By Sima Akter, SBM Alumni, qmbreakthrough AT gmail.com
Discussions into ethnicity, personal experiences of the BreakThrough team and empowering Bengali women to use ethnicity as a strength in corporate environments.
Ethnicity: a complex yet simple word. Is ethnicity simply based on the colour of your skin? Or is it an all encompassing body of several complex factors? Or perhaps it’s based on language and culture? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Bengali woman in a corporate setting?
Often throughout life we face many challenges. The first challenge is due to the colour of our skin, I mean let’s face it, people of colour face the prejudice that just is not experienced by White people. Instead, we have several self-fulfilling prophecies that seem to be battling us at every corner. Being Bengali in today’s society is much different than it was for our parents. Whilst they may have experienced a much more harsh form of racism which was very open and explicit, we face the opposite. Instead, we battle with a form of racism which is very sly and sneaky in nature and destroys us from within thus making it difficult to battle and control. Aversive and modern racism breaks us down from a different platform – employment, education and opportunities. It is very clear that racism still exists, and that it affects us in implicit ways. Take employability for instance; whilst many companies advocate diversity and inclusion, the reality reflects a much more different state. Whilst there has been an increase in people of colour holding higher positions, there hasn’t been as much change as there should be. People of colour are still struggling and are forced to fight much harder than the average White person to attain higher work positions.
This leads us to the next challenge, being a Bengali woman. Whilst there is an increase in the number of women holding higher positions, the statistics of women of colour, let alone Bengali women of colour, holding high positions is not clear. Thus, again we are constantly battling society to earn ourselves a place in the spotlight. According to the DLHE 2015-2017 survey results for our department, Bengali women do the worst in attaining graduate level work. Hence, this shows us a very critical problem. Although this problem can be partially attributed towards factors such as discrimination and lack of opportunities for Bengali women, the focus of today’s blog is to use our ethnicity as a strength regardless of the difficulties and challenges we face.
Growing up in the UK and specifically London, we must say that we are very lucky to have experienced diversity and inclusion regardless of its faults. Having access to free education has meant that we have been able to educate ourselves in complex issues, not just regarding race relations but also worldly topics such as learning about different cultures, poverty and crime. Growing up in London has also meant that we have been surrounded by different types of people from all walks of life and this has served to make our cultural awareness much better and bigger.
However we must say that here at BreakThrough us girls have often faced many difficulties due to our ethnicity. Whenever we have gone to corporate events such as networking events we have often noticed we are the only Bengali women present or that these corporate events aren’t as inclusive as they make it out to seem. Often at interviews, we also usually are the first to notice that we are the only Bengali women out of all the candidates – who are mostly White males. This has often led to us becoming withdrawn and quiet, hence not allowing us to represent ourselves in the best light possible. All of the girls on the BreakThrough team are bubbly, outgoing and full of personality however at these events this often fails to show. We have learnt however, through doing this project and other experiences, that regardless of how many women of colour are present at corporate events we must make it our own personal mission to showcase the best of ourselves and be who we are. Whilst this may sound very cliche – the best way to battle the views that suggest women of colour dont have the skills to succeed is by being yourself and doing the best that you possibly can. All the girls on the BreakThrough team have learned over time that we must use every opportunity possible to the best of our ability and this is the only way that we can achieve success. Whilst there may be difficult obstacles that are outside of our control such as dealing with racism or implicit discriminatory organisational practises, the best option is to work to your full ability so that at least you can say that you have done your very best and that whatever happens next was outside of your control.
A personal example where I used my difference as a strength was when I was doing an interview with a Dutch banking and financial services corporation. At this point, I had already learned a lot about myself and was very comfortable with who I am and using my ethnic background as a strength. At the end of the interview I was given the opportunity to ask my interviewer (a white man) any questions. So I asked: “as you can see I am from an ethnic minority background and therefore diversity is very important to me. What is the diversity policy like at your bank and how much do your organization practice it?” This question actually made my interviewer very uncomfortable and took him off guard – oh how great it was to see the tables turn (I actually took pleasure in seeing the look on his face). Although he was a man originally from Portugal, his response was that he didn’t really notice the diversity composition of his workplace – I’m guessing this is because he hasn’t faced any prejudice based on his skin colour in comparison to how we would face it, even though he wasn’t British. Ultimately, his response showed me all that I needed to know. Clearly the bank aren’t practising what they preach – even though they were working with a charity focused on helping students from ethnic minority backgrounds enter professional work. The fact that “he didn’t notice” suggested to me that perhaps diversity policies just weren’t that important and that race is not taken seriously. Oh, and I should also mention that there was a second interviewer who was a white British man, and he did say one word on the issue which I found equally amusing and hilarious. I did get into the next phase though which was great and I’m still contemplating whether this was down to my mind blowing question – and so far I believe it did give me an edge. Hence, the moral of this story was that I entered that interview feeling strong about who I am, what I want and how I want to achieve it. I entered that interview accepting that I am a ethnic minority and using that status to help me get what I want, and instead of letting myself feel like I was out of place, I gave myself a pep talk about how I am worthy of the position, that I am skilled and that I am proud to be a Bengali woman who is just trying to make it in the big bad world. With this confidence in my identity and all the aspects it covers – race, religion, my personality – it enabled me to control the situation and use it as I willed.
Thus, we will conclude this blog with saying that ethnicity is a strength and regardless of the difficulties faced due to lack of opportunities or discrimination, you should use your difference as a strength! Instead of you feeling uncomfortable at events where there is a lack of diversity, make them feel uncomfortable from seeing your confidence, humour and all round astonishing power!