In case you hadn’t gathered from my blog musings, I work in a very competitive and fairly aggressive industry. It also happens to be an industry mainly populated by white males… which isn’t something I considered that much as a student at a Russell Group university, or as an adolescent doing her GCSEs and A levels, or as a little non-white girl dreaming of what she’d do when she grew up. I went into this industry largely inspired by my father – a white male* – who was my main work role model growing up.
(*I was adopted transracially by white parents so have grown up mainly around white people, as an ethnic minority.)
That’s not to minimise the role of my mother. She is possibly the strongest woman I know, and probably the main reason why my youthful dreams weren’t shattered earlier. I grew up with the British version of the American Dream, with a female prime minister – with no concept that we might be limited as women by the lack of male genitalia.
But my dad was the corporate guy. (My mother the entrepreneur, which as all good children of the 80s know is dangerous.) The number one focus for us growing up from our “Tiger parents” (very Asian even though they’re white!) was how we were going to be self sufficient later. And the route to security was not strewn with artistic and creative endeavours. The path to Comfortably Middle Class (for my working class background parents) is lined with Bloody Hard Work, and University, and Getting A Good Job.
I once said I wanted to be an artist. Like Van Gogh. The response? “In your spare time. Van Gogh never made any money whilst he was alive, and he cut off his ear!” I loved art as a child but I relegated it to a side interest. (Even now, I try and introduce creativity to spreadsheets and powerpoints, but I’m fighting a losing battle against corporate branding!)
The fact is: there aren’t very many women where I work. And in the sector and industry where I work, there are considerably fewer. I kind of thought I was used to it, until in the past week I was called in to provide subject matter expertise on a client outside my usual industry. (My usual one is the old white guys in pinstripe suits stereotype, and I have to tell you, it doesn’t deviate much.)
I walked into the office and the first thing that hit me was:
There are women!
There are ethnic women!
There are people like me working here!
Seriously, I could have had a little party right then and there. I went to a board meeting and I was prepared (and scared) for the usual being talked over and so on that comes with being an ethnic female in a white male space.
It didn’t happen.
Because when I looked around the board table, there were almost equal numbers of women, and this was a senior exec meeting. They were in charge of stuff. There was a black guy too. It was extremely diverse and it wasn’t even worthy of comment, other than for me – who wasn’t used to this level of diversity or equality. I talked through my section and nobody challenged it. There was no pushback. The white guy in charge even backed me up.
Shocker! But sad when you think that my default position as an ethnic female – even as the most senior female in my position – is automatically to assume that I come lower down in the pecking order. To assume that I am less valid than others, and that I’ll have to justify my opinion harder because of it. That’s nuts.
And I know that part of this is the industry I work in (where white guys in meetings routinely “forget” to shake my hand, or acknowledge me last because they assume the males are more senior, even when they aren’t). I guess it’s some kind of syndrome where you have had enough bad treatment to not be surprised when someone treats you badly – like a maltreated animal shrinking from humans.
And I realised yesterday how that way of thinking was damaging my own ability to think of myself as someone who is competent. Not just competent, but pretty good.
I mentioned the other day I did two first round interviews lately. (Not because I’m actually desperate to leave my current job… I mean, I am, some days… But because my philosophy is that you might as well have a conversation about opportunities. Every time I have changed jobs in the past few years it’s been because someone reached out and said “Why don’t we have a conversation?” And I took the opportunity! I kind of think you have to make opportunity for yourself.) The completely unexpected outcome is that I have two second round interviews. One of them even had their recruiter call me yesterday (as I’d expressed some concerns about it, mainly that the interviewer didn’t seem very keen on me!) and she told me all this great feedback. Somehow the interviewer had seen something in me I didn’t see in myself.
I also had a feedback session with one of the senior women at work, based on some work I did for their team before Christmas. She asked me to write some notes on my own feedback and then gave her own version of what I should add. She would then write up the notes.
Firstly, this woman is one of the most senior in my industry – there are very few who get to the top, and she’s one off that.
Secondly, she was really nice to work for. I mean, she cared a lot about the people who worked for her and everyone got on really well. I was there to write a report, kind of an external programme assurance report on their team performance and they were super high achieving, and also super nice. And it was due in no small part to her leadership.
Thirdly, every time I ran through what I’d written, she gave me a different, more positive way to write it, and also thought of things that I hadn’t even thought to include.
Me: Able to draw on previous experience of XXX structures in XXX.
Her: Nara was able to run information gathering sessions with the team to focus on articulating the XXX sections which were more challenging to define.
Me: Identified ways in which the information gathering process could be streamlined for future reports.
Her: Nara was inventing and driving us to the reward (net new business) – coming up with conceptions of the report and articulating that with the client, and coming up with ways to iterate with the team.
Me: I didn’t really work as part of the team, so I haven’t put anything much in that section.
Her: Nara’s role enabled the team to deliver whilst she produced the report – it was hugely important for the team to be successful and not overloaded. She recognised that they all had other priorities but was able to extract the information with minimum distraction.
Do you see what I mean? The woman’s a genius.
One of the cliché ways that women apparently don’t help themselves is to not want to “blow their own trumpet”. I’m considered a confident woman, and I even got asked by some more junior women to mentor them at work. (I was really honoured as I don’t work with them and they’d somehow come across me and considered me a role model. I even have weekly meetings with one of them.) And I’m still not comfortable having to tell people what a great job I’m doing. It’s definitely something that she really helped with. (Even if it sounds like jargon, which I think it probably does to someone outside the industry – what I’m trying to get across is that I had put down some very objective and neutral feedback, and she found a way to say it in a more positive way, that would be seen as a better contribution.)
At the end of our meeting, she said to me that she realised that I had no direct female leadership or even any leadership in my specific area. (The complicated way our company works is that you’re aligned to multiple teams – one team based on what you do, and one team based on the industry you work in… The type of clients you have. I am basically the most senior person – not just female – in my specific area, which makes it kind of tricky to develop new business without going more technical or more into industry.) She saw that, and she offered to mentor me. It was all I could do not to bite her arm off!
So I was really pleased. I guess the thing is, I don’t focus all the time on being a woman, or being non-white (I promise I don’t!). But sometimes it takes someone more senior to say: I think you’re selling yourself short. You’re actually okay. I think you’re quite good.
It’s what I try and pass on to my mentees, a belief in themselves and a way to try and think of the positive things about themselves and how they can build on them. In business speak, how you can monetise yourself! I think as women *mass generalisation* and as ethnic minorities *mass generalisation* we often fall into those roles that stereotype us as submissive, or less able, or less hungry, or not one of the guys. (The last one is probably true.) And nobody’s asking us to be white or male, no matter how much we might pigeonhole ourselves. Sometimes we have to figure out a way to tell them our value – and sometimes (a lot of the time), that value is in not being a white guy.
My dad, the white guy, used to tell me that he always made sure he had women in his team. He was pretty senior in his industry before he retired, and he worked in a stereotypical white male environment. He didn’t want the women for their looks. (That would be bad!) He said he wanted them because they’d often be able to see things in a different way. He said he wanted to make sure he’d considered every angle and that the more diverse the team, the more different ways of thinking there were. This is from the guy who adopted two ethnic babies. But also the guy who won industry awards many years running for being the guy everyone wanted to work with.
So I say…
A February resolution:
- I’m going to blow my own trumpet more.
- I’m going to encourage others, especially my mentees, especially those who are not stereotypically into telling people how good they are, to blow theirs.
- And I’m going to take that leader up on her offer. Partly because every time I speak with her, I come away with a new insight. And partly because she’s really bloody nice and really bloody cool.
Call to action!
Tell me how awesome you are. I already know, but I want you to tell me.