The double-edged sword of diversity

by Hema Patel, Acting GM, Lightbox

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Stepping up and owning the ‘diversity’ that I bring can be a double-edged sword. For the longest time, I have assimilated into the corporate environment by playing down ‘the indian’. Which is an interesting strategy given when you look at me, there is little doubt that I am anything but.

When applying for my first jobs, my dad’s notion of the subconscious (and sometimes overt) racism present in NZ played into my mind. How would I counteract any unconscious bias to give myself the best possible chance to secure a job? Here’s how:

  • I was born in NZ and therefore technically a kiwi – I would write ‘NZ born’ on my CV (I was conscious of the influx of Indians into NZ from abroad at that time)
  • My maiden surname was hard to place in terms of ethnic origin so I didn’t change to my married surname (very obviously Indian) for a number of years
  • I sounded the same as you which proves how much like you I really am (I would always call the recruiter so they would hear my voice to counteract any ethnic bias that might have come through my CV)

This strategy worked.

12 years into my career, I joined a large corporate with ambitions to improve diversity in the organisation. I was hired based on my specialist media industry and finance expertise – there are not many of me around in terms of skills.   A year or so later, I was asked if I would share my profile on the careers website. There it was, I was found out – yes, I’m indian! This was a hugely confronting moment for me – was this blatant tokenism? The organisation on the inside was clearly dominated by white males, yet there were a diaspora of ethnicities on the Careers websites. I called HR up on it, but being HR, they were not exactly going to admit to this. So I consulted with another Kiwi Indian in a similar context. His advice was – become the change you want to see in the world (I’m paraphrasing here – that was a famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi). His message was that unless the organization is trying to appeal to people like me, they might not ever come. I got it immediately and decided to do it.

So here we are in 2017, where diversity and inclusion is a ‘thing’. My employer has aspirations to unlock this potential and I’m up for it. And this is not only good for me but good for business  But is it?

As I become more comfortable in my own skin, another driving force is coming in the opposite direction. Articulated beautifully by a male, pale, kiwi colleague – “it’s the worst time to be a white male right now”.

So now I am both an opportunity and a threat to the system. When my colleagues and seniors (who are primarily men), could actually compromise my ability to progress and ultimately impact the company’s bottom line, it begs the question – how do I navigate through my world internally and externally so I can be and do more?

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By Hema Patel, Acting GM Lightbox

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