-Priyanka Mehta and Shefali Saxena Tuesday 02nd March 2021 16:24 EST

Women are choosing to challenge the status quo. Be it upending structural ranks in boardrooms or fighting Twitter trolls, and correcting legal institutions. 

Suppressed. Overruled. Dictated and unceremoniously dominated. Traditionally, women particularly those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have been inveigled into neat little ethnicity and gender tick-boxes at most organisations. But there are those who are choosing to challenge the status quo, holding institutions accountable for their flawed and misplaced narrative of justice and upending structural ranks to ensure more empathetic leadership is in charge.

There is plenty of female led success stories to celebrate this International Women’s Day. Be it the appointment of Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) first female and first African leader. Or KPMG UK appointing their first female chairwoman in Bina Mehta after 150 years. Or Nikhil Rathi announcing five new appointments at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) where there are now seven women and four men on the executive committee. While women may have succeeded to create and affirm their positions despite a pandemic, the question, remains why are they crawling their way to the top and in that journey what are the challenges or issues that continue to remain unaddressed?

Speaking about the challenges that female employees often face at workplaces, Bina Mehta, Chair of KPMG UK said, “Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on all sets of challenges that women face: home-schooling, caring for elderly, looking after family besides meeting professional deadlines. These are just the tip of the iceberg. How do you as a leader inspire, encourage and support these women in their journeys? Most of the challenges that female employees feel they face, are centred around the feeling of being valued, being given equal opportunities for progression and knowing that they are supported in those opportunities across structural ranks and by the leadership.”

50% increase in women in executive positions in boardrooms

According to the government-backed Hampton-Alexander review, the number of female directors at FTSE-100 firms has increased by 50% in the last five years. The same review also notes that women now hold more than a third of roles in the boardrooms of the UK’s top 350 companies.

Welcoming the report, she further added, “This report shows that momentum for progress has been created. But the report also recognises that there are structural and cultural barriers that may exist for women and for all the under-represented groups. We need to assure that all our efforts address those barriers and create an inclusive culture”.

The seeds of the International Women’s Day were planted in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through the New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. Later Clara Zetkin suggested the idea to celebrate an International Women’s Day in 1910 at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen and was officially celebrated by the United Nations in 1975. The first theme adopted by the UN in 1996 was "Celebrating the past, Planning for the Future". This year’s theme is ‘Choose To Challenge’ with the idea that a challenged world is an alert world and individually, everyone is responsible for their own thoughts and actions. But the question remains how do you challenge racial abuse on social media or de-sensitise yourself from the Twitter trolls especially when identity politics is often a focal point of decision-making?

“While there is still work to be done nationally in terms of representation, this isn’t 1970. I’m not trying to break through the glass ceiling in an organisation that functions like an old-boys’ club. That’s not to say we don’t have our own “era-specific” challenges. With MeToo, BLM and Covid, this feels like a defining and too-often polarising period in history. Having a national platform as a BME woman, and a voice to speak out publicly is a great privilege and a duty I take very seriously. Sadly, it also means I receive quite horrendous abuse and threats, whether by telephone, email or on social media. The very worst focus on my gender, race and disability. That says a lot about the progress we still need to make as a society,” said Dr Halima Begum Chief Executive of The Runnymede Trust.

Finding the mute button on social media

For long social media and some pockets of media as well have become echo chambers of vilification, slander and horrific abuse particularly targeted towards women leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds. Recently, in a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Duke of Sussex spoke about his concern around history “repeating itself” as he recalled his mother Princess Diana’s untimely demise while being pursued by paparazzi in Paris. He worried the similar could have happened to the Duchess of Sussex as they complained about the British tabloids’ treatment of Meghan Markle. While the senior royal couples may have stepped back from their roles owing to pressures of a “hounding” media, there are those determined to keep their head down, mute those tweets and try and make a difference to their community.        

“I have had instances of receiving death threats, racially charged or misogynistic abuse. And it is quite shocking to go through that as a new politician. But the best advise that I had been given was to discover the mute button on social media.

“I would advise all female politicians to do that because most often they may not even be real people and often enough they are not your constituents. It is rather imperative that we focus on our day job of dealing with the concerns of our constituents and follow through with the processes of government,” said Claire Coutinho Conservative MP for East Surrey and Parliamentary Private Secretary to HM Treasury.

Breaking down the barriers

But how do you remove sexism and bias in recruitment and from workplaces?

“Take away the barriers. Society’s expectations of women are so much narrower than for men – and that has to change. The NHS is the largest employer of women in Europe. A million women deliver effectively and successfully every day across more than 350 diverse roles: as nurses, medics, scientists, chief executives, managers, national directors, leaders of local healthcare systems, chairs of boards, finance directors, and many more.

“The NHS is committed to becoming the best employer for women in the world. To do that, I want government and community support to create a workplace designed by women for women, inclusive of everyone, with more women and women of colour in senior, decision-making roles. Then we will truly be the best place to work,” said Prerana Issar first NHS Chief People Officer.





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