Interviews

Black History Month: Sexism or racism? It's hard to know as a black woman in business

9 min read

31 October 2017

"I would love to see the day when we don’t need a Black History Month because we are all recognised for our contribution," says Brenda Gabriel, who has witnessed both racism and sexism in her career.

As a black woman in business, Brenda Gabriel has encountered a number of challenges, but whether they’re down to sexism or racism, it’s been unclear.

Kicking off the first of our profiles on black entrepreneurs to mark Black History Month, publicist Gabriel sheds light on her journey.

What have been the key business challenges that you faced to get to where you are today?

My biggest business challenges have stemmed from a lack of knowledge of how to get from A to B and a lack of confidence.

Feeling like I didn’t know enough has probably been one of my biggest barriers to success. It’s only as I’ve become more experienced in business I realise the importance of recognising my skills and talents and individuality.

Two of my biggest business lessons have been, without sales, you have a hobby, and where performance is an issue, coaching is a must, not a nice to have. Once I learned the importance of these truths my business started to take off.

Have you ever witnessed racism in the workplace, whether directed at yourself or a colleague?

I have experienced casual racism in the workplace on numerous occasions but was so used to the jokey comments I didn’t realise it was actually something to be offended by for years.

At 19 I got my first job working for a security company. At the interview I was told that many of the managers were ex-military and was asked if I would take offence at hearing swearing, racist or sexist language and jokes. I said as long as they weren’t directed at me I’d be fine.

In hindsight, it was an appalling question to be asked and an even worse answer, especially having been on the receiving end of racism and sexism on numerous occasions – even at 19. My response got me the job! I don’t actually recall experiencing racism while I worked there.

During my time working for the CPS, as a member of the Association for Black and Ethnic Minority Staff, I was aware of numerous instances where colleagues felt they had been treated differently as a result of their ethnic background. Stories ranged from police officers making reference to not being able to understand strong African accents to job appointments almost appearing to be fixed.

One of the biggest incidents I was aware of was an Asian employee who won a £600,000 race claim payout after being suspended for telling a court security guard she was a “friend of Bin Laden’s” when being searched upon entering court.

There were many grey incidents which took place during my career. I was once referred to as very assertive in meetings, which could be seen as intimidating. There were meetings where I would put forward a point and the room would remain silent until a male white manager would repeat the same thing as if it was a new idea and the room would break into a chorus of agreement on whatever had just been proposed.

There were other incidents that took place, which left me wondering if racism did play an issue, but it could have just as easily been sexism.

How was it dealt with?

The CPS tended to take claims against race discrimination seriously, but those who did call out racism were often seen as lazy troublemakers who would use any excuse to get out of doing what they were paid for.

I never raised any issues with management around treatment because I had a fear of being seen as a black person with a chip on my shoulder.

Do you feel as though your heritage has ever been a factor in your career development?

I do indeed. Racism, like the term black, has become so politically charged that it’s difficult to have a conversation about it without offending or portraying people as bigots or victims. 

Something as simple as not attending after work drinks could mean missing out on finding out about the latest internal recruitment drive or who will be on the panel of the next round of interviews. These gatherings don’t exclude BAME people, but due to cultural norms it would be unlikely that say a Muslim that doesn’t drink would attend such social events, which would put them at a disadvantage. 

Several years ago, I was informed I almost didn’t get the promotion I aced at interview, because a senior manager promised his current PA she would be given the position. When she didn’t pass the board, he said he wouldn’t take the job unless she was his PA. Apparently, it was an Asian woman on the panel who fought my corner and stated as I was the best candidate I had to be given the job.

After some deliberation, he ended up with two executive assistants. I spent two years making up my own job role because of that decision, which definitely affected my career progression. Up to this day I’m still not sure that this situation was down to racism?

How important is an initiative like Black History Month – on a cultural and business level?

I think Black History Month is a good idea in theory, reminding us of the contributions made by BAME people over the years. On a cultural level I think it does help instil a sense of pride in people of colour to have their contribution recognised. It does seem strange that this recognition can only take place for 31 days of the year. 

On a business level, I think it is nice for organisations to show an awareness of the history of BAME people within their workforce and demonstrates a commitment to corporate social responsibility and diversity.

I personally find that the word black is so politically charged it causes non-black people to disengage. I think referring to heritage of people of note, rather than their colour, is a more inclusive way raising awareness of their contribution. 

Do you think UK companies or leaders should be doing anything to highlight Black History Month?

I would love to see the day when we don’t need a Black History Month because we are all recognised for our contribution. Meanwhile, I think it is a positive step for organisations and leaders to take on the role of educators within their work community, which I believe can only work in favour of race relations in the workplace.

Our next entrepreneur being profiled was taught a valuable lesson when he was a young man serving in the armed forces.

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