Our work involves fighting for social justice - from gender equality and the eradication of modern slavery to better education and a more responsible policy implementation. We care about what we do and we do it professionally. We are considered experts in our respective fields. With six educational qualifications, over 20 years of experience, four professional jobs and two kids between us, you could say we're pretty well qualified. Despite all of this, we have been deeply disappointed in how we, as women, are treated in professional circles no matter what our age, experience or area of work. It's a truth universally known that if you're a women in the workplace, you're going to have to fight like hell to get anything done.
You will have seen the recent viral story about a man who swapped identities with his female colleague for a week. He noted how much less he was able to achieve in the same time due to the lack of respect or trust afforded to him when people thought he was a woman. You also might have seen how, just last week, the actual leaders of our country were reduced to being described by reference only their physical bodies. Of course, we recognise that this is a systemic issue and not unique to one specific employer. Having worked across the corporate, public and non-profit sectors, we have seen this play out, in different ways, in every single workspace we have ever been in. Yes - every single one.
In addition to this, we are also both British Asian women. Everything we experience as women intersects with our ethnic identities and backgrounds, compounding the discrimination further. This lack of representation impacts how seriously we are taken and, therefore, how much we can achieve in a day with a room full of predominantly white men. While parts the non-profit space is awake to many of these issues and actively trying to address them, we cannot say the same about the corporate world. Buzz words like "diversity" and "inclusion" are thrown about regularly, but the deep thought that is required to really address the gender bias, racisms and even classisms embedded within these institutions is missing.
In fact, we recently heard a story from an ex-colleague from our time in the corporate world. She shared how the whole department had recognised and democratically voted for change to the lack of any real diversity in the department. Great, right? But let's look at what action was then taken by those at the top. They decided to appoint the oldest, white male in the department as the head of diversity who, when asked what he was doing to address the issue and how others in the firm could assist, told them that this was a not something they should be wasting their time on as it wasn't that big a problem. Yes, you read that correctly - they basically ignored and, quite literally, whitewashed it! Of course, this is just one example but, in our experience, not uncommon. In fact, while ethnic minorities make up 12% of the working-age population, only 1 in 16 of FTSE 100 board members are from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background and a research report carried out in 2010 showed that 90% of BAME women believe they needed to leave their culture behind to move forward in the workplace.
At Shiva Foundation, where we work together to eradicate modern slavery from businesses and supply chains and equip local communities to support victims, we often see how this dynamic is also reflected in the level of respect accorded to our field of work. It is not just women who are seen as not worthy enough to be taken seriously but also the work we do. Social causes are seen as "fluffy, nice-to-haves" or sometimes even described solely as "women's causes", perhaps because the nonprofit workforce itself is dominated by women. By reducing complex, systemic and often disturbing socio-economic issues into these derogatory categories, women in the sector are stripped of their ability to make a meaningful, wide-scale impact in the same way that they could if they were male. Why are we putting up extra barriers where there should be none? Why are we telling women that their work is not a priority?
Working as women in the social impact sector, we get hit with the double whammy of losing respect because we're women and because we are fighting for something other than the bottom line of a business. In our work with some corporates, we are constantly faced with the view that fighting modern slavery comes second to making a profit. We have seen some of the best qualified experts (who also happen to be female) in our field, sidelined and ignored by their CEOs who want to be seen to be making a difference to an issue like modern slavery but are not really willing invest time or money in it. How can we do our work if the (predominantly male power holders) are not willing to invest any resources to it?
We feel strongly that unless we make a concerted effort to look for and correct this intersecting discrimination, we as a society will continue to lose out. Not only do women have a lot to offer in the workplace, many of them are dedicating their time to tackling important social problems - something that we must prioritise in these tumultuous times. So, let's ask ourselves: what are we losing by not affording women, and especially minority women, the same level of respect in their work we would to a man? Might the world actually be in a better position today if we started treating women in the workplace with the respect they deserve?