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‘I altered my personality to fit in at work’

Dawid Konotey-Ahulu, Funke Abimbola, Pavita Cooper and David Wallis
The BBC spoke to four diversity champions

The lack of ethnic diversity at the top of UK companies is coming under increasing focus, with calls for change from big business groups and investors.

Surveys continue to show that black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) people are under-represented in senior positions.

But some succeed, and then turn their drive and passion to helping others. The BBC has spoken to four of them.

‘I had adapted who I was to fit the environment’

Pavita Cooper runs More Difference, a recruitment and consultancy firm that promotes diversity.

Working at blue-chip firms for more than 25 years she never felt discriminated against.

But after she left, she realised she had been altering her personality to “fit in”.

“I had adapted who I was to fit the environment,” Pavita says. “I presented a version of myself that would fit in with them.”

“I’m a Sikh, and faith is important to me,” she adds. “But I made an assumption I should be just like them.”

Despite under-representation, she says people with an Asian background tend to have an easier time getting to the top of large firms than black people.

“If you’re black, generally the experience is worse,” she says.

What’s more, there’s a “hierarchy of race”, she says, with “very black women” having the toughest time of all.

One way to solve this problem is to make ethnic minority pay gap reporting mandatory, to force executives to act, she says.

‘I had to put in a lot more effort to get my foot in the door’

One black woman who managed to get into high-flying jobs in the UK is lawyer, consultant, and campaigner Funke Abimbola.

She experienced discrimination working in the legal profession, even though she had what she describes as a “privileged” upbringing.

“I had to put in a lot more effort to get my foot in the door,” she says.

She refused to change her African name, even though she says she missed out on job opportunities because of it.

And she says she had to deal with micro-aggressions – everyday sleights and indignities – on a daily basis.

For example, a client once used a racial slur in a meeting. “When he said it, he knew I was black,” she says.

As she climbed higher up the ladder, she was criticised as being “too assertive” by executives.

“White male leaders can’t deal with it,” she says. “They say I am ‘over-promoting’ myself.”

She says black people in business face “systemic barriers” such as low expectations about their potential, and that because there are so few in top businesses, black people get scrutinised more.

You have to have “real steel” to progress, she says.

‘You don’t see a lot of people who look like me’

Entrepreneur Dawid Konotey-Ahulu is involved in initiatives to try to improve workplace diversity.

He started out as a lawyer before having a successful City career, but says he faced extra hurdles compared with white people.