#NotOK: Discrimination in the workplace & how to tackle it — PART 1
This is part one of a three part blog series on discrimination in the workpalce. I will be publishing part two next Tuesday.
Discrimination at work takes many forms and target all sorts of facettes of who you are: Your gender, religion, wealth, cultural background, ethnicity, age, nationality… The caricature of the (caucasian male) boss who calls all women “sweety”, makes them get his tea/newspaper/dry cleaning regardless of their position and experience, and would not make contact with a black cleaning lady is still — shockingly — a reality, but this is also the side of discrimination that we’re so aware of that we tend to immediately be vocal about it and we charge full on to get it resolved without a shadow of a doubt. Discrimination can be a lot more vicious and harder to identify!
Now that I am much more aware about discrimination, I am more observant, I spot it easier and faster. There are still moments of confusion (“what IS happening here?!”) and doubt (“Nooo, this can’t be happening!”) leading to a delayed reaction or none at all, but I’m getting better at this. There was a time not so long ago where I just… felt uncomfortable in the presence of some form of unfair discrimination, targeted at me or to others, and did not quite know quite why or how to react and certainly had no idea how to fix it, if it is fixable.
Having left my home country France as soon as I graduated from uni, I have lived and worked abroad all my life. Let’s define what “abroad” means for me: USA, Great Britain, India, Morocco, United Emirates, Egypt, Czech Republic, Africa… Through these experiences (the good, the bad and the ugly, they all taught me so much I now consider myself blessed to have had them), as I am sure you have guessed, I went through my fair share of discrimination. Some of it was obvious, some of it was soooo obvious I did not even recognise it as such! Some of it was vicious and hidden behind soft voices, smiles and patronising ways… Some of it was just totally rude and unacceptable and absolutely NOT explained by cultural differences (before you’re thinking some Chinese person burped in my face during dinner and I considered this racism! NO! I know that in some part of the world, burping while having a meal is a sign of enjoyment. This is cultural relevance which I embrace, not discrimination.)
So, rather than to stay general about discrimination, like so many fantastic articles I regularly tweet about, I am going to get VERY personal and list cases of discrimination I suffered from, and how (long? hard?) I recognised them as discrimination. I won’t always talk about my reaction because it is somehow irrelevant: You have to find your own voice in the face of such situations. Exception may be made if there’s a funny element to my reaction, because I can’t miss out on an opportunity to have a giggle at my own expense!
Before I start, I must say that I am lucky: I have never suffered discrimination enough to stop me in my track or ruin my career or my soul. I know that discrimination can go as far as ruining completely someone’s self worth and progression. So I am by no means positioning myself as the ultimate victim!
In the mid 90’s, I had been based in London for a few years. I interviewed for a marketing role over the phone because the HQ of the hiring company was based in the North of England. I had been introduced to this company by a recruitment agency. After the phone interview which was unusually short, the recruitment agent gave me this feedback: “They’re not going to proceed because your French accent is too strong on the phone. They feel there won’t be a good fit between someone who sounds fo veryreign and their 100% British workforce”.
I took it on the chin and stopped immediately reading books in French, I switched to English. I focused on getting my English to British-born-and-bred level within a couple of years and to refine my accent to almost undetectable. Sadly at the time I did not know this form of discrimination was not OK. I could have complained, I could have sued, I could have made a huge fuss. I did not, I was too focused on the future to take care of something that was already part of the past. Would I remain silent today? I don’t think so…
While working in India, I was, to say the least, an abnormality. Sure, 10 yrs ago, many women already worked in corporations in India, but most of them would remain at entry level (call centres, receptionist and so on.) and leave work once they get married. People always get very red in the face when I say this and start listing exceptions “The CEO of XYZ company is a woman!” sure, these cases exist, they are called EX CEP TIONS! I was an exceptionally exceptional exception: French, woman, unmarried… oh boy!
So anyway, here I am heading marketing for a global tech company in India and surrounding countries, based in Bombay, with a local MD who hates the fact that as an expat I earn about 20 time what he earns (Oops, the local accountant who is against expats has “made a mistake” and sent the details of my expat package to all the local stakeholders. Moving on…) and I start receiving mail to the attention of “Mr. Gamel”. After a laughable “why is someone writing to my father in India?” moment, I am fine, I can live with that, call me Mario is if floats your boat! Then one day I go to meet with the CMO and team of a leading local mobile operator in Delhi. As I don’t like Delhi, the timing is tight, I land late morning, I leave again late afternoon, and the drive to and from the airport is of course a nightmare. I arrive at the meeting: Full meeting room, about 10 people there, we’re waiting, and waiting, and waiting… and no one says a word… This goes on for ½ hour of total silence. I nervously check my watch, thinking I have to leave in less than an hour to go to the airport… Eventually, I ask “Who are we waiting for? Maybe we should start?” and someone asks me “When is the Indian CMO joining us?”. I respond “Hum, the CMO of India has been here for the past 45 minutes, it’s me, Marion Gamel”. Oh Dear Gog! The sheer disappointment in their eyes!!! Poor puppets, they had all made room in their busy schedule to meet what turns out to be (by default, right?) an incapable, inexperienced, junior WOMAN! I got back to Bombay and made a deal with their direct competitors. I also ensured that at all forthcoming meetings I took with me a MALE INDIAN colleague — who I would brief beforehand — to do the talking. It worked like a charm. I was not sent to India to change the ways of a billion people, I was there to do business, so I adapted.
Not so long ago, I caught someone calling all women who hold fairly junior positions in the company “girls”. The receptionist “girls”, your PA “girl”, the ops “girls”.
So I asked him in his opinion when it is that a GIRL becomes a WOMAN or a LADY. Is it an age or a cuteness thing? Being unmarried am I a GIRL? Or am I too old or not cute enough to be one? (that is discriminating too, right? Maybe I want to be a GIRL!!!!). As one of my team’s “girls” was copied in the email, I also warned him he was not improving cross departmental relations by calling her such. He reassured me he would only use the term “girl” for his own team from now on… Some people never learn!
I welcome people who have or are suffering from discrimination to use the hashtag #NotOK to talk about it. Our voices, pointing a finger, the shame, as well as sharing your tips for getting out of sticky situations will not only temper the ability for manipulating individuals and companies to discriminate unfairly, they will also bring a lot of support to people feeling the burden of discrimination.
Please stay tune for part two of this blog series, which will be published next week.
You can check out all of my blogs here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mariongamel/recent-activity/posts/