Last month I chaired CheekyLittleCareers’ first ever diversity event, alongside our founder Sanu Miah plus guest panellists Phil Sanderson and Eshan Haque, to debate the hugely complex and thorny subject of ‘fitting in’ at work. As could’ve easily been predicted given the recent news headlines, all four of us together with the audience were unanimous in denouncing any form of prejudice and / or bias in the workplace and agreed we must all speak out against it.
We also quickly reached a consensus that BAME individuals, particularly Muslim females, and those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds face many more career-related obstacles than their white middle-class peers. And though City employers are making steady progress in attracting applicants from more diverse backgrounds many fall short in taking appropriate steps to support and nurture such individuals to flourish. As a consequence, far too many graduates from non-privileged backgrounds lag behind their contemporaries or simply drop out prematurely.
However, the panellists also encouraged the audience to recognise and acknowledge that diversity and inclusion (D&I) aren’t exclusively issues for employers to tackle and that perhaps it’s now also time for certain BAME individuals to stop playing the blame game and start taking a closer look at themselves.
As controversial as this may sound, I’m sure many of you will know or have come across BAME professionals who wander around with chips on their shoulders, regularly lashing out against white privilege and quickly blaming their skin colour, religion or indeed accents for not getting that job or promotion. What’s more, you may have also heard some raise objections, including: “I won’t fit in”; “I’ll feel awkward”; or “I’ll be judged if I don’t drink alcohol”.
But what if we adopted a different stance or alternative interpretations for the above? For instance, did the individuals miss out on the jobs or promotions because they were up against candidates with more experience? Meanwhile, with regard to objections, might they simply be making incorrect assumptions about individuals who have different backgrounds to them, and therefore just as culpable as the people they’re holding accountable for being biased?
Harbouring unhealthy and / irrational beliefs about others (e.g. believing the world is against you or untrustworthy etc) or about yourself (e.g. I won’t fit in or I’m not good enough) are unhelpful and can really hold you back from reaching your full potential. And worse still, if left unchecked can turn into harmful habits that can eventually turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Personally, as an Asian female, who also happens to be a wheelchair user, I’ve been guilty of all the above. Historically, my natural default position was fortune telling by predicting negative outcomes and automatically disqualifying the positives for any novel situation or encounters with people outside my network.
For example, when I first started my career as a City lawyer I regularly jumped to conclusions (often incorrect ones) about how my private-school and Oxbridge educated colleagues and clients alike might feel awkward around me and put pressure on myself to conform or ‘fit in’ at work. Indeed, it got so bad I started feeling lost about my true identity and often felt my racial and socio-economic background was at odds with what was ‘normal’ in the Square Mile.
Indeed, it wasn’t until relatively recently and after attending an executive coaching course that I finally started to look at ‘fit’ differently. I stopped obsessing about what others might think of me and started to feel comfortable in my own skin. Embracing and celebrating my Asian heritage (FYI I’m listening to my Bollywood playlist as I write this), Lutonian roots and not giving a F%CK about my disability made me a much stronger, interesting and memorable person. Authenticity, though very rarely highlighted to me during my formative years and not an area covered in any academic course, I soon realised is one of the most important life skills. After all, who has ever properly warmed to a fake person?
I also started focussing on a number of other life and business skills such as communication and building relationships with others, took more of an interest in current affairs (that meant I’d always have something interesting to talk about when attending networking events) and bolstered my self-awareness. The latter has also played a significant role in my personal and professional development because as soon as I became more familiar with my flaws the penny finally dropped. I wasn’t as good as I thought, and it was nobody else’s fault but my own! It wasn’t until I reached that juncture that I fully appreciated the importance of self-improvement and though it was a bitter pill to swallow my upbringing meant that despite having a stellar academic record I lagged behind my private school-educated contemporaries in areas such as people skills.
Yes the world may be against people like you and I but if you start by focussing on areas that are within your control you may be pleasantly surprised by how much progress you make on your own accord. And as I’ve learnt you this can be achieved without compromising your unique qualities.