Picture: Denis Olasehinde Akinmolasire in Paris
18th July 2008 will always be a day to remember for me. It was my first day working at Goldman Sachs following my graduation. 13 years later I’m still here. I’ve seen a lot of change in that time. When I first started I was the only black person on my team. In my current team I’m one of several black people. A lot of people comment on how I’ve been able to be in such an organization for so long. The majority of my friends have worked for 3 or 4 companies within that time. People often find my tenure at Goldman Sachs even more remarkable considering that I’m black, of Nigerian origin and was born and raised in Newham.
Newham is traditionally known as being one of the poorest boroughs in London. The other thing that my colleagues often tell me is that they feel that I’ve done it by not being afraid to be truly who I am. I have thought about this comment quite a lot recently. I remember back in 2015 when I was being positioned for VP (Vice President) someone said to me that to make it you will have to conform to a preconceived corporate stereotype. This comment was quite heart breaking as the comment came from someone whom I had a lot of respect for. If anything I begged to differ. Being me is what made me stand out as person, embracing who I truly am is what I felt gave me my edge and made me different. I didn’t need to change who I was as a person to get promoted. Yet not everyone from a diverse background feels this way.
In a year that has seen travesties such as the George Floyd incident why in this day and age is colour and being from a different background still seen as a barrier to success? When is it going to stop being seen as a factor? Why do I need to comply with some corporate stereotype? These are the questions I began to seriously ponder and explore.
Challenges facing people from a more diverse background
Many firms in the financial world are starting to embrace diversity. Since 2016 Goldman Sachs for instance has launched an African Recruitment Initiative and regularly recruits students from Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya for internship/graduate positions in Engineering. Despite the obvious will and investment to create a diverse population we still have certain ethnic minorities that only make up a fraction of a type firm’s workforce. The fact that certain minorities are underrepresented is a contributing factor when it comes to colleagues not being able to be their authentic selves. So the question remains what is holding us back?
As we recruit more and more people from outside of the UK we also need to bear in mind the differences in culture. This is especially true for those coming from West African countries. In the U.K a firm like Goldman Sachs encourages its employees to speak up and not be afraid to speak up. Whereas in other cultures asking questions can be interpreted as being rude. How to integrate employees from different cultural backgrounds is something that employers need to prepare for.
Coming from a non-Computer Science background I felt at a disadvantage when comparing myself to my fellow graduates. In addition, working alongside people that have come from Universities such as Cambridge and Oxford can make people feel inferior.Associate – Goldman Sachs Engineering
In additional to different cultural backgrounds we also need to be mindful of potential differences in educational background. In the case of engineering for non-computer science graduates it is very likely that may not have been exposed to same breadth and depth with regards to programming languages. Firms need to ensure that measures are put in place to help bridge any potential gaps.
A key aspect of working in industry is being able to communicate. However, everyone communicates in different ways. Typically, in West Africa the communication that people use can be very direct whereas in comparison to a country such as the United Kingdom (U.K) it can be a lot subtler, it is not uncommon for colleagues working in the U.K to use sarcasm for instance to get a message; however, things like sarcasm may not necessarily be interpreted by the recipient in the manner intended.
Being one of few
When I’d walk into a lecture hall when I was at university, all I would see was a sea of white men, and around a dozen black men and women. It’s still the same while working in the industry. It can be quite challenging because there is a resounding feeling of not belonging and having to prove your right to be in this space, especially when there aren’t a lot of people similar to you.Analyst – Goldman Sachs Engineering
One of the biggest challenges that we have in general with authenticity is the feeling of being one of the select few. This can often lead to people from certain backgrounds being discouraged from working in certain types of professions.
From the start of my career I have typically been one of the few black women in any environment I worked in professionally. That meant I had very few role models or people I could relate to on a more personal level which inevitably can make you insecure about your fit in your organization.Vice President – Goldman Sachs Engineering
Relatability/being able to connect on sensitive issues such as race
2020 was a year that saw a lot of disruption and tragic events. One of the most tragic was the killing of George Floyd; it was an incident that really struck a chord with the Black Community.
The George Floyd murder was horrific and made me feel the same way as I have done over the years when witnessing these senseless killings; angry, hurt, tired, emotional and scared. Scared for my family and friends who could so easily be killed by those who are supposed to protect them.Vice President – Goldman Sachs Engineering
For the black community such events as the George Floyd incident are an everyday occurrence. On a personal note I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been pulled over whilst driving at night even though I wasn’t breaking any road laws. What needs to be remembered is these are issues that have been plaguing our community for centuries. Firms need to remember that it is not easy to come to work when at times it can feel like the world is against you simply because of the colour of the skin.
It was a combination of feeling numb, sad and hopeless. I don’t think I was processing the historical events as they were happening, so I just sort of watched as it all unfolded.Analyst – Goldman Sachs Engineering
Why do people find it difficult to work with personnel from a diverse background?
As highlighted, coming from an ethnic minority presents challenges in terms of being who you are in a corporate environment. But what about for colleagues from non-ethnic minorities; are there things we can do to make it easier to understand where colleagues from an ethnic minority are coming from? What are the barriers that we need to overcome to make difficult conversations on race and diversity easier to handle?
In 2017 British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge published a book called Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. One of themes this book raised is the subject of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is when people favour others who look like them and/or share their values. This can happen in all forms of life and is something that still occurs in the workplace. In the workplace this behavior can lead to unfair discrimination during recruitment, promotion and/or selection when it comes to promoting opportunities.
I remember working for a major bank a number of years ago with a manager who was completely unsupportive, so even while the firm promoted working from home I was told I needed to take holiday if my child was ill. I was often asked to take notes in meetings even if that wasn’t necessarily my role but the expectation was that was all I was here to do. I remember the shocked faces anytime I would meet someone, my name did not indicate my colour and I could see people were visible shocked when they would meet a young black woman instead of who they perceived they would be speaking to in certain spaces.Vice President – Goldman Sachs Engineering
Exposure to the daily struggle of ethnic minorities
There is a specific challenge for intersectional people who face discrimination differently because of the dual systems of oppression at play, firms need to be aware of that so they can better support these groups.Vice President – Goldman Sachs Engineering
A person’s background will have a bearing on what influences you and what you have been exposed to. I remember from my second year of university, a friend of mine’ told me that when he first met me, he had never met a black person before and he wasn’t sure how to act. The feeling of the unknown can create a culture of fear especially if there is a feeling of being threatened. Also if you’ve not had to face certain hardships due to the colour of your skin or never felt that you’ve had to change to fit into a particular group it can make it uncomfortable to feel qualified to engage on such topics. There is gap that does need to be addressed in terms of being able to see the world through another person’s eyes.
As a white woman there are things that I’ve never experienced in relation to issues such as racism. Because of that I often find I’m not aware of the daily challenges that a nonwhite colleague would experience.Vice President – Goldman Sachs Engineering
The role that media plays in society
It cannot be understated the role that the media plays in society. The media has an enormous bearing on the perceptions that can be formed on people of colour. Take for instance a footballer like Raheem Sterling. He raised the point about how he is often portrayed in the media and highlighted when Tosin Adarabioyo a black player bought his mum a house the media portrayed him as flashy and throwing his money around. Yet when Phil Foden a white footballer did it he was portrayed he was portrayed as doing right by his mum. You may be asking yourselves why this is relevant in relation to my day job? The reason it is relevant is if the media is portraying people from ethnic minorities in a negative light that can lead to negative and unjust stereotypes being developed in the office. In turn this can inhibit employees from being their authentic selves in the workplace.
A project lead and a people manager are not the same thing
As you get more senior in an organization you will typically take on more responsibility. One of the roles that is common place is the role of a project lead. A project lead is accountable for making sure a project is delivered on time, within budget and managing overall project risk. There is a danger that due to the intensity of meeting delivery deadlines that we can forget about people themselves and not take into consideration their wellbeing. Sometimes it can be very easy to make someone a manager because they have made it to a certain level within the organization even though they have not developed the interpersonal skills required to be a successful people manager. When assigning managers to people it’s important that we make sure that they have of interpersonal and introspective skills that will enable them to look after the individual concerned and not just treat them as a delivery resource.
Making your workplace a safe haven for a diverse workforce
Reflecting on the theme of authenticity and investigating it from the perspective of people from different backgrounds made me think: what are some of the things that we can do to help encourage more diversity and for people to feel that they can be themselves whilst they are at work.
Perception without context is meaningless
There is a saying in my firm that perception is reality. It is something that has affected me at various moments in my career. For instance, if someone is angry it can be very easy to think that person is being aggressive. However, the question that needs to be asked is what is it that made that person angry in the first place. What about if someone made a racial remark? What about if someone didn’t follow the right procedure and when they raised it their concerns were dismissed? Sometimes if we take a step back and pull the individual concerned out of the situation and spend time with them to understand whether their concerns are the truth can be very revealing and actually may help you to create a more collaborative and understanding environment.
A simple hello can go a long way
As people, we need social interaction. This is especially important in a place of work. At this moment in time, due to what is happening with COVID, the majority of us are working from home. It can be very easy to be lost in your own world. If there are people that you haven’t seen or interacted with for a long time don’t be afraid to set up time to catchup with them to see how they’re doing. Not all meetings need to be about career discussion. And when we do get back into the office let’s not be afraid to say hello to people regardless of their rank. Sometimes a simple hello is all that is needed to establish a rapport and open up channels of communication. Having a natural rapport with your colleagues will make it easier for them to open up and issues that they take to heart and will build a trust that will.
More emphasis on manager training & people skills
When people are being made people managers for the first time it is very important that firms take responsibility for ensuring that they get the necessary training to do that role well and also that the employers being asked to be people managers take it seriously. On the latter some firms actually have people manager ratings as part of the employee review process. The key thing here is ensuring that employees understand what it means to be a people manager. For those of you reading this blog and are people managers think back to all the best managers that you had. What was it that made them good in that role and what qualities did they have that you think you can apply yourself? If people are more comfortable with you as their boss, they are going to find it easier to be themselves around you and it is guaranteed you will get a productivity boost from them.
Ensuring that we have representatives from different backgrounds at key speaker events
It is not uncommon for firms to host events that focus on a particular area. It may be a technical event where our colleagues are presenting the latest technical innovations or an update on the firm’s performance and strategy. It is important to make sure we that have people from different backgrounds presenting as much as possible. In all walks of life when you see someone that looks like you and/or you can relate to it provides encouragement that you can reach certain positions in an organization.
Overall, I think having people that black female professionals can relate to is crucial for the next generation. Representation is important because it creates safe spaces of support and guidance from women who have shared experiences, but also women to look up to.Analyst – Goldman Sachs
Hosting events to stop diversity being a taboo topic
In addition to representation the topics that are the theme of the event also needs to be taken into consideration. Last year my firm hosted several events in relation to some of the incidents that happened in the world. The feedback that we had after hosting these events was very positive and was really appreciated. It is definitely something that I would encourage other firms to consider doing.
The firm’s response for the first time I can remember was direct and really addressed what has happened. It felt like for the first time Black people were being seen and heard.Vice President – Goldman Sachs
I’ve seen great strides taken especially in terms of providing a voice on issues around race and diversity. What is important now is that we continue these conversations and seek to provide a means to provide a more diverse and inclusive environment not just inside the workplace but society as a whole. If people feel comfortable being themselves in their everyday life this will carry over into the workplace.
I had support in my immediate team and within my community. However, we need to ensure that this is an on-going lesson and time for learning. The reaction to one event cannot undo the ubiquitous nature of the systematic and institutional racism that the world and the firm operates in. I hope to see a continued focus and effort around this and not only by the people of colour who bare the burdens of this injustice daily.Vice President – Goldman Sachs
Solving the problem of authenticity is not going to be a quick fix. Many of the issues I have highlighted go broader than the workplace and are a result of actions that have happened many years ago. But I genuinely believe that we are starting to head in the right direction. Due to people speaking up about issues such as race and diversity these issues are now in the mind of general public. 13 years ago at the start of my career I doubt anyone would have asked me to write this blog. In addition, last year my department launched a Diversity and Inclusion initiative to figure out a roadmap for ensuring that our department tackles diversity issues and I’m part of that board to help provide a perspective on what is happening in the European region.
We are still at the start of the journey. The endgame is still a long way off. I may be retired by the time the endgame is truly completed. But if we can all remember that we are people and not just here to do a job, to ensure that we make time for each other and create an environment whereby our colleagues feel like they can be themselves, not only will it make having conversations on issues such as race and diversity no longer a taboo subject; conversations like this will happen organically without us even having to ask.