Women from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities do not get a level playing field when it comes to leadership roles in NHS trusts – and this needs to be changed. By Unnati Patel
Boardroom diversity has been associated with strategic advantages as measured by both financial and organisational performance indices. Yet despite these benefits, men, and in particular white men, still dominate the upper echelons of both private and public sector organisations.
As an ethnic minority woman it is likely that as a result of both my gender and ethnicity, I may be less likely to attain a senior leadership position
Data supplied by NHS trusts has revealed that 47 percent of executive director positions are held by women and only 4 percent by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities. This begs the question of why these social groups are underrepresented at senior levels.
As an ethnic minority woman it is likely that as a result of both my gender and ethnicity, I may be less likely to attain a senior leadership position; this led me to focus my MBA dissertation on exploring the barriers that women, like me, may encounter in our career progression.
Through reviewing existing literature and ascertaining the personal views and experiences of 12 BAME women working as healthcare professionals, some key themes emerged.
Due to the scarcity of BAME women in leadership roles, decision makers have no frame of reference for evaluating BAME women in such positions, thus stereotypes may be relied upon instead. While these can allow decision makers to make quick, subconscious judgements, they can also give rise to prejudices and discrimination.
Commonly held stereotypes about Asian women include: being quiet, family orientated, submissive, intelligent and lacking in social skills. In contrast stereotypes about Black women suggest they are perceived as being loud, confident, assertive, aggressive and unintelligent.
For Asian women, not only must they contend with such stereotypes, but they must also meet cultural expectations. In Asian households where patriarchy exists, the expectation for Asian women to be respectful and allow men to be decision makers and breadwinners, can give rise to a lack of traits associated with leadership such as assertiveness, drive and confidence.
In organisations decision makers may, therefore, hold a negative view of an Asian woman’s potential suitability for leadership roles. Furthermore, where an Asian woman does display such traits, she risks a backlash from her community for violating cultural expectations.
Due to the scarcity of BAME women in leadership roles, decision makers have no frame of reference for evaluating BAME women in such positions, thus stereotypes may be relied upon instead
In comparison, the perceptions of the suitability of Black women for leadership positions can be dependent on how well their behaviours conform to what is expected of their gender or their race. For example, if a Black woman behaves assertively or aggressively, she may be considered unsuitable for a leadership role as these traits are not deemed to be consistent with behaviours expected of women.
Conversely, where these traits are viewed as being aligned with their racial stereotype, Black women may not incur any penalty when applying for a leadership role.
Access to informal networks
Further, barriers BAME women encounter are challenges in accessing informal social networks and mentors, both of which can be pivotal for their career progression. In particular, having access to senior male mentors can offer endorsement and greater career satisfaction for these women.
Decision makers must ensure that there is fair opportunity to projects and objective selection procedures are in place for promotion
Often opportunities to form informal networks are through social events such as after work drinks or sporting activities, which can result in BAME women being indirectly excluded. Another unsettling concern expressed by BAME women is discrimination arising from their race and ethnicity.
Regardless of their experience and qualifications, they fear being deemed unsuitable for leadership positions, that lower expectations are held of them succeeding in such roles and being selected as token representatives.
In order to counter these perceptions, BAME women feel they must attain greater educational credentials than their white counterparts and strive harder to prove themselves – work twice as hard to be considered half as good.
While there are some cultural expectations of Asian women that remain firmly ingrained, it is likely that in time, some of these may become diluted as the generations adopt more liberal views. However, collective measures involving the women, families, teachers and organisations can be taken to help BAME women reach their leadership potential.
From an early age, if families and teachers provide the necessary support, encouragement and activities, these may set an aspirational ball rolling – giving BAME women confidence in their career paths. In addition, schools and colleges can facilitate careers evenings whereby young BAME individuals are exposed to a diverse group of professionals from all backgrounds.
At an undergraduate and organisational level, access to leadership training programmes can also lay the foundations for BAME women to succeed in leadership roles.
In addition to the aforementioned, BAME women would like to see more women like themselves in leadership positions to act as inspirational role models. As such, these women can signal the potential level that can be aspired to and the likelihood of attaining such positions.
However, as one interviewee stated “if you can’t open the door, then we can’t get in the room”, thus to achieve more role models, leadership selection processes must be addressed. Although BAME women recognise that there is not a level playing field, they are keen to obtain senior leadership roles through meritocracy.
Thus, decision makers must ensure that there is fair opportunity to projects and objective selection procedures are in place for promotion.
Although it will take time for change to materialise, it is important that a culture of belief is adopted and that the door to the boardroom is truly open to diversity.
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