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To be Black, to be a woman

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 – in conversation with TPCL Partner Hilary Harvey

In this series of articles, we’re gleaning all we can from TPC Leadership UK Partner Hilary Harvey, on the subject of Diversity and Inclusion. Today Hilary reflects on her personal experience as a woman with Caribbean and Indian heritage.

A long-valued coach and consultant, Hilary has always brought rich insight to TPC Leadership. Whether she has been speaking on collaboration or technology, or leading reverse mentoring programmes for the NHS, she has always tackled complex issues with great awareness and expertise. Here, she opens up about how her background, gender and skin colour have affected her career to date.

The normal that you get used to

Except for when she was in management consulting, Hilary says that she has always tended to be the youngest in the room. That room has usually been predominantly filled with older men, and when Hilary has looked around, she has often been the only person of colour in sight.

“That’s my norm,” says Hilary. “It’s always something I’m aware of. Not in a negative way, but if your experience is not the dominant one in a group, you’re aware of it. I imagine it’s the same if you’re the only one from outside the UK in a room full of British people.”

Hilary mentions an exception: she has been working recently with another colleague from a BAME background. Together they have been running reverse mentoring training sessions with various NHS trusts for staff from culturally diverse backgrounds, the majority of whom have been people of colour. 

“My colleague is in her 50s,” says Hilary. “She says she’s never experienced anything like it. We’ve reflected that we feel different in these contexts. We somehow feel more relaxed and like we can be more ourselves. I didn’t even realise that I had been self-censoring elsewhere until we began running these sessions.”

Deciding whether it’s worth going there

When reverse-mentoring training has specifically targeted BAME inclusion, this atmosphere of ease hasn’t only been important for Hilary, it’s also made a huge difference for the staff she has been working with. 

“People want to see themselves reflected in the trainers,” says Hilary. “They’re more comfortable speaking about their experience if they believe their trainer might have felt something similar. It creates a safe place for them to say what they want – in the way they want to say it – without fear of repercussion.”

When people from minority backgrounds observe behaviours that are non inclusive, Hilary says there’s a huge internal process that takes place. Can I challenge it? What will the repercussions be? How can I stop this person from feeling really uncomfortable?

“It’s exhausting,” says Hilary. “You’re coming up against stereotypes of ‘the angry Black woman’ or ‘the mouthy one’ or ‘the troublemaker always going on about racism’. It’s tiring and you can end up thinking, ‘I’m not even going to go there.’”

This is dangerous, Hilary says, because it leads to apathy, to disengagement, and to talent leaving. If they do choose to stay, they become disgruntled. 

“Now I haven’t had a particularly difficult experience,” says Hilary. “I’m Black but that identity covers a huge spectrum, and within the Black community, I’m really light-skinned. There are people with much darker skin than me who have had a much tougher time.”

Seeking out those who aren’t in your bubble

Hilary says it’s only in the last year that she’s begun to actively seek out leadership consultants who are from a minority ethnic background.

“Coaching, like counselling, has been a very non-diverse world,” says Hilary. “It’s not that they’re not there due to active exclusion. Coaching is inherently an inclusive technique, but it’s a question of who gets to see that. There are only a few people who come across coaches in their professional experience and then have the opportunity to get training.”

Just as with gender equality, without proactive recruitment you won’t get people coming through the pipeline. Not unless they’re super keen or are given an out-of-the-ordinary opportunity. 

“It’s about who sees themselves as a coach,” says Hilary. “It’s tough to step into what you don’t know, into a field you don’t see yourself represented in.”

“So now I’m looking to see who I can help. Particularly in regard to young women, people from diverse cultural backgrounds and those with a lived experience of disability. I am thinking about what I’m doing to increase diversity in my field now, and to support the next generation. Because it’s not just about me, my journey, and people who share my experience. I’m starting to look up and ask, ‘Who else isn’t in the room?’”

Looking for insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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