Interview with Black Women in Leadership Network

We sat down with Co-Founders of Black Women in Leadership Network (BWIL), Dara Owoyemi, Lloydette Bai-Marrow and Abi Mustapha-Maduakor, to find out about their mission for BWIL and the results of their recent survey.

Black Women in Leadership Network (BWIL) is a non-profit network of professional women of black ethnicity, with a mission to increase the representation of black women in leadership and decision making positions in corporate organisations, across various sectors in the U.K.  

They bring together a community of black female professionals to advocate for change in the workplace. They harness the experiences of senior black female leaders and decision makers and the expertise of their network, partners and alliances to inspire and empower the next generation of black female leaders.

What motivated you to be involved in Black Women in Leadership Network (BWIL) and what are your goals for BWIL?

Abi: I started as an accountant, then moved into structured products in UK banks. I spent some time at a start-up in Nigeria, Compressed National Gas Distribution and supporting a minister of industry, trade and investment, as a special advisor focused on SME development. Then came back to the UK, and since then I’ve had some roles as COO at African Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (AVCA) also spent some time at MedAccess, a wholly owned subsidiary of BII and now back as CEO of AVCA.

Inequalities is always something that I’ve grappled with personally. It’s something that I have a big conviction towards addressing. BWIL started because at different points in my career, personally, I’d thought, ‘what’s the point in just trying to get to the top? Because I’m never going to get there’. And when you are in a position where you feel as though you should be somewhere that you’re not, and you feel that the only barrier to you getting there is not to do with your competence, but to do with your access and to do with the people you know. We wanted to change that.

Lloydette: I started my career as a government lawyer. I worked in a number of departments as a government prosecutor, the Crown Prosecution Service, HMRC and then most recently the Serious Fraud Office, before leaving in 2017.  I decided to make the jump from the profession into building my own economic crime investigations practice. Now I support companies, be they large private companies or multinational organisations, with conducting independent and impartial investigations into economic crime issues. We help with development and design of training for organisations that address bribery and corruption risks. We act as a strategic partner when organisations are under investigation either by law enforcement or regulatory body supporting them to reach a resolution

The reason why I became part of BWIL is because in my civil service career there were really no senior Black women that I saw. All the Black women that I knew were junior members of staff, and I just did not see anybody that looked like me. That was quite demoralising in many ways because you think, ‘Well, how do I climb the career ladder when there isn’t anybody like me’, even in the senior civil service. There’s a real lack of visibility of Black women who hold senior positions across organisations. A recognition, from speaking to my friends and colleagues, that many were leaving the professions, be that accountancy, law or others, simply because they found it too hard to break through the glass ceiling. I really wanted to see how we could move the needle on changing that or at least the discourse around what needs to happen next.

Dara: I trained as a chemical engineer, but I’ve spent my entire career in the finance industry, first as a corporate finance banker working with the likes of Lehman Brothers and Renaissance Capital. And then I moved into investment promotion, working first as Chief Operating Officer for the African Private Equity and Venture Capital Association and later as as Interim CEO. More recently, I’ve worked as a strategy consultant and adviser on international development projects supporting government and companies on attracting foreign and domestic investments to spur growth and development.

I had been talking to quite a number of women who were middle / senior management, who had made the observation that corporates in the UK were very focused on supporting the Black community in getting jobs at the entry level. However, the further up Black professionals moved in their careers, the less support there was, and the more barriers they faced.

Black women are faced with unique issues for being at the intersection of gender and race. So, our vision for BWIL was to create an organisation that would advocate on behalf of Black females; to help to be a voice around the issues that were being faced and to help magnify what needed to be done in order to ensure that change occurs; and support Black female professionals in maximizing their potential as they climb the career ladder.

What drove the design of the report, what is the ultimate purpose and what do you want the results to be of the report?

Dara: From the onset, we found that there was very little data on Black professionals in the UK. A lot of data we found in our research was anecdotal especially on the challenges faced by Black women in the UK workspace. We want to be an organisation that advocates based on concrete data. We want to be able to measure how Black females are feeling in the UK corporate space and we want to be able to measure how sentiments are changing over time, most importantly. This report was designed for us to hear from Black women and putting together the voices of 250 Black women gave interesting results.

Abi: It was clear that the report should have a call to action. It’s one thing arming people with the data about what’s going on but the question is: what do they do with it and how can you support them in that? It was a key part of our objectives to make sure that there was a constructive framework, guidance and advice of what organisations can do. We’re hoping to build partnerships with organisations that do actually want to move the needle internally and do actually want to create the spaces for Black women to be part of the table within their organisation. So, it’s very important to use this report as a foundation to have those entry conversations into those industries.

Lloydette: We see the report as the beginning of the process of data driven advocacy for us as an organisation. There are a lot of people or organisations who say: “we know that these problems exist, but where is the data?” One of the things that we found quite interesting when we were designing the report and when we saw the results, was around this issue of the lived experiences of people, which comes from feelings versus hard, cold statistics.

It’s important that people accept that the lived experiences of Black women are just as valid as a number. Because it isn’t just one Black woman that says this; what we saw were consistent themes. When we were talking about the report and preparing the questions, we wanted to ask questions that touched on the lived experiences while also balancing that with some that bring numbers into it. This was because we know that people will say, well, it’s just anecdotal evidence. The lived experience is actually still evidence, and it still matters. We hope that we’re able to track over time where things are moving. We’re already seeing a massive pushback in many industries around progression and around the diversity and inclusion agenda. Our work is even more important in continuing to bang on that drum.

Dara: What was also great for us was that BWIL started before the George Floyd Black Lives Matter movement. The BLM movement brought a lot of the issues we’d already been talking about to the fore. It also highlighted a number of organisations that were ready to take action and who have done a lot of work since those protests. And in the structure of the report, it was important for us to highlight the work that has been done since the BLM protests, to showcase that there are some companies that are taking it seriously and there are others who are not quite up to scratch or who are still a work in progress. It’s important as a country and as corporates for us to be able to learn from one another and there are a lot of learnings that can be shared across various organisations.

It was quite startling to see the statistics of the report. Four out of ten participants felt they weren’t getting the same advancement as white female colleagues. Almost 50% felt they will be overlooked for promotion. 58% had work mentors but there was a massive issue with organically finding sponsors. Two out of three participants reported having felt racial bias at work. A third had resigned previously in their career due to racial bias and unfair treatment. Four out of ten believed that they were paid less than their white female colleagues in exactly the same role. And that’s on top of the 7.9% gender pay gap that already exists for females in the workplace.

What was the most surprising statistic from the report for you?

Dara: There were two findings from the survey were quite interesting to me. The first one was around Black women being under sponsored. This is a finding that we look to unpack further in a subsequent study es that we do as an organisation. It’s important to really highlight that the more senior you go, the more important sponsorship is. From a sponsorship perspective, a lot of women talk about needing to have someone that looks like them; understands them, and who have gone through very similar challenges. Black women generally find it very difficult to find sponsors to support their career journey.

And the second one for me was around racial discrimination. As we continue to unpick who we are as Black women in the UK, you find that Black women come from very different backgrounds. You have the African professionals, many of whom moved to the UK for education  or work. You’ve got the Caribbeans, many of whom are second or third generation and who’ve had very different experiences on racial discrimination from the Africans. Factors such as how long you’ve lived in the UK; the areas you’ve lived in; who you’ve grown up around, to name a few all play a role in the sort of experiences faced.  Seeing that in 2022 two in three women surveyed had experienced racial bias, and a 1/3 had resigned as a result of it, was quite disappointing.

Abi: From my perspective, the first one is the sponsorship. I’ve been a beneficiary of sponsorship in the later stage of my career, and I know how important it is when you have an advocate and an ally internally that exposes you to rooms that really you have no business being in, at the level that you are. And I’ve seen how that can completely accelerate your career. For Black women it’s really important.

The issue is you’re always being told in your career you should get a mentor. Nobody ever tells you about sponsorship when you are a Black woman that’s mid-career. You see a lot of mid-career Black women following that pathway and they get frustrated because the mentor is not able to advocate for you internally. So, they can help you think about your broader career in general, but you want to move from point A to point B where you are internally and the two don’t correlate. And you get the sense of overwhelming frustration from Black women that are junior management, who want to ascend to senior management and leadership.

So, for me, I found that statistic incredibly important. And having been a direct beneficiary, I understand the importance of sponsorship. My sponsor happened not to be Black or a woman. It’s difficult to strike that organic relationship with them, when you don’t really have much in common and they don’t really look you.  You need a certain level of boldness to try and seek out those sponsors. Organisations need to create spaces where you can form those organic relationships with potential sponsors through informal social activities, interest groups etc.  

The second was on equal pay. When you’re African, your parents tell you can be anything you want to be. You grow up with a sense of confidence and feel the whole world is a meritocracy, and that if you work hard, you can get whatever you want in life. I came here when I was very young, and I started to realise as I grew older that this meritocracy world that I thought it was, wasn’t quite that way, and it was a little bit imbalanced. What the pay gap showed me was that not all Black women actually think that they’re going to experience some sort of bias in the workplace. Some, like me, are a little bit naive, just thinking ‘well if I work really hard, I’m going to get the same pay and I’m going to do really well’. So that statistic made me quite sad because the harsh reality is that might not be the case. You look at why, you ask yourself the questions, you look at their experience or educational qualifications, and realise that on each of these you outweigh them. And then you can’t help but look at their ethnicity and you look at their sex, and you see that’s the only differentiating factor. So that statistic was not shocking to me but made me sad. The reality is that the world isn’t a meritocracy. Even though we know this innately, but just having the data to support that is important.

The final result that stood out to me was that a 1/3 of Black women left because of racial bias.  We’re at the stage in the society that everyone is more attuned to some of these nuances, social differences and social inequalities, but in the past people weren’t. So, it made me think that in the past people wouldn’t have been able to name it. They probably wouldn’t have realised there was actual racial bias, there was a reason. You think about what that does to a Black woman where you are experiencing all sorts of consciousness or unconscious bias and you’re scared to use the word ‘racism’ because it could have been considered a taboo a few years ago. It’s just now because of all the things that have been happening that people feel very comfortable naming racism. But you couldn’t before. And you would instantly start thinking as a Black woman that it’s a reflection of me, and that has damaging effects on your self-confidence. I’m glad that we are at the point in society where people feel comfortable naming it and the fact that the women that did this report were able to name it, I think that’s positive. But then I just think, God, the years of just suffering in silence that a lot of them must have had to face. And the fact that you actually have to leave employment because of the biases you’re facing, that in itself is quite sad.

Lloydette: For me, again the piece on sponsorship is so important. I’m always banging on this drum about the importance of sponsorship and it’s just as relevant in the Civil Service as it is in the private sector. We want to explore this further in future reports. I think there is a danger around lazy responses by organisations. By lazy I mean – not thinking through what the issues are and then designing solutions that deal with those issues, but rather they will throw a mentoring campaign at the issue. For many women, those mentoring relationships do not bear the fruit that they need to because they’re not designed properly, but also because often they’re not the solution to the problem.

To really buttress the point that Abi made around Black women having the confidence to seek out sponsors. That’s part of the work that we need to do. There is a role that the organisation needs to play by providing access to leaders within the organisation and those who sit at the decision-making table. There is also a degree of confidence that we need to build into those who aspire to senior leadership to network, to go and meet those individuals. I have sought out in many of my jobs, those individuals who became sponsors, who said my name in rooms that I wasn’t in. So, I think that’s important.

The other important part for me is around being passed over for promotion. There’s a current case, which was just finalised in the employment tribunal, of a senior black civil servant at the Ministry of Justice who suffered terrible discrimination at the hands of the MoJ, her employer at the time. There are many Black women who will tell you that they get to a position and then they find that somebody else is promoted in above them, and they are made to train that person who was less qualified than them to  be their manager. That is a common occurrence. As Abi said, they question whether there is a problem with themselves, and almost being gaslit into a situation where they don’t really know what’s going on and how to navigate it.

The third element for me would just be around equal pay. One of the areas that we really want to focus on in the future is around the ethnicity pay gap; there are few organisations that have dared to release their ethnicity pay gap. The gender pay gap is already at 7.9%, The ethnicity pay gap will be quite shocking and quite painful for many organisations because it will reveal a quite dramatic picture about the real state of play.

This report can be useful to so many different categories of people; whether it’s a Black woman who reads it, whether it’s someone who is the CEO of an organisation, whether it’s someone who is talent strategy, people management in the industry or it’s a head-hunter or a recruiter. Who was your target audience going into this and what do you want them to do?

Lloydette: Definitely all of the above. Recruiters stand at the interchange between those who want to move up into senior level roles and those who are looking for people in senior level roles. What has occurred over the last couple of years has identified some terrible practices within the recruitment industry that were just accepted. Recruiters need to ensure that they understand what is required of them to place candidates before organisations that are suitably qualified but also may be candidates of colour, and not to hesitate about doing that. But on the other hand, we also want organisations to be able to make sure that those recruiters who are reluctant to do that are forced to and require them to provide a diverse shortlist. There’s a real interchange in terms of expectations on both sides. The framework that we’ve put together gives the corporates something to start working with. There are many organisations that are quite mature in this area and that have done a lot of work. There are others who have talked a good talk but really not walked it at all. And this hopefully is another opportunity to prompt them into some action. We know that diverse organisations add value, they add to the bottom line, they add to profitability. So, it makes good business sense as well.

Abi: We were always very much focused on the fact that we wanted to use this report as a tool for advocacy, rather than thinking about the effect on the demographic we were actually reporting on.  There was an article on the report in the Metro and I saw a lot of Black women comment to say: ‘Oh gosh, so it’s not just me’, ‘I’ve been saying this for ages and it’s nice to see that it’s actually in a report’. There’s something powerful about having your lived experience validated through a report.  You feel as though you’re not crazy and as though what is happening to you is real. And once you have that validation, you can then start future planning on how to overcome it. That’s something really important that I personally hadn’t considered before: the power of this validation, the power of collective views, and I think that’s really strong.

In my last organisation I was head of the D&I committee. You have your D&I priorities but once you have a report of this kind, you’ll instantly start looking at your demographic within the organisation. I’m hoping that this would prompt a D&I committee lead or talent management lead to do some more work within the organisation to understand the sentiments of this cohort of employees and look through their policies. Blind recruitment as an example is a powerful too, even things like names give away a lot. And if you have unconscious bias within the organisation, you can see certain names and instantly preclude them from the process without thinking. So raising the consciousness of those that are in the power to at least screen and let people in the door, and then also those that are in the power to retain employees by ensuring that they have these adequate opportunities for advancement, for pay reviews that are similar to everyone else, documented processes for how people move from one pay scale to the other. All of these internal processes that lead to transparency are really important. If I were in talent management or head of the D&I committee and I got this, it would instantly make me think about reviewing our processes and make sure that all potential for unconscious bias is removed.

Dara: When we started to form BWIL, we spent time talking to several Black senior females in the UK to get their views on our mission, goals and strategy, and how we could go about it. Senior Black women can use this report with concrete data to internally speak about their own challenges. There are so many hurdles they face trying to break that glass ceiling. This report also gives D&I executives within organisations a tool to be able to say, ‘these are the issues that Black women in general in the UK are facing’. They can then compare the data to what Black women in their own organisations are saying. The report can support corporates to measure themselves against each other and see where they stand relative to everyone else in terms of moving the needle on the challenges faced by black women in their organisations.

As a recruiter or headhunter, you can often be the person who decides which candidates get shortlisted. You also choose who to champion, and you can often influence a decision so there is a responsibility there. My exposure to recruiting senior roles within civil service has been that when it comes to pre-panel meetings and talking about the longlisting, there’s a sense check – is there enough diversity? The needle has moved a little bit, in terms of thinking about ethnicity and economical diversity. When I first started that didn’t come up as much. It was much more about ‘what’s the ratio of females to male’, as long as there were a couple of females, then the shortlist would get through. And so, it feels like it’s going slightly the right way in some respects, but the point I wanted to make is that this report helps elevate it further and it’s this evidence-based side of things that will really kick things on. As a recruiter and in headhunting, what policies do you think recruitment agencies should have in place to ensure that there is an acceptance and acknowledgement of this in a positive way?

Abi: What is really important is blind recruitment, encouraging your clients to look at candidates who aren’t necessarily from Oxbridge or specific universities and throwing in a wildcard to your shortlist that doesn’t necessarily meet their spec.  If recruiters can make sure that they put together a diverse shortlist, even if it goes against what their clients want, I think that would help. Recruiters have a lot of power to influence the mindset of their clients and advocate on behalf of diverse candidates. So, using your seats of influence to positively influence your clients to be as diverse as possible. And when I say this, I would be very careful not to use the word ‘quotas’. ‘Quotas’ for me has a negative connotation because it assumes that you have to fill certain seats with people that are not necessarily as good as others because of their gender, race or sexual preference etc. So, I’m not an advocate of them and support meritocracy, but that might come from people who have a slightly different background to others.

Lloydette: There is a myth that senior Black talent isn’t there, it doesn’t exist, you can’t get people who are board ready that are Black or female. What is really powerful is to find those women and those men that are capable, competent and ready for that next step in their career. Often recruiters aren’t looking in the right places. They go to the same old, and expect to find a different result. Recruiters need to build relationships with the community.

They need to understand where to find diverse candidates, but also adapt their approach to them, recognising that many of these people don’t feel qualified, even though they’ve got the receipts. They often don’t have the same level of confidence as others.  Dara earlier made this distinction between Africans who are were born in Africa and raised there for a significant part of their lives before coming to the UK. There is a difference between those who grew up in an environment where everyone around them looked like them. Where the president looks like them and  the most senior people in leadership look like them. Africans and Caribbeans who grew up in the UK probably need a little bit more support. We saw that in one senior Black professional  that we spoke to who said, ‘I came here, I knew who I was, I knew what skills I had, and I knew what I had to offer’. So, there’s little bit of support need to encourage some people to put their hat in the ring for that job. It’s important to ensure that those individuals get constructive feedback when they don’t get those jobs.

Dara: I agree that the key thing for recruiters is building relationships with Black women across the UK. If you look at the general population, we are a small subset of the working population. And when you have to build a diverse shortlist, having those existing relationships and following Black women on their journey is crucial.  A lot of what we are seeing now is that head-hunters and recruiters are being asked to put diverse candidates on shortlists, and because their relationships don’t exist, you find that all sorts of people are being approached who may not have the right skills or people who are only remotely relevant to the role are being put forward. 

We are finding shortlists are getting diverse but are we actually seeing the results of the diversity on the lists? We don’t want this to just be a tick-box exercise. It is important that everyone who’s on the shortlist actually has the capacity, the skill sets and the ability to take up the relevant position. We want to see more Black women go through; we don’t just want to see them on the list. It has to go beyond the lists.