As we celebrate Race Equality Week, Dr Gilu George reflects on her experiences, her career and the advantages of embedding inclusivity into organisational values and culture.
Perceptions of leadership qualities are changing. The era of leading with authority, stubbornness and control is giving way to a preference for leading with authenticity, empathy and inclusion. This is a move in the right direction, but what is the reality of this?
There is much to be done to break down the invisible barriers that women, and in particular ethnic minority women, face in the workplace. Jasmine Babers observed that where women face ‘glass ceilings’ at their workplaces, ethnic minority women face ‘concrete ceilings’¹ and this is sadly the experience many have faced.
Where women face ‘glass ceilings’ at their workplaces, ethnic minority women face ‘concrete ceilings’.
Being a woman of colour is often reported as a ‘double burden’. An ethnic minority woman’s journey to leadership is lonelier, it is very opaque, with more obstacles, and is a steeper path. Why is it they come across fewer opportunities and more challenges? Look around workplaces – where are the women in senior positions and where are the women of colour?
Look around workplaces – where are the women in senior positions and where are the women of colour?
The answer is an uncomfortable reality!
My perspectives come from having a very unusual career journey, including moving to a different country and navigating a series of leaps, detours, redirections, and unusual paths.
As a scientist by training who moved into the leadership space, my experience is that it's not ethnic minority womens’ lack of ability, credentials, skills, experience, or ambition that prevents them from progression to senior leadership positions. A person’s authenticity, assertiveness, and confidence will be perceived differently depending on the viewer’s lens, and that lens will be a manifestation of their own cultural background.
As an ethnic minority woman who values authenticity, I am not prepared to give up my identity to ‘fit in’ or pretend to be someone else so that I blend into the organisational culture or to the existing leader prototypes. Neither do I wish to be considered for a career progression because of ‘ticking the ethnicity box’ rather than my merit.
During my career, I’ve had meaningful conversations with other ethnic minority women in many organisations, and common themes emerged as contributing to the ‘concrete ceiling’. Lack of senior sponsorship, lack of role models at senior levels to help them navigate biases, less access to influential informal networks and lack of career advice and guidance.
Lack of senior sponsorship, lack of role models at senior levels to help them navigate biases, less access to influential informal networks and lack of career advice and guidance all make it difficult to gain the support and required visibility necessary for career development within an organisation.
All make it difficult to gain the support and required visibility necessary for career development within an organisation. In addition, there are other factors at play, such as a perception that they are easier to sideline or overlook, and the unconscious bias in decision-makers who ultimately determine who progresses.
When tackling these issues, great progress can be made by promoting the diverse skills and other advantages inclusivity can bring and embedding them in the organisational values and culture. It is time for senior leaders who can influence change to not only put into place good practices but also be courageous enough to step up and sponsor the advancement of underrepresented women.
It is time for senior leaders who can influence change to not only put into place good practices but also be courageous enough to step up and sponsor the advancement of underrepresented women.
We need more leaders with a genuine interest in supporting their people, the work they do and a willingness to stand up for them. The opportunities for improvement are multiple – as individuals, as organisations and as a community.
¹ Jasmine Babers 2016 article - https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/for-women-of-color-the-glass-ceiling-is-actually-made-of-concrete/. Management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase ‘Glass Ceiling’ in 1978.
Dr Gilu George, Director of the Associate Network at Cranfield Executive Development and a member of the Changing World of Work and Sustainability Thought Leadership groups at Cranfield School of Management. Gilu is a Chartered Manager, holds a Recognised Teacher Status and is the joint chair of the staff network EmbRace - the voice of Cranfield's Ethnic Minority Community and is a member of SOM Athena Swan Champions group. She is an approved STEM Ambassador, an Associate of the Higher Education Academy and a member of the Chartered Management Institute.