I always want to be judged on what I bring to the table; how I dress, how I speak. I want to be seen as the professional woman that I am, not what they think I am.
I always want to be judged on what I bring to the table, that’s got to be the most important thing. And I do that very consciously: how I dress, how I speak. So for example, if I go on a train and feel any sort of awkwardness, I make sure I’ve got a big heavy policy document on my lap because that’s a very subtle way of challenging people’s perceptions. I want to be seen as the professional woman that I am, not what they think I am.
I think the idea of seeing women as individuals with all their different characteristics and traits and interests is really important, because we are all individuals. I think sometimes in the workplace that is not appreciated or value. There is a kind of unspoken desire to make people fit, to make them homogenous rather than facilitating or empowering people to be individuals.
I happen to have a kind of health condition. So just as a woman might have some caring responsibilities, I have some health responsibilities of my own that I need to attend to. And some of that is stuff I need to do to look after myself and some of that is stuff my employer needs to do to support me. But if we are able to be on the same level playing field as everyone else, then we have every opportunity to contribute.
I define myself as a successful professional. I define myself as being a people person, as being very interested in communication, about connecting with people. And reaching them and understanding who they are and what they are about. I am interested in social change and people having the opportunity to reach their potential. Social justice – so that people aren’t excluded, so that the barriers we face in society are addressed, so that we have the same chances as everyone else.
The condition is something I was born with. It’s very rare – about one in a million people have it. It is what they call a congenital, neurological condition, where the cranial nerves don’t develop properly during utero and that has various knock-on effects. I guess what is quite unusual is the lack of facial expression. If you think of the role that the face plays in life and its embodiment of your identity and personality – it’s how you express or convey who you are. I spent my early years on a journey that I didn’t necessarily have the map for; how to find a way to be me and to communicate who I was, to be able to interact with people in the way that I wanted, and elicit the response that I wanted. I was fortunate that in my earlier life I worked out a way to make it work.
I don’t think I knew that as I was going along though. My journey was first about finding my own emotional being. I did that through playing the piano, and then I found that I could translate the music that I was able to feel and play; I translated that into my voice, and my voice became, in essence, my face.
Early on, I lived abroad in a Mediterranean culture, where people are very expressive and they wave their hands around. That helped cement how I could be me – being comfortable with me, but also helping people understand who I was. And through that you build a kind of repertoire, but you also build a confidence.
My career then was in teaching. I started teaching English as a foreign language. I got very interested in cross-cultural communication. When I first wanted to train and find jobs I certainly encountered prejudice. There wasn’t any discrimination legislation in place and I certainly met with the “You couldn’t possibly be a teacher looking like that” approach. Some people said it explicitly. People don’t do it now, though often the prejudice is still there.
There were all sorts of other subtler experiences when I felt I should have got the job or opportunity. I had a really difficult experience once when I applied to teach a course. I didn’t get it. Many years later I was working in a language school and I’d organised for an examiner to come from London. We’d spoken on the phone, but when she arrived she said, “Oh my god it’s you.” I had no idea who she was! She said, “I have never forgiven myself, I should have fought your corner.” It turned out the interview I had gone for had been at her school, where she was the deputy – the head had not thought it would be a good idea to employ me – bad for business. She could see what I could bring to the course, but she decided against giving me an opportunity. And yet she felt for many years that it was an injustice to me.
It was ironic because I had already moved on. You see, I’m quite fortunate because I’m quite strong and positive. I grew up in a family where I was taught if you work hard and you are determined then you always find a way. So I thought, “If they don’t want me, someone else will want me.”
It wasn’t the first time; society judges so explicitly on appearance. It’s why I work for Changing Faces now, because that kind of treatment is completely unfair and not okay. Society is losing out on many, many individuals who have experience, talent and value to give to the workplace, and yet they are not given a choice.
I think it’s worse now because we are very looks conscious. The cosmetic surgery industry is massive. All sorts of people who have perfectly normal appearances are dissatisfied and unhappy with how they look and feel their lives aren’t as successful as they might be. The power of the media, whether it’s TV, social media, or advertising, are very unhelpful and they reinforce stereotypical images of beauty and success.
I don’t see myself represented out there. I think there’s hardly any imagery of people with visible health conditions. And I don’t just mean disfigurements, I mean all sorts of health conditions that affect how people look. There are individuals out there looking at employers wondering “Should I work in this company? Should I work in this industry?” And if they are not reflected then that is potentially a barrier to them.
I think what’s interesting in our work is that those individuals who have been successful in their careers tend to be not aware that they might even be perceived as different. It’s almost as though they have demonstrated their value and effectiveness; they have succeeded, and they have reached a position of seniority. It is the people who are earlier on in their careers who don’t have the same choices, for example employers might unhelpfully think they shouldn’t be customer facing.
Changing Faces commissioned a survey a number of years ago, which found that nine out of ten respondents associated people with disfigurements with less positive characteristics. Nine out of ten consider us less successful, less socially skilled, less easy to be with, less likely to be happy in our personal lives. That is huge. So the sorts of assumptions people make are the beauty myth; equating beauty with success and happiness. People make assumptions about intellectual capacity; they feel uncomfortable with anything that is different or unusual. Media and film don’t often help much either – very often in films, the ‘baddie’ is given a facial disfigurement, a scar. Very unhelpful!
I think there’s something quite natural about wanting to understand people. We like putting people in different boxes and categories, we like labelling them. I suppose one of the challenges is that people often judge on face value, and that is incredibly misleading and potentially narrow. People can be overlooked, they can be screened out and they can be underutilised, underemployed.
If you think of some of those amazing buildings in the city – employers don’t envisage a receptionist sitting there with a birthmark. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that because I also think that individuals are not coming forward – they’re not choosing those careers. So the screening-out is two-sided. Organisations are not appearing to attract that type of candidate, but I also think some candidates are thinking “Oh that’s not for me, I can’t possibly do that, I can’t work there.” Diverse organisations are far more interesting and creative to work in. If you’ve got people coming from all sorts of different perspectives, you think about issues in all sorts of different ways. Whereas if you all think about it in the same way, it’s likely to be quite narrow – and dull. Who wants dull?!
I hope we (people with a distinctive appearance) will come to have more understanding, greater acceptance, more respect, more… how can I say this? So that it’s a ‘non-issue’. So that people have the same choices, they have the same opportunities to do with their life what they want to do. So they can live their life as they want to, and not because of the limitations that are put upon them or they put upon themselves.
Society can’t rely on individuals carrying the effort and the strength to navigate through. Society has to create a space which is fair for all.
That’s what diversity and inclusion is about: ensuring that everyone has the same chances to succeed.