injustice and absolutely must come to an end. However, it may be of some comfort to know that those ethnic minority women who have prevailed in the face of this oppressive social dynamic report did not always start with a silver spoon in their mouth: they, too, had it tough and travelled a long and bumpy path of personal development to achieve outstanding professional success.
So what is their advice for other people in similar situations?
1 - Find your support network
“Somehow my parents just instilled in me the feeling that I was special. They believed in me so much that I ended up believing in myself. I still do!”
Many of the interviewees could rely on very supportive families and were nurtured in a stable home environment from a young age. Unfortunately, many of us are not lucky enough to find career development encouragement within our family of birth. If this kind of support is not close at hand, we must find that crucial feeling of support and enhanced self-belief from a ‘family of choice’. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Lean on trusted figures around you. Seek out formal and informal mentors.
2 - Challenges come in all shapes and sizes
“I was taken out of school because my mother perceived the attitude to be racist.”
Our report found striking differences between the specific challenges of Black and Asian women. For instance, most Black women had felt very strongly supported at home and mainly encountered barriers when they came into contact with schools and employers, whereas most Asian women reported barriers against education and career ambitions at home, in their community and in wider society. Contrary to Black women, most Asian women did not experience systemic discrimination in education: they felt empowered and supported in school.
We must bear in mind that intersectionality affects communities differently, and individual experiences can always lie outside the trend.
3 - Make your own path to success
“I took four years off to sort my family life out.”
Our research revealed an incredible variety of career path and trajectory within our interviewees. Many accessed higher education after having children, very few attended prestigious universities or schools. With very few role models to draw inspiration from and virtually no professional network to support them, ethnic minority women had to carve their own path. Their self-determined routes to power reflect the individual strategies they had to enact in the absence of institutional support and established pathways.
There is no one path to the top - the stories of our interviewees prove this.
4 - Find your purpose: higher values will keep you focused
“The main thing has been a passion to change the world.”
Nearly all of the ethnic minority women we interviewed were driven by key values around equality, social justice, empowerment and human rights - as well as their individual motivations to excel and succeed. A strong commitment to these values gave them the strength to continue because overcoming these very obstacles was their raison d’être.
Behavioural psychologists often discuss the power of ‘extrinsic goals’ as supreme motivators: tapping into something greater than yourself as your north star. All of us could benefit from thinking hard about our greater purpose, about the wider social values that mean enough for us to reach for the next step in our lives. Strong motivating values provide the structure, big-picture thinking and courage to move on.
5 - Resist typecasting and tokenism
“We may have the legislation but we have not won hearts and minds"
Unfortunately, many of our participants discussed the new forms of discrimination that have emerged after legislation made overt personal prejudice illegal. Being streamlined into certain roles according to racial or gender stereotypes (typecasting) or being hired as a kind of diversity prop (tokenism) are both crushing and limiting experiences for the individuals affected. They also reduce the value to businesses and organisations of people who are prevented from using all their talent and skills.
The response? Prejudice thrives in the face of ignorance and laziness. Challenge stereotypes wherever they are. Be curious and always try new things as a strategy to discover what you really want and what you are good at. Shine brighter, speak louder. Letting more of our personalities out at work allows us to exercise bravery and ambition - even if it may need to be done tactically.
Our report found there is absolutely no lack of talent and ambition within ethnic minority women. Overwhelmingly, the problems they face are structural. While role models and supportive platforms can inspire and encourage women from all backgrounds to reach for the top, more action must be taken to restructure the institutional practices that make ambitious career trajectories significantly more difficult for ethnic minority women than for their white male counterparts.
Versiti has been playing its part to address discrimination for many years - generating and disseminating evidence, creating strategies for organisational change, working with business leaders and policy-makers and building the resilience and social capital of communities in order to erode the barriers that limit lives.
We’d be delighted to help you, whatever your challenge.