First and foremost, I’m British. Then I would say that I’m Sikh. I don’t feel I have to break it down further, but people assume I’m Indian and want to put me in a box. And then it leads to more questions about family and a lesson about colonial history!
Nobody really stops to think of the story behind the woman. If you just stop and look at it, and read about it, surely it’s a good thing if it encourages people to think in a different way, whether you’re male or female, or whatever your own story is?
First and foremost, I’m British. Then I would say that I’m Sikh. I don’t really feel like I have to break it down further. But people make assumptions that you’re ‘Indian’ and must eat curry every night. I’m oversimplifying, but it circles back to “You weren’t born here, you’re not British.” And then it leads to more questions about my parents and my grandparents and a lesson about colonial history! I don’t want to do that; I shouldn’t have to do that.
My first job in the City was in telesales and I was the only girl on a team with about twenty guys, who tended to be very brash and in your face. I thought maybe I needed to be like that – I would try to be a bit bolder or more assertive, not very natural for me. I felt like a fraud the whole time. Now I have the confidence to say “No, that’s not me.” But in that sort of environment, my first job, surrounded by a team of competitive salesmen and no other professional female example to model behaviour on, I didn’t know any different. I think there’s a difference between having a role model and having a good role model that you want to emulate, and I don’t think there are enough good role models for women.
Insurance has a big drinking culture; a lot of business transactions are discussed over coffee or in the pub, and formalised later. At a previous employer, there was a fantastic team culture. Our manager encouraged everyone to go for a drink together once a week, everyone was invited and made to feel a part of the team. A Senior Underwriter I worked with was the same, always made sure I was invited along. When I changed jobs it was a shock to me that the culture was the polar opposite. This difference for me was key to how valued I felt at work and within the team. I believe that when men involve and engage women, we have more productive, committed, happier teams. It also brought home to me how much men in leadership roles can influence positive behaviours and be allies for their colleagues, irrespective of gender, orientation, etc. When women are not engaged in the same way as men, whether due to unconscious bias or something else, it inevitably leads to resentment and problems.
People hide behind banter when they’re actually being quite biased and discriminatory. They know that what they’re saying is offensive, but banter is their excuse. Once at an office Christmas party, a senior colleague had a couple of drinks and as two young women from our team were walking past, he said “I would tap that – as long as I could put a bag over her head.” I was stunned that not only had he made such a lewd comment in an open plan office, in front of several people, but that he thought he was hilarious. I said “That’s inappropriate.” He didn’t see it that way. I told him I was going to let my manager know, as his behaviour just wasn’t funny. I also told a couple of colleagues – both women and men. The women were upset and offended. The men just laughed. I thought they’d back me up, tell him he was over the line. Just one of them needed to say something, but by laughing at it, they condoned it. And I was made to feel like the odd one out – for raising it as a concern. I couldn’t believe that such sexist behaviour was acceptable.
Although insurance gets a lot of criticism for not being great on diversity, I think it’s made huge progress. There’s more awareness now, both in the industry and within companies. In my experience there’s more of a drive from companies to be more diverse and inclusive in their approach and working practices. People now have to do something about their behaviour, and are encouraged to do so in a positive way, and that’s nice to see. My CEO is very open and enthusiastic about the concept of bringing your whole self to work, which is so important, but it’s different for everybody and that should also be respected.
If you’re a parent, your carer role is a given. Nobody blinks an eye if you have to come in late or go and pick up your child because they’re not well. But if I need to take my mum to the doctor, it’s not as acceptable. They think you don’t need to be there because it’s another adult. At previous employers I found it very difficult to justify a request to work from home to take my mum to her appointments, being overly apologetic about it, so I used to take holidays instead. The culture was inclusive on paper, but in practice people just think you’re trying to take time off, rather than genuinely having a responsibility to another person. It’s not an ‘Indian culture thing’ – a comment that was once made to me – it’s an individual thing. Thankfully the culture is very different where I work now. Inclusion at work covers a variety of areas – providing support to carers is not an obvious one, but it is an important one.
My dad was an amazing man; intelligent, charismatic, courageous. He passed away when I was twenty-one. In the years since, my mum has been incredible. Her patience and understanding seem to have no limits. When she tells me stories of her working life in Kenya, how close she was to our extended family and how she helped support them, of how isolated she felt when we emigrated to the UK, and I recall how tough things were after dad passed but she held everything together, how steadfast she was in supporting me when I chose to marry a non-Sikh, how she encourages me to keep taking those steps forward, how she still listens and gives advice to not just me but my cousins and friends, I realise that she is a far better role model than I could ever hope to be.
It only takes one person to stand up, and you don’t have to challenge it in a really confrontational way. I think it’s those little subtle behaviours that make a difference. But it’s not just enough to do it in your teams, it’s got to be wider than that.
Stand in the other person’s shoes. Call out behaviour that isn’t appropriate; it doesn’t have to be confrontational or aggressive.
It’s a small thing, but it takes a lot of courage.