What does diversity mean to you?
Is it about looking up in a meeting room (or more likely these days a video call) and seeing a good mix of genders and people from different ethnic backgrounds? Is it registering the make-up of your organisation’s leadership team and noting its balance – or lack thereof? Or is it walking through your office and feeling innately included, that feeling of quiet satisfaction which comes with being part of an organisation which values having diverse people, perspectives and skills amongst its workforce? Maybe it’s a combination of all three. 
For Sam, though, diversity is something personal, something fundamental. “The first time I walked into our canteen it felt like everyone turned around to look at me – not because I was attractive but because I was the only brown person there,” she recalls.
It was quite a moment; a vivid example of old attitudes and outdated recruitment practices writ large. That was 19 years ago and much has since changed but more work remains to be done. And it is work that Sam herself is now pursuing in her role as Director for Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach at her employer, an organisation in the national security sector. It’s a far cry from her early career days as a linguist – but I suspect she wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘Dad, about my new job…’

Dad Image Icon Sam, who grew up in northern England, is quick to admit that her career options, at least to start with, appeared relatively limited. “Bearing in mind my Pakistani-Muslim background, normal professions were seen as things like dentist, doctor and solicitor,” she explains. “But my father was quite forward thinking and happy for me to do whatever it was I wanted.”
Her initial instinct – to be either a journalist or lawyer – soon fell by the wayside when she discovered her flair for languages, however. French and German at school were augmented by Pakistan’s national language, Urdu, as well as a specific Punjabi dialect which was spoken at home, together with university studies which combined English Literature with Arabic.
She emerged a graduate with an unusual array of languages at her fingertips but not yet sure how she could best deploy them. “As I was studying for my degree I was thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do with this?’” she recalls, “even though I was certain that I wanted a career where I could use my language skills.”
Although there were a few local options, as well as some straight translation roles to consider, salvation came in the form of government, specifically the organisation she still works for today. “It was that this time that I first learnt about my employer – I honestly didn’t know what it was or what it did,” she recalls. “All I knew was that it was recruiting linguists. So I applied for a role where I would be using my Arabic as that’s what I thought they would be interested in, and that’s how I really started my journey here.”
While her excitement about landing her role was palpable, it seems pertinent to ask what her family made of it given that it wasn’t exactly a typical career choice. “I didn’t share where I had applied to as I was told not to,” says Sam.
“My father had an idea of where I was applying but, to be honest, going back to the days of the Raj, I was working for the government and it was seen as well established and stable. My brothers were also supportive – like me they were born here and had been to university here and were starting their careers here. And my mother doesn’t speak English that well so even if I had tried to explain it she probably wouldn’t have understood. So the easiest thing was just to say ‘I will be working for the government’ and leave it at that. So from my family I didn’t get any resistance, thankfully.”

One of Ten

1 of 10 Image Icon Sam, who started work a year after 9/11, was quick to get down to business – thanks in large part to her own determination to embrace early responsibility and her blend of languages being much in demand. “My job was just so exciting,” she recalls. “Although Arabic was relatively common, the heritage languages I spoke were less widespread – far fewer people could speak them – so I was quite unique really. This meant that I was the linguist lots of people wanted to work with, and this helped me build up my subject matter expertise very quickly.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. She recalls an invite to a lunch event which was titled “Ethnic Minority Lunch with Director” where, to her astonishment, she discovered she was just one of 10 people from an ethnic minority background in the entire organisation. Talk about outnumbered.
“As someone who had just graduated, lived in London and was accustomed to being in diverse communities, it was quite a change to get used to,” she admits, “especially when, as a language student, I had gotten used to being surrounded by people from all over the world. That phrase ‘ethnic minority’ was simply not in my dictionary until I joined this organisation.”
It wasn’t just the numbers, though. Also prevalent was a culture which, looking back, was hardly as inclusive as it might have been. “I was working with a lot of military blokes so there was quite a lot of banter – which I was used to having grown up with two brothers – but there were a lot of ‘isms’ going on which I didn’t think anything of at the time,” she says.
“It wasn’t that it was encouraged but at the same time no one called it out either. As a young person starting off in a new job you just want to fit in so back then I didn’t think too much of it and just focused on doing as well as I could in what I was doing. So I ignored the micro aggressions and concentrated on the excitement of the work that was going on. But it does matter – it’s not just banter and in hindsight I wish I’d said something.”
Sam is quick to stress that the organisation has changed – “we’ve moved on massively” – but also believes that more can be done. “I think most organisations are still reactionary and not consistent enough,” she observes.
“Something happens and then people jump on a bandwagon but you actually need to care about it and follow through. Only then will an organisation really make the changes that are necessary, and build that inclusive organisation everyone wants. Ethnic minorities alone can’t do this – they need allies across the organisation for this to happen. It’s everyone’s responsibility for it to really work.”

The drive for diversity

Drive for Diversity Image Icon Like any organisation, large or small, public or private, Sam’s employer will only thrive when it can call on a diverse range of talented individuals who can call on a broad range of skills. That’s because diversity of approaches, points of view and thinking contribute towards improved performance, as well as helping encourage innovation and new ways of challenging assumptions. Differences are a strength, not a weakness.
This message, Sam believes, is increasingly taking firm root amongst colleagues of all levels but it’s one she is nonetheless continuing to hammer home.  “It’s not just about having the right mix of ethnic minorities in a meeting – it’s that plus having that diversity of thought,” she says. “In my local office we decided that every key decision making meeting will have one or two people from an ethnic minority in order to offer different perspectives and skills. Things will be missed if the people in the room all look the same and think the same.”
What’s also key, though, is ensuring that ethnic minority colleagues feel able to speak up and voice their concerns, either in a meeting or via the correct business processes. Knowledge of the latter, says Sam, is critical. “Everyone should be exposed to how these things work,” she argues. “I’ve learnt a lot from senior colleagues taking me to external meetings, going to dinners, meeting CEOs – being able to shadow people is the best way to develop your staff. During the two years I’ve spent in this role I’ve been exposed to so much more than before.”

Mobility matters

Mobility Matters Image Icon Sam’s story is one of social mobility in many ways and she is now keen for others to follow a similar career trajectory. Such progress is by no means guaranteed, however. “Unfortunately we’ve got a massive social mobility challenge in the UK,” she concedes. “It’s not something that is talked about enough. We need to make ourselves an attractive employer, but in order to make ourselves attractive we have to show that we are inclusive.” 
To do so, Sam is spearheading efforts to reach out to people from all walks of life, while also teaming up with other organisations to broaden the talent pool. “My job is about making our organisation inclusive, and attracting diverse people to come and work for us,” she summarises.
“Partnering up with external organisations can help us with outreach as well. Exchanging experiences and looking at how we can help each other is really important – we all want talent to be joining this sector and if a candidate might not be right for us, he or she could be right for a private sector employer instead.”
The key thing for Sam, however, is that she has to believe her employer genuinely cares about the importance of diversity and inclusion – which she does. The flip side, though, is that this raises expectations about how the organisation will evolve in the near future.  “I will be very disappointed if we don’t make even more progress over the next couple of years,” she concedes. “And if that’s the case then I won’t feel comfortable about going out and promoting the organisation.”
The pressure is on, then, and rightly so, but Sam is not someone to ever flinch from a challenge. A more diverse and inclusive future surely awaits.

About the author 
Victoria Knight is a Strategic Business Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

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