Welcome to the final part of this series. I started by contextualising the changing landscape of ethnic minority groups, in particular, the Fiji & Pacific Island diaspora in the UK with the emphasis on an obscure fact that we are a 'minority within a minority'. And then I moved into the challenges faced in terms of career development for people from a BAME background as careers play an integral part in settling in the UK, and how unconscious bias contributes to this issue.
In this post, I will focus on women from a BAME background in the workplace. The exceptional circumstances surrounding careers and workplace issues for minority ethnic women. The narrative remains unchanged; the structural barriers still exist. But perhaps, it is time for a new narrative with this newfound knowledge to become part of the solution.
Some of the research reviewed here looks at BAME women in professional work and low or entry—level paying jobs. The overwhelming research regarding BAME people and women in the workplace only paints half a picture. In fact, following further analysis, I discovered that the research primarily covered experiences of mainly white women in the workplace. And when referring to BAME individuals, it was predominantly about BAME men, and their experiences at work. I wondered why and I discovered that it’s complicated as there are intersecting systems of oppression across their multiple identities that compound one another. In simple terms, intersectionality (or intersecting systems) refers to the various factors pertaining to BAME women’s identities such as (to name a few) social class, nationality, migration status, and faith which are unique yet overlooked. Therefore, the research shows there are a lack of BAME women’s experiences, which hinders our understanding of the full complexities and dimensions of the whole narrative.
A good example to illustrate this point would be regarding the wellbeing of BAME women. According to the research, BAME women at work are more likely to face burnout and stress when it comes to balancing work and life at the detriment of their own wellbeing. Issues of discrimination in accessing employment, e.g. managerial and executive roles in addition to childcare responsibilities expound this work life balance. If you add, financial constraints around immigration, housing, education and training, the work life balance act is merely an act. These underlying issues are real for minority ethnic women, but it is far removed from the workplace. And yes, it affects their wellbeing and health, and it is not that they don’t care, its more the case they have a lot on their plate and where does one even begin?
There is a particular nuance that might be useful to bring in here, and that is the ‘bring your whole self to work’ concept. It is common sense, as there is only one self to present. However, for BAME women, they bring their professional work self (or identity) to the workplace and switch between identities at work and home as necessary. This meant that BAME women have a tendency towards a divided approach in reconciling their identities when transitioning from home to the workplace and back home again. It is a tiring process! And this is mainly because fitting in can be tricky when the workplace is largely made up of 'organisations' rooted in white British (prototyped) culture.'
How faith is portrayed at work was an interesting dilemma that was captured in the research. There is the fear of judgment at work, comments such as 'you can’t do that because you are a Christian' implies a certain etiquette and behaviour expected of women of faith, as though they were ambassadors for the entire religion or faith. So this makes it difficult to be real about their faith without drawing attention to themselves or 'bringing your whole self' to work. It must be said that women of faith are invaluable as their motivations are driven by their spiritual beliefs, therefore they are non-confrontational and possess humility with a genuine willingness to learn and contribute at work. And often, they are drawn to organisations' whose values reflect theirs. But these negative comments shouldn't be disheartening to women of faith because there will always be a tendency to look for ways to define you, and I'd like to add, regardless of your race, colour or creed. Its unconscious biases that affect everyone. And yes, there are some cases where some BAME women have leveraged the use of a British accent to gain recognition and reinforce their identity as a British national. And of course, to avoid being defined or judged (even). A participant shares her own experience:
It is a clever approach yet a strange observation. In a way, I can relate and have to some extent experienced this situation. I don’t have a British accent but I have received comments about my fluent Queen’s English spoken at work. It definitely helped me to transition into the role and workplace. However, for those who do not have British accents, or English is not their first language and are not British born citizens, this situation can present another layer to the complex issue.Written and spoken English are completely different challenges in itself.
I would assume that this group of BAME women with non-British accents and English is not their first language would fall into the category of casual workers or low/entry level paying jobs. The research shows that casual or insecure work is defined by possessing little control over working hours which affects access to financial resources, their route to British citizenship status or ability to secure mortgages, etc. Varying or inconsistent working hours impacts family life and their social life, which increases anxiety and stress. In addition, lack of basic rights at work, i.e. right to sick pay, right to paid leave and protection from unfair dismissal, all shape the experiences of BAME women in casual work. They remain vulnerable and prone to suffer from health and wellbeing issues as a result.
In addition to dealing with the structural barriers, women from BAME backgrounds in either secure employment professions or insecure work, they are characterised as being either overly passive (laid back) or lacking confidence (visibility) or excessively assertive and confrontational. These characteristics don't paint a true picture, and finding the right balance between the two extremes is where the challenge lies. Otherwise, stereotypes potentially impact their suitability and readiness for career transitions or progression.
I am not surprised to discover that the research also demonstrates the rapid growth in self-employment for BAME groups, as it’s a route that has offered freedom from the barriers faced in the labor market. For BAME women, they are unable to find stable and suitable employment and have had to turn to self-employment for the sake of their wellbeing and at the expense of giving up employee job security. This is a bold and courageous move but one that is becoming more appealing as there is growing support for start-ups and the BAME community have no lack of creative natural talent.
It’s a lot to unpack but that’s because women from a BAME background haven’t had the time and space to address these issues either collectively or individually. This is why some women have found value in mentoring and coaching interventions to help them navigate between the workplace, career progression and their intersectionality identities.
To briefly share the use of coaching in this context, systemic coaching comes to mind which is gaining ground in the workplace. It is a coaching technique that explores the influences of relationships that we have within our families, communities and workplaces and the impact it has on our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. In order to be effective at work, this coaching technique looks at the whole system in order to understand the individual in a workplace context rather than in one particular setting i.e at work.
We know that an effective learning environment is an enabling one. The same can be said about the work environment. We have established from the research above, that bringing our self to work means we are more successful when we are fully present, capable and committed to the role. And we acknowledge that the system around us dictates our state, sometimes this enabling work environment is not conducive. But through systemic coaching, it demonstrates the need for a whole system change, at both organisational and individual level. In essence, systemic coaching is about creating a greater sense of self awareness (including empathy) that removes cynicism and mistrust in the work place as it considers the whole self and systems of relationships that influences behaviour. (Wilson, 2009:60) Behaviour needs to change; embedding HR policies and systems is not sufficient. Behavioural change that creates an organisational culture that is inclusive and allows for a diverse workforce to bring their whole selves to work is the ideal or change we want to see. But coaching is only one of many interventions necessary for sustainable change.
This series has certainly enlightened my coaching career for sure. I embarked on this investigative journey to educate and empower women from my minority ethnic community, including myself. I felt it was imperative to share the research to increase awareness on a topic that is real and relevant today. I credit the researchers for their passion to the cause. It’s a useful starting point. In terms of career progression or unlocking potential, being equipped with specific knowledge around barriers that BAME women face on the work front is a useful piece of the puzzle and presents a strong case for change.
We have gained more understanding than before, and it is my hope that it will inspire change, boldness and intentional steps to work together to overcome those barriers. I truly believe that everyone has a unique story yet there is a golden thread that runs through which connects us all through our hopes and dreams, choices and experiences. Not forgetting that there is power in collective action and individual courage to be the change.
I hope you enjoyed reading this Case Study Series as much I enjoyed bringing it to you.Tell me what your thoughts or experiences are in the workplace here in the UK. You can share it here or email me directly.
Thank you for reading.
Opara V, Sealy R, Ryan MK. (2020). The workplace experiences of BAME professional women: Understanding experiences at the intersection. Gender Work Organ. p1192–1213.
Wilson, C. (2009) ‘Tools of the Trade’, Training Journal, pp. 59–60.