A personal view on ethnicity

Diversity instinctively matters and what better time to focus on this than National Inclusion Week. I’ve been part of Telefonica UK for 10 years and I’ve seen many of our highs and lows but what I’m most proud of is the consistency that O2 cares about what’s right for its people and the community.

So naturally diversity is something that’s part of our DNA. To date, our Diversity and Inclusion agenda has focused on gender, our age demographic and the LGBTQ community and we’ve made great progress. Over 2,000 of you are now members of our Networks and are benefiting from being part of these. We’re helping like-minded people connect, share stories and support each other and our business to be even better.

And we’re now turning our attention to Ethnicity, rightly so I hear you say.

Statistics predict that that Ethnic minorities will make up 20% of the UK by 2050, today BME backgrounds account for approximately 14% of the working-age population but just 10% of the workforce and 6% of top management positions.

So there is a UK wide opportunity for us to step forward and address the lack of diversity in business but particularly at senior levels of management. I’m part of the O2 HR leadership team and I’ve grown through this business so I truly believe it’s possible to make a positive change in this space.

I’m a British Indian, I’m a Sikh and my parent’s originated from India and South Africa. I’m proud of my heritage and my roots but whilst writing this I realised how difficult it is to articulate what ethnicity means to me.

Being British and an Indian both matter in equal measures to me but these two parts of my life haven’t always sat comfortably with one another. Today I’m pleased that there are visible shifts, intertwining and representation of different ethnicity groups and cultures in the music, film and TV industries. Its powerful stuff to be able to see someone similar to you representing another part of our community and to be able to relate.

It wasn’t always that way, my earliest memories are of not quite fitting in at school, and living in what felt like two very different worlds. I was the only ethnic child in a white middle class primary school and that was a brutal but character building experience! I wanted to be like all of the other girls but the boundaries set by my parents set me painfully apart. I didn’t understand it then, I felt restrained by my differences but now I understand that my parents were just desperately trying to preserve their Indian values and culture.

I’m grateful to my parents because they were also really determined to provide me and my three siblings the opportunity to educate ourselves so that eventually we would have more choices than them. Going away to university for my degree and then post graduate set me apart in the Indian community as I was breaking cultural gender expectations. I guess being an Asian female is a double whammy really, more constraints that I needed to break through but determination and resilience count for a lot! I wanted to create a middle ground between tradition, expectations, ‘British’ and Asian life. Not sure if I’ve achieved that however I’m proud of what I have achieved and I hope that other ethnically diverse individuals can relate to my story.

One of my biggest learnings personally about why ethnicity matters at work is linked to communication. At home dad spoke English, mum predominately Punjabi and therefore my first language was an odd blend of Punjabi and English and I did neither well. I learnt that in order for mum and I to communicate, I had to get straight to the point and to not dress things up so she could understand … now consider the traditional diplomatic, polite British communication style and you have a difference right there!

What ethnicity means to me will be a life-long lesson, I’m still learning to be comfortable with my ethnicity at work and equally the reverse, being comfortable with my career ambition and successes when I’m back at home with the family. There are many examples of where my worlds still don’t sit comfortably together even today but I do believe by connecting with others, sharing experience and genuinely listening can make a real difference.

We all have more opportunities to connect with those around us, to help each other bring the very best of ourselves at work, and to see differences as a strength. I won’t get into the ethnicity implications of politics today. It’s a big scary world sometimes but what I am focused on is what I can influence right here and now and what role I want to play to ensure that our diversity represents our communities and customer base.  Ethnicity matters at O2, we care about inclusivity for everyone and that’s the environment I want to work within.

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