Embracing unconventional choices

South Asian women have broken the glass ceiling by entering industries and successfully innovating in them to make a mark beyond conventional career choices. We decode.

Shefali Saxena Tuesday 07th March 2023 12:00 EST

If you ever run a cursory search on Google with the term ‘women’, the results that show up are mostly about advocacy, activation, remedies, policies, protests, and some or the other issue against women being tackled by the web. While these changes are promising and reflect that there’s work being done to support women, it also uncovers the 21st century, women have come a long way. The amount of progress women have made across the globe is remarkable. Not only do we have South Asian women breaking the glass ceiling by choosing non-conformist career options, but also excelling in them, many of which have become entrepreneurs, and not in the conventional industries. South Asian women have ticked a long bucket list of imaginative and innovative career options that were formerly never even heard of. Society has truly gone beyond the lens of doctors and engineers and in traditional terms, being housewives - which is also a full-time job. 

The UK has cemented itself as a world leader in women’s representation on top company boards, with new data released revealing that 40.2% of FTSE 350 Board positions are now held by women. The findings come as part of the latest report by the government-backed FTSE Women Leaders Review, sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group and KPMG, which was launched today in Canary Wharf. The report tracks the progress being made in breaking down barriers to the progression of talented women into directorships and senior executive roles across the business.


These findings demonstrate steady progress in getting women leaders to the top table of business in the UK, with women’s board representation increasing by nearly 3% in 2022 across the FTSE 350 (40.2%). FTSE 350 Leadership positions below the board for women are now at 33.5% and at 34.3% for 50 of the UK’s largest private companies, published for the first time this year.


Women now hold a third of all Leadership roles in FTSE 350 Companies too, a huge milestone that shows the continuing progress that is ongoing throughout businesses. The next critical goal for the business is to achieve a target of 40% women in FTSE 350 Leadership teams before 2025 - which the UK business is on track to meet.


Business and Trade Secretary and Women and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch said, “I’m pleased to see that FTSE 350 companies have surpassed this target, showing that change doesn’t always require top-down interventions but can occur when everyone is pushing in the same direction. This progress is very welcome, and I’d urge businesses to keep up this momentum to achieve a better balance in leadership positions as well as in boardrooms.”


Just over a decade ago, 152 of the FTSE 350 Boards had no women on them at all - this is truly a thing of the past now, with the presence of women on every board of the FTSE 350 and the vast majority of the 350 companies now having 3 or more women on their board.


With businesses hitting the 40% target for Women on Boards well ahead of schedule, it is clear that the momentum is on their side and a sea change is still coming.


Results secure the UK in second place when compared internationally to other countries driving for more women on top public listed boards. This is especially notable, as the scope of the UK achievement is across 350 publicly listed companies, and progress has been achieved on an entirely voluntary basis, rather than by a mandatory quota system that is enforced on businesses in many countries.


The UK’s unique business-led approach has paid dividends, with companies stepping forward to report their numbers, with high levels of success.

Nimesh Patel and Penny James, Co-Chairs, FTSE Women Leaders Review, said, “Achieving 40 per cent representation for Women on Boards is a defining moment and is a testament to the power of the voluntary approach and the collective efforts of many businesses and individuals over the last decade. By extending the Review to include for the first time 50 of the largest UK private companies, our work now tracks the progress of women in 30,000 leadership roles across all of the big British businesses.”

On International Women’s Day 2023 as Asian Voice gears up to host ‘Embracing Equity’ - Women In Conversation (See P14-17 for more details), we spoke to women from all walks of life, in order to understand how they’ve broken the glass ceiling and worked towards embracing equity, the newsweekly reached out to South Asian women who have chosen non-conformist (unconventional) career options which weren’t the classic options for women in the south Asian societies a decade ago. These women hail from sports, entrepreneurship, and celebrity management and are also working towards inclusivity in Britain. 

First British Pakistani powerlifter

Dr Amna Khan is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. While not strictly her career, Amna is British Champion Powerlifter 2022 – the first British Pakistani to achieve this. Amna was good at sports growing up, but her parents wanted her to focus on education it was the safer option for an immigrant family. She was a great swimmer but as a Muslim female, the costume requirement did not align with her religious beliefs.

Later in life, after a car accident and having her first child, Amna decided to take up strength sport, which is considered a predominantly male sport and certainly not for Pakistani Muslim women due to stereotypes within the community and in the wider dominant culture. Despite battles with long Covid and a knee injury, Amna was crowned British Champion in June, having only ever competed in two competitions. She’s a true believer that every woman, girl, minority ethnic and every practising faith can be a champion in whatever they set out to do. Aside from her sporting achievements, Amna is an international keynote speaker, leading consumer behaviour media expert, academic researcher, and published author – a woman of many talents!

Speaking to Asian Voice about choosing an unconventional career, Amna said, “Asian women are underrepresented in sports and more so within strength sports like powerlifting. Although it is great to see many Asian females now engaging in fitness and going to the gym, very few of them lift heavy weights! Strength sport has always been viewed as a male sport I wanted to challenge the narrative. Not only for females but also for Asian women, we need more role models and representation. I also wanted to challenge the myth that lifting makes you bulky and manly, I found that it defined my physique and made me much more feminine, enhancing my curves. I wanted to pave the way for all women from every ethnicity that it is possible to dream big and achieve their dreams. I am British Champion Powerlifter 2022, a woman in her forties with two children – a working mum! I hope that my unconventional journey inspires a generation of women to take up the sport, or whatever they are passionate about and dream to achieve – anything is possible!”



Female-centric careers & inclusion platform

Sonya Barlow, Award Winning Entrepreneur, Author & BBC Radio Host, and Founder of LMF Network, a Female-Centric Careers & Inclusion Platform, told the newsweekly, “As a young girl, I wanted to work in media or entertainment, present or be on TV, but was often reminded that good brown girls don't go on the TV and so took a path down business instead. As a graduate, I worked in the tech industry where I was one of 3 South Asian women across a team of 300 people. I had to educate my family about the world of tech as it meant late nights, long hours and travelling across Europe staying in hotels (unmarried young women, oh no). Eventually, I became frustrated, feeling tired of the loneliness and microaggressions.  That’s how LMF Network started in 2018, as a brunch initiative to have career and confidence conversations with women from different backgrounds. However, I realised many minority professionals, were experiencing similar situations. In 2020, I took the leap to make LMF Network into a business to help the careers of diverse talent and risk it all - which turned out to be true because a few months later, the pandemic started, and I lost 75% of my income. 

“It was hard, and I often questioned my decision, but it was the best I’ve ever made. In the last three years, through LMF Network, I have upskilled more than 20,000 people through mentoring programmes, skills workshops and community connections. I became a published author and presenter of the award-winning show The Everyday Hustle on BBC Asian Network. I've won many awards and am a verified blue tick across all platforms. I have also been recognised as an influencer, advocate and leader. Though it may not seem it directly but working in the media, managing many hats and being a public figure versus a professional in the corporate space, is unconventional. And being a brown woman with a voice, platform and power is still unconventional despite it being 2023. Knowing that the work I am doing impacts the careers and confidence of thousands of people is what keeps my passion for equality, advocacy and diversity alive.”


Celebrity Manager


Mayah is a Celebrity Manager. She is also dubbed as PR-to-the-Stars. Mayah is from a Pakistani background and not only does she have a non-usual career in general but for someone from a South Asian background. “I have yet to meet another South Asian woman in celebrity management. I’m not saying there isn’t, but I’ve not met one. That’s one of the reasons I think what I do is unconventional within our culture,” she told Asian Voice. 

She further said, “Another reason is that it can be 24/7, including being woken at 4 am with breaking news. But mainly, it can seem if you’re working with celebrities, it’s seen as being “wishy-washy” and “‘not real work” because people don’t really understand what it is that I do. Not forgetting that you don’t need a degree for this career choice!  I’m quite ambitious, so I naturally want to do well in my career. However, this career wasn’t promised to me as I went to university to do primary teaching. So, knowing I could be doing a job I wouldn’t enjoy definitely keeps me going. If I’m having a bad day, I know that no two days are ever the same. So, I’ll keep pushing through those tough days.  For me, I realised hard work can have a huge impact on the direction of my work/career. I’m not afraid of hard work. Because I know it will lead me further than where I am today. That’s a huge motivator!”


Building inclusive cultures


Advita Patel Co-Founder - CommsRebel told us, “I never intended to work in communications. However, I struggled to find work the year I graduated in IT, so I worked in an admin role. This role changed my life as it opened up the world of marketing and communications – an industry where you don’t see many faces like mine – but I absolutely loved it. However, after 17 years of working in corporate roles, I felt I had a greater purpose, so I set up a communications consultancy called CommsRebel to help organisations build inclusive cultures so people can thrive in their roles. It was an unconventional move for someone like me. I went from a well-paid, secure role to starting a business with no real idea of how to run one. I gave myself six months to succeed. However, who knew three months after I launched the business the pandemic would arrive? But I didn’t let this stop me. I knew my passion in life was to help people thrive, which kept me going. I started a second business, became a confidence coach, co-hosted an award-winning podcast, wrote a book and spoke internationally. This year I launched an app, and I have my second conference, where I bring people together who think differently about the world of work. Despite the adversities you may face, never let anyone dim your light or tell you something isn’t possible!”

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