Leaders have much to gain by acknowledging the impact of intersectional discrimination on the career prospects of ethnic minority women, and making concerted efforts to hire from this group.
In 2008 we had the unrivalled opportunity to interview 23 of the most senior ethnic minority women in Britain - including Baroness Amos (the first Black woman in the Cabinet and to lead the House of Lords), Dawn Butler MP (now the Shadow Women & Equalities Secretary), and Ruby Parmar (the only female Asian partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers).
Commissioned by the Fawcett Society and the Government Equalities Office, this ‘Routes to Power’ study explored the fascinating stories of journeys to the top - despite the odds - for the senior/executive ethnic minority women we interviewed. We reflected recently on the career lessons to be learned from this report for the next generation embarking on their path to success - you can read it here.
There are also many lessons from this report for leaders who wish to understand the ways in which institutional discrimination makes paths to success more difficult for ethnic minority women, as well as the unique benefits and perspectives they could be bringing into their organisation by making greater efforts to hire from this group.
Intersectionality (i.e. how different social categories can combine to impact specific forms of discrimination: in this case gender and ethnicity) has become more widely discussed, but is still under-researched. While the public conversation around diversity and discrimination slowly evolves, there is much to learn from personal accounts of women who prevailed and achieved executive success in the face of dual discrimination. What we discovered were a set of personality traits and insights that demonstrated the unique value these women bring to their professions and institutions.
The added values of hiring intersectional people, based on our Routes to Power research interviews:
1 - The independence and resilience of those forge their own unique path to success
“I had to take four years off to sort my family life out.”
Many of the women we interviewed had worked their way to the top through unconventional career paths. Our research revealed the burden of caring for others that falls predominantly to women - many of our participants spoke of taking career breaks to care for family, yet still finding a path to the top of their career sectors.
The carers in our society should be supported to share their professional talents with the world - open your mind on the sequence of qualifications, and be aware that women from this background often have to forge a very unique route to power. The upshot of this is hiring individuals with deep determination, professional resilience, and the ability to think with initiative and creativity.
2 - A deep, determined focus on higher values
“The main thing has been a passion to change the world.”
Many of the women we interviewed came from families with deeply humanitarian or philanthropic values, and many were driven by key values around equality, social justice, empowerment and human rights. Many spoke about their unique abilities to provoke discussion and change within their organisations in a productive, collaborative manner. This is a group that are notably focused on social impact - an asset to any organisation that is sincere about its role in our society.
3 - Cross-cultural capital and skills
“There’s not a lot of people who can straddle both the world of communities and the world of policy."
Our report showed that ethnic minority women brought a range of valuable cultural experiences and skills to their organisations and sectors, providing essential diversity of thought in industries often dominated by white middle class men. The direct knowledge about a wider cross-section of society they bring is complemented by deep social awareness, and clarity when it comes to the way society is truly weighted. This perception and cross-cultural awareness opens up opportunities for sectors under pressure to interact with and provide for new audiences.
4 - Deep reflexivity and self awareness
“I think there is something unique and that’s an awareness of power structures and an ability not to take for granted these structures but to see clearly how they represent very specific interests which exclude very significant sections of the British population, whether they are women, poor people, ethnic minorities, disabled people or whatever.”
The lifelong experience of discrimination and adversity on the basis of both race and gender at least has the positive impact of generating a reflexive, self aware attitude. The ability to think reflexively and to see the imbalances of our society clearly brings a sense of clarity and empowerment - and better equips your organisation to speak with authority. Our report found that employing women from ethnic minority backgrounds enables organisations to build better bridges with new communities.
5 - Inclusive leadership and collaboration styles
“I like collaborative working: that’s the way you unlock the skills of other people. They want to join you because they want to feel part of the success story.”
Our interviewees spoke frequently of their zest for collaborative working and inclusive, open leadership. This has been of great impact on the structures and organisations they worked within - the elite sectors in the UK have been built on top down, hierarchical leadership styles. Opening up to collaborative learning allows institutions to share information and ideas more freely, unlocking the hidden talents and innovations across the board of a company - not just for the executive in question.
If employers supported more applications from ethnic minority women and acknowledged the enduring influence of intersectionality, they are likely to welcome in some of these profound, impactful qualities. This is a huge pool of specialist talent just waiting to be draw upon - it’s time we moved past typecasting and tokenism to hire ethnic minority women more frequently, and with confidence. We need to move past the excuses of ‘we’ve already employed someone from this group’ or “not enough apply for these sorts of roles” - and do more to support the career trajectories of underused social groups.
The assets and attributes we’ve discussed in this article are of course general patterns - we have to keep acknowledging the sheer variety of individuals and move away from stereotyping. With that being said, the effects of growing up and succeeding in the face of intersectional discrimination does seem to foster certain strong personality traits and experiences. Leaders stand so much to gain by bringing these powerful stories and perspectives into their employee networks, and supporting the talents of a singularly determined social group.