A Response to Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg on Bloomberg last month

Last month, Facebook Chief Operating Officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg spoke out against sexism and misogyny in the workplace. Responding to a sexism lawsuit against a fellow female Silicon Valley senior exec, she said:

 “What’s happening is we have systematic stereotypes of women, and systematic biases of women.

 “For men, likeability and success is correlated. As they get more successful, more powerful, they’re better liked. For women, success and likability are negatively correlated. As a woman gets more successful, more powerful – she is less liked.”

It’s great to have women at the top of some of the biggest companies in the world like Facebook and Yahoo. And it’s even better when they speak out about gender discrimination in the workplace.

But what about the discrimination that women of colour face; and those of us who are discriminated against because of culture and cultural stereotypes?

Not taken seriously

Female entrepreneurial group Asian Women MEAN Business (AWMB) found that a massive 74% of British Asian women felt their culture held them back from starting a business, while 44% had experienced race discrimination at work. Last year I hosted Twitter chat on behalf AWMB discussing British Asian women’s experiences in the workplace. A lot of the comments echoed that research.

This week I’m making a guest appearance at Asian Women MEAN Business. To read the rest of the article, click here.

Join the Twitter chat every Wednesday at 7pm GMT. Just use the hashtag #asianwomenmeanbiz

Managing your online identity

From left to right: Sarah Tomczak Red Features Editor; Janvi Patel founder of Halebury Law; Ella Woodward founder of Deliciously Ella; Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of Stemettes

From left to right: Sarah Tomczak Red Features Editor; Janvi Patel founder of Halebury law firm; Ella Woodward founder of Deliciously Ella; Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of Stemettes


Last week I attended a Red magazine Digital Masterclass. The speakers, British Asian business woman Janvi Patel; founder of Deliciously Ella, Ella Woodward; and Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of Stemettes are all award-winners and leaders in their fields.

The evening covered everything from SEO to how to effectively use social networks. For me, the most thought-provoking part of the evening was the talk around digital identities.

Now this is a really important subject to me as I manage my online personality and my digital footprint very carefully. I put very little personal stuff online about myself or my family. I blog anonymously as this works for me right now. I have often wondered though: if people connect with people, how are they going to connect with me?

But then listening to these ladies, I realised, we don’t connect with each other online, not really. We connect with the versions of ourselves that we create.

Take Ella for example. She has been incredibly open about her illness and what it’s led to in terms of the diet and lifestyle she’s created. But her illness and her recipes are not all that there is to her. She revealed at the masterclass, that she’d never share photos of her boyfriend or her sister; and she even has a separate Twitter account-with protected tweets, that is only for her family and very close friends. She says:

“Maintain your boundaries online. You can still have so much personality.”  Deliciously Ella

This coming from the blogger who, by her own admission, lives most of her life on Instagram, is really reassuring.

If it sounds calculating, well it’s not. It’s smart. What’s more, its basic marketing!  Janvi put it this way:

“Find your own online identity. Decide beforehand, where you want to be.” Janvi Patel

In other words, work out how you want to position yourself and only share those bits of your life online. Be discriminating. Never just brain-dump online- no one needs a play-by-play of your whole day or your every emotion. We all know people who do that don’t we? They’re the tweets we skim past, the updates we ignore.

Most people are (hopefully) already kind of discerning on how they present themselves online. Checking in when you arrive at a trendy bar, an update about your child’s latest achievement, or photos of your holiday/new outfit/new baby etc- it’s the bits of our lives we want people to see.

When do we really post something real- like the last time you felt lonely, or scared? None of us want to share those parts of lives with others, and it’s right that we hold some things back. We need to keep boundaries, hold onto something for ourselves. Otherwise we erode any kind of line between the public and the private.

What about the trolls?

The fact is if you put yourself out there in any capacity online, you have to accept that you might get trolled. But once again, you can anticipate that to some extent by managing what you share. Do people really need to see that photo of you- even if you worked out for months for it? Be aware that you might get weirdos suddenly lurking around your profile. Does the world really need your opinions on terrorism, if it’s likely to invite vitriolic comments?

A word about privacy settings

I know what you’re thinking: every social network has some level of privacy controls. But the truth is there are so many layers to how they work that in the end, you always leave a digital footprint. Remember the Snappening? Those photos were meant to go away. Hacking including cloning passwords and account details are shockingly easy to do. So nothing is ever sacred online.

Real life happens when you’re not online

Since social networking really took off in the last seven years or so, we’ve learnt a lot. It does feel like we’re entering a new, more safety-conscious era. It was reassuring listening to these women- who have all built some really successful brands- talk about how they draw a line between their online persona and ‘real life’:

“I finish all my communication in the taxi on the way to the restaurant, and never take my phone to the table” Janvi

“When I go up to bed, I put my phone on airplane mode. No tweet or update needs responding to straight away, you always have an acceptable window of about 5 or 6 hours to respond. Up to 10 if they’re in the States.” Ella

And if you really are glued to your online life like Anne Marie who confessed to sleeping with her smartphone, it’s worth remembering, as she pointed out, that actually, “interesting things- real life- often happen when you’re not online”.

Asian Women at Work pt3: Balancing culture and success

By day she negotiates huge contracts and smashes her targets. By night….she makes roti, doesn’t make eye contact and sits in the kitchen with the other ladies while the men all eat together. This is the life- and split personality of many Asian women at work.

My final post in this series continues to explore the comments that I gathered from hosting a Twitter chat with a fab group of women, the Asian Women Mean Business network.

“It’s tough for Asian women in the workplace. Values we are taught at home and in our communities don’t always hold well in the workplace, such as modesty & submissiveness. At work you have to blow your own trumpet!”

“Being dominant in the workplace but then being expected to be subservient in the home is a challenge.”

“Self-promotion at work doesn’t come naturally to us Asian women due to our upbringing & culture”

How do we balance the demands of the work place with the culture and behaviour we are taught at home, both of which are often at odds with each other?

The Western world tells us we need to ‘lean in’ but South Asian culture tells us quite the opposite, particularly when men are in the room. Proper desi female behaviour is polite and respectful, never bolshy, opinionated and assertive.

What’s even more challenging and frustrating, according to my AWMB Twitter chat, is slipping into the alter-ego at home of the submissive wife and daughter-in-law. Unfortunately some women still have to juggle both roles.

I worked for almost ten years in sales. Being a naturally chatty person, communication has always been my thing. But I always struggled to display that dominant, self- assured sales persona that is required to succeed in a fairly tough industry. Fortunately I never had to do the dual-personality thing with my husband; but certainly being ‘assertive’- a much needed quality in this industry, was considered by my South Asian family (even my own mother) as brash, rude and frankly undesirable behaviour.

For me the only way to resolve the tension between family expectation and workplace culture has been to keep the two worlds separate, and slip in and out of the two roles. Yes that’s frustrating: it’s a disappointing by-product of a culture that oppresses us, in my opinion.

But there’s no need to give up on ambition and achievement just because this family/work dichotomy exists. As British Asian women we can have both! In fact, as my AWMB peers have shown me, many women are bucking the trend by balancing successful careers with marriage and family life. Yes it’s tough to slip in and out of roles; but if career is important then it’s a case of managing both worlds. And perhaps it always will be a juggling act for our generation. But look at this way: we’re blazing a trail that our mothers only glimpsed at. There are now more British Asian women than ever in prominent roles in politics, business, entertainment and the media, science and technology. If these women had shied away from career progression because of cultural expectation they wouldn’t be where they are today.

So let’s not give up. Stand your ground against male counterparts or extended family who say South Asian women shouldn’t be assertive or successful. And perhaps our generation can change cultural attitudes so that our daughters won’t have to play a dual role at home and at work.

Read part one “The Need for Mentors” and part two “Racism at Work”.

Asian Women Mean Business meet every Wednesday night on Twitter between 7-8pm. Just tag your comments with #asianwomenmeanbiz to join the discussion


The tinted glass ceiling: Asian women at work pt 2

Racism in the workplace

Continuing on in my series on British Asian women in the workplace, this week I’ll be looking at racism. My thoughts are based on comments that came out of a Twitter chat I hosted a couple of weeks ago on behalf of Asian Women Mean Business (AWMB). What was clear from all the experiences that women tweeted was that for British Asian women, the glass ceiling is tinted. Both our gender AND our race are barriers to career progression. In this age of political correctness, tolerance, equality and all those other buzzwords, it’s clear that in the workplace, some things still haven’t changed.

In particular, negative stereotypes surrounding the role that women play in the Asian community have proved problematic. Many women feel they have to work harder to prove to their bosses and colleagues that they are committed to their careers, due to the perception that Asian women are expected to settle down, raise a family and give up on working life.

I have written before about the limitations that South Asian culture and community places on us women. But being a part of AWMB has shown me that there are plenty of British Asian women today bucking these trends. There are those occupying senior roles; those with business vision and plenty of entrepreneurial spirit. Some do this with the support of their family, others forge on despite of cultural pressure.

So to hear from my AWMB peers that many still put up with narrow minded, racist attitudes every day at work is disappointing and frustrating. We’re overcoming- to some extent at least, the double standards of South Asian culture, and yet we still face discrimination in the workplace. Two women at last week’s chat tweeted that they were asked by their managers whether they were going to have an arranged marriage and get pregnant straight away. Does doing both of these things mean you can’t also be ambitious?

Everyone assumes that racism is calling a person of colour “Paki” or “Nigger” to their face, but what about the subtle levels of racism that go on every day, when someone is passed over for promotion due to the notion that they’ll have an arranged marriage and be locked away; or sniggered at due to the sound of their name (I worked somewhere once where the Director’s PA hung up the phone on a caller from laughing too much at her Asian name).  One contributor to the twitter chat had an interviewee refuse an interview with her because she was Asian (apparently they showed him the door- thank goodness).

For many British Asian women it means “acting white” as one woman said she had to do in order to overcome this. Why should we have to do that? In a country that boasts countless curry houses and once considered Chicken Tikka its national dish, why on earth do we have to hide our culture and our difference just to get by at work?

But perhaps not hiding our diversity is the answer. Ignorant comments aside, many employers and colleagues are simply not savvy about different cultures as one woman pointed. It’s up to us to be our true selves at work, and share our strong family and work ethics as a positive thing. By doing this we add value to our workplaces. If Britain is a multicultural place, we should be the ones who prove how much worth the British Asian community has.

I think the idea that we add value to our workplaces just by sharing our diversity is so inspiring. It gives me hope- amidst the prejudice and frankly stupid comments we have to battle with on a daily basis. As someone recently said to me, if all the British people stay in one neighbourhood and all the ethnic minorities congregate elsewhere how will integration, and eventually understanding and acceptance of each other ever happen? Well the answer is that it won’t so it’s vital that as British Asian women we ‘own’ our ethnic minority status and culture and share it as a positive.

Yes that’s going to be frustrating as we are time and again faced with racism. But to me turning racism on its head is better than playing the victim card.


Read the rest of the series: part 1 “The Need for Mentors” and part 3 “Balancing culture and success”

Asian Women Mean Business meet every Wednesday night on Twitter between 7-8pm. Just tag your comments with #asianwomenmeanbiz to join the discussion


The tinted glass ceiling: Asian women at work part 1

The Need for Mentors

Last Wednesday I had the privilege of hosting a Twitter chat for a networking group for South Asian women called Asian Women Mean Business (AWMB). Our topic was the experiences of Asian women in the workplace. Social networking can sometimes feel a bit meaningless, so it was really refreshing to connect with this group of like-minded women; and it was wonderful to find empathy in the challenges we face as Desi women. It was clear from the comments that for British Asian women today, the glass ceiling is definitely tinted: that both our gender AND our ethnicity act as barriers to career progression.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of blogs highlighting both the challenges that British Asian women face in the workplace as well as discussing solutions to some of those issues. I’m dedicating the series to the founders and members of AWMB.

This is a group of intelligent, hard-working, talented women who inspire me; not just to forge on in my own career and ambitions, but to be a cheerleader to the next generation of British Asian women. While Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg urged us to “lean in” and take hold of our ambitions and opportunities, Labour MP Yvette Cooper pointed out that we should really “lean out” to take the hand of younger women coming up behind us as they start to climb the career ladder. And the need for mentors amongst British Asian women was made obvious in the discussion at Wednesday night’s Twitter chat, and from tweets that ensued in the next few days.

Comments like “Asian women can be so competitive towards each other” and “unfortunately, Asian women don’t help other Asian women” make it so clear that we have a problem with an unhealthy type of competitiveness. But what really brought it home to me was this comment from one young British Asian woman:

“From my experience…I find that most Asian girls in my generation aren’t brave enough to follow their ambitions. It’s even harder when so many women don’t support those who want to go off and do their own thing.”

Wow. Her comment was a real eye-opener that’s got me thinking about the whole area of mentoring.

I guess I’ve always been lucky enough to have had a couple of mentors around me, both personal and professional. When I failed my driving test for the millionath time, there was the one who encouraged me not to give up despite my many failed attempts. When my first freelance writing job was cut after just three months, a writer friend of mine (who also did the same role and subsequently also lost her job) sent me idea after idea to pitch to magazine editors she knew and even passed over to me an article she was asked to write. I didn’t realise it back then, but these people helped me not to give up on myself.

However confident, independent and successful you are, I believe that we all need those people who pick us up, give us new ideas and generally cheer us on in the rat race of life and especially work- which really is a rat race, as we all know.

Frankly, as British Asian women we face so much prejudice and disadvantage in every arena. And how true this is in the world of work partly because this is not an area that our culture and communities expect to excel at. Comments that came from Wednesday night’s chat echoed this sentiment, with many women telling of how their families only want them to succeed  to a certain level and no further; that husbands are not supportive of an entrepreneurial spirit; and as we’ve just seen, that other women in the community are unsupportive and often jealous of each other.

But then one woman pointed out that, “we need to highlight the achievements of others so that the next generation can see them.”

Let me just repeat that last bit: “so the next generation can see them.” So not just to inspire and applaud each other although this is important too, but for the sake of inspiring and being role models to the next generation.

Why don’t Asian women support each other more? Perhaps it’s down to an innate female competitiveness, I don’t know. But with the odds stacked against as South Asian women due to our gender, our culture, our race, even from husbands sometimes, what is very clear is that as women we need to put aside any petty rivalries and support each other. We need to be the first ones that help a younger Asian woman get a project off the ground or share industry contacts; or simply cheer her on when she’s had a bad day by telling her not to give up on herself.

It’s up to our generation to empower and inspire the next one. I’ve talked before about role models for the Asian community, but until now I didn’t realise that I can actually be one of those role models.

Read the rest of the series: part 2 “Racism in the Workplace” and part 3 “Balancing Culture and Success”

Asian Women Mean Business meet every Wednesday night on Twitter between 7-8pm. Just tag your comments with #asianwomenmeanbiz to join the discussion