Entering the workforce or starting a new job is nerve-wracking enough as it is – picking the right outfit for your first day, meeting new people and trying to make a good impression in front of your bosses and colleagues. This is made even more stressful when you’re a woman of colour at risk of racism, sexism and discrimination.
A new report by the Runnymede Trust and the Fawcett Society has revealed that three-quarters of women of colour in the UK have experienced some form of racism at work and over 60 per cent change their use of language, hairstyle, clothes or diet in order to fit in.
From changing the pronunciation of our names to constantly code-switching and missing out on promotions while our white peers excel – I, and many other women of colour can sympathise with how hard it can be navigating majority-white workspaces.
Institutional racism refers to the ways in which racism resides in workforces, organisations and other influential institutions and how it is perpetuated through policies, processes and attitudes.
For example, a police officer stopping and searching a Black man without cause for suspicion, or a Muslim person having to undergo extra security checks at the airport for no good reason would both be instances of this type of racism.
Institutional racism also, arguably, plays a role in why many women of colour in the workplace are treated differently compared to white women.
The report, fittingly titled Broken Ladders, revealed that 25 per cent of participants had been subjected to racial slurs; over 50 per cent of Black women were likely to change their characteristics to fit in; and that 36 per cent of women from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds have been told they don’t have the right leadership qualities to be promoted.
These statistics should be shocking, but to me and my fellow women of colour in the workforce, they aren’t. I have friends who haven’t been promoted in over three years, have been told by bosses that their English is really good despite being born in the UK and been encouraged by their colleagues to drink alcohol despite their religious beliefs. From outright individual acts of discrimination to subtle yet pervasive micro-aggressions, it sometimes feels like a never-ending, uphill battle.
I know I code-switch constantly, would think twice about bringing ethnic food to the workplace and have simply settled with various mispronunciations of my name.
As a society, we’ve been able to have conversations about sexism in the workplace and have progressed to make things more inclusive and balanced for women, but the particular difficulties women of colour face have often been left out of the conversation.
The impact workplace discrimination can have on the mental health of women of colour is clear. On average, 76 per cent of participants said experiences of racism in the workplace negatively impacted their mental health, wellbeing, confirmed at work, job satisfaction and desire to stay in a role. For some, they even moved to self-employment in order to escape this and have more flexibility for other commitments.
But, what can be done to change this? For me, I think it’s education and support.
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When people are well-versed in what institutional racism looks like and how it manifests itself, they can help in making change in a workplace. There’s things we can all do – for example, if you see that your female colleagues of colour are burnt out, being ignored for progression opportunities or are being subjected to racism or micro-aggressions, lend a hand of support to them and try to call out the behaviour.
This starts from the very beginning of the application process, as the report suggested. Workplaces should commit themselves to reducing bias in recruitment and making hiring processes more transparent and inclusive. Then, when women of colour do enter your workforce, make sure they are recognised as candidates for progression and address racial bias in your workplace in order to make sure no one is subjected to discrimination.
It’s also and always important to be intersectional in our outlook when it comes to sexism – while all women may be at risk of experiencing sexist discrimination at work, women of colour also have the added battle of racism to fight which can be very taxing.
At a governmental level, transparent reporting on the ethnicity pay gap needs to become a requirement and increased funding for organisations that are committed to making workplaces more inclusive is needed.
All women should be made to feel that they belong in the workforce, and by taking small steps to making sure our workplaces are more inclusive to women of colour, we can make sure that happens.