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Women of colour ‘changing names, language, hair and clothes to fit in at work’

·4-min read

Women of colour are changing their names, hair and clothes to fit in at work, according to research which found three-quarters have experienced racism.

Institutional racism is common across all sectors and in all types of organisation, according to gender equality charity the Fawcett Society and race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust.

Their report found that 61% of women of colour said they had changed their language, topics they discuss, hair, food they eat, or their name by “a great deal” or “quite a bit” to fit in at work.

This compares with 44% of white women.

Black African women were most likely to make changes, such as to their clothes (54%), language (50%), topics they discuss (46%), hairstyle (39%) and accent (29%).

The report, Broken Ladders, is based on a survey of 2,000 women of colour in UK workplaces, which the groups said is the largest representative survey of women of colour to date.

It found that workplaces “are a constant negotiation between identities and inability to progress”, and women of colour face barriers “at all stages” from entering work to taking on leadership roles.

Three-quarters said they had experienced racism at work, while more than a quarter (27%) had suffered racial slurs.

Jemima Olchawksi, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said the results were “sickening”, adding: “We just can’t accept this as a society.”

She said: “As well as being held back at work, women of colour are being forced to hide their identity in workplaces across the UK; things like changing their hairstyle or what they eat, just to try and conform.

“What a waste of those women’s time and energy – we need workplaces that respect and celebrate everyone’s individuality and allow women to focus on bringing their talents into the workforce.

“Given skills and labour shortages this is a waste of potential we can ill afford.”

Half of women of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage and 48% of women of black African heritage said they had been criticised for behaviours other colleagues got away with at work, compared with 29% of white British women.

Some 39% of women of colour said their wellbeing had been impacted by a lack of progression, compared with 28% of white women.

Women of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage (37%) and of Indian heritage (32%) were most likely to report a manager having blocked their progression at work, compared with 20% of white British women.

Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said women of colour face a “double jeopardy”.

She said: “From school to the workplace, there are structural barriers standing between them and the opportunities they deserve.

“Our landmark research exists to support these women to thrive in their workplaces, and to challenge employers to harness the talents, skills and experiences of their employees, or risk losing them.”

The groups are calling on the Government to introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting for employers with at least 50 staff.

It should also legislate to ban employers asking salary history questions and to require salaries to be published on job advertisements, they say.

And they called on employers to implement anti-racism action plans with clear targets that are regularly evaluated, and undertake regular “stay interviews” (an alternative to exit interviews), giving women of colour opportunities to give feedback.

Principal policy adviser of employment and inclusion for the Confederation of British Industry, Eugenia Migliori, said: “This data shows there is still a way to go in addressing racial and ethnic equality across society.

“Businesses must be doing all they can to build an inclusive workplace which allows each and every one to bring their whole selves to work without fear of discrimination.

“More diverse firms perform better, which is why the CBI is encouraging all businesses to sign up to the Change the Race Ratio campaign, which calls for clear targets for greater ethnic diversity at board and senior leadership levels.”

A Government spokesperson said: “The Government takes the issue of racism extremely seriously and believes that all workplaces should be safe environments for people of all backgrounds to work together and thrive, free of discrimination.

“This why we recently announced our Inclusive Britain Action Plan, which sets out plans to build a fairer and more inclusive society, including promoting fairness in the workplace and action to tackle the ethnicity pay gap.”

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