https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2016/04/22/five-tips-for-keeping-your-career-on-the-up-against-the-odds/

Five tips for keeping your career on the up, against the odds

You have probably picked up that our senior leaders have made improving diversity and inclusion in the Civil Service a top priority.

From personal experience, I can vouch for the sincerity of the effort to change things, but change takes time – and behind the statistics are the frustrations of highly talented women and men facing barriers to progression that have nothing to do with competence.

As an Asian woman a few weeks into my first Senior Civil Service role (in the Department for Communities and Local Government), I’ve been reflecting on how I got to this point. Getting promoted is hard work – and quite right too. But for those of us facing tougher odds, I wanted to share some of the tips that helped me along the way. I hope they can help you leap over the hurdles ahead, even if those hurdles are (currently) higher than for the rest of the field.

1. Develop yourself

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but if you feel as though you need to be better than your colleagues just to be ranked among them, then be better.

Minority Ethnic Talent Association logo and keyword bubblesThink strategically about your learning and development. Draft the spec for your perfect job and then see how your skills measure up. Identify where you need to improve and take every opportunity to do so. Whether that’s formal, structured learning (I was on the brilliant META - Minority Ethnic Talent Association - Growing Talent programme), or informal opportunities to stretch in your current role, be a dedicated self-improver.

2. Get yourself a sponsor

I have benefited hugely from mentoring and I’ve been lucky – my mentor has been a sponsor too. A sponsor has your back. They’ll say good things about you when you are out of the room. The onus for making that relationship work is on you. Use their time wisely and do all you can to prove yourself a worthwhile investment of that time. Plan your sessions carefully, follow up actions, share your successes and reflect maturely on your disappointments – you will have some.)

3. Raise your profile

The reality, whether it comes naturally or not (it doesn’t to me), is that finding ways to showcase what you can do to senior colleagues, both inside your department and across Whitehall, is invaluable. The word ’networking’ fills me with dread, but I’ve learned that there are more ways to network than glad-handing the room. Identify who you might like to work for and ask for a quick chat about the sort of people and skills they will be looking for in future. Whenever I’ve done that, I’ve always had a generous response.

4. Engage with issues of diversity and inclusion

It can be easy to become frustrated with the pace of change. Some of the most frustrated people I know are straight, white, non-disabled, Oxbridge men! Rise above any negativity. When you make constructive, insightful comments and seek workable solutions, you can become an incredibly eloquent symbol of the urgent need for change.

5. Build your resilience – but expect it to fail from time to time

It can be demoralising when your talent and effort appear to be assessed against a tougher yardstick. There will be times when you feel like jacking it all in and going off to run a B&B in the Lake District. I know I did. It sounds trite but things like getting enough sleep and taking regular exercise can help keep mind and body together when you are under stress.

Spending time doing the things that really matter in life puts things in perspective and helps you recharge your batteries so that you can re-enter the fray. And do, please, re-enter the fray. The Civil Service needs people like you.

19 comments

  1. Lol

    As a BME person myself, I never felt that my 'talent and effort appear to be assessed against a tougher yardstick'. I do not worry about these things because generally people are fair.

    If I am to be promoted then I want it to be because of my values, personality and 'confidence'. I don't want to forever be wearing a BME sticky label on my head, and have everything be to do with me being a BME. Being an ethnic minority is no big deal, it is just a genotype like what-colour-eyes-you-have.

    If the stereotypical white Oxbridge types prefer to help people like them, then I will show those people that I am like them. I am no different just because when humankind dispersed from Africa, my ancestors travelled in one direction and their ancestors happened to have travelled in another.

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  2. Junier Browne

    Yes, a person should not be not be judged by "the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character" - Martin Luther King, Jr.; and I'm glad to hear that you feel that "generally people are fair". BUT not all BME colleagues are as fortunate and some 53 years after MLK's seminal "I Have a Dream' speech, BME people are continually being assessed against a tougher yardstick.

    Sadly, there are those who walk amongst us who struggle to get beyond the BME sticky label, get to know the real person behind the label and the bags of talent they have to offer.

    For me, it's not showing these people that I'm just like them - it's simply about being myself and saying true to my beliefs, values and moral compass.

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    • Ronald Fraser

      Thank you Dilys for a really useful post. As a person otherwise differently abled with a mental illness, I find that the challenges for progressing are also very hard, and more complicated, for all sorts of different reasons, so you have inspired me to write a similar blog post to yours but tailored for people with a mental disability. Many thanks and keep up the positive vibe in your career!

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  3. Ola

    Many thanks Dilys Alam for sharing these motivating tips. very interesting and insightful read.

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  4. Javid

    Some Excellent Tips by Dilys.

    I am a BAME member of staff, who has also worked both in Local Government and Private Sector Organisations.

    I totally agree with the statement of their being a 'tougher yardstick' in the workplace that BAME members of staff have to deal with. CS has the more tougher yardstick by far!

    Growing up In Lancashire, I recall community elders drilling the statement into 'us young BAME youngsters' that "we would need to work 5 times harder than our non BAME colleagues to get any recognition in the workplace".

    While those days are thankfully no more the issue of fairness and equality are still very much relevant.

    There are still elements of 'Discriminatory Practices and 'Parallel Lives' in the workplace and although there are obvious solutions to these issues, I believe that there is limited commitment by Senior Management to implement measures.

    Unfortunately, Most of the solutions I read about tend be either "London-Centric" or "Top-Down".

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  5. Al

    Apalled I would be if the barriers to promotion that produce those "frustrations of highly talented women and men facing barriers to progression that have nothing to do with competence" are still prevalent in the Civil Service in relation to ethnicity or the more obvious diversity criteria. The "tougher yardstick" you refer to may be your experience and I have sympathy and a militant response to the injustice of such antagonism. However, there are more universal obstacles to people of all ethnicity and culture such as unconscious bias and poor adherance to responsible recruitment practice, even insidious nepotism. These are equally frustrating with the potential for departments to settle for mediocrity, less than the best and fail to develop talent.

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  6. Sadia Ismail

    Brilliant concise article, with practical & relevant advice. It is a great reminder that change does indeed take time. Yes we need to endeavour to do our best and be recognised for that, as the first commentator suggests, but my sentiments exactly Junier Browne - to be our best we must remain true to ourselves - and that is shaped by many of our culturally rich ethnic backgrounds that shape our attitudes and behaviours and how we perceive the world. Unfortunately this is sometimes not contextualised when considering a person not "typically white British" and so I agree there can be a "tougher yardstick". We should not need to fit into this "box" in order to feel appreciated or to progress; diversity when embraced can enrich the civil service with its potential to contribute.

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  7. Jennifer

    I am glad to see a fellow BME's talent recognised, but as Junier Browne has stated above, it is not always as easy as it should be. I have watched over the years a number of talented BME walk away from the Civil Service due to lack of recognition and labelling.

    If you are an effective, knowledgable and robust person from a BME background and a woman to boot, you get labelled as having a strong personality. I am still awaiting a Civil Service definition of strong personality, as from my experience when it is used to describe a woman from a BME background it is usually with a laced negative connotation.

    As much as you want to build your resilience against some of the obstacles and failures life throws at you, sometimes the solution may be to take your talent elsewhere rather than allow your confidence to be knocked back in order to fit in.

    An individual once told me that it was better to hide your knowledge, experience and capability as it rubs those in higher places the wrong way. His words "nobody likes an articulate, strong BME woman".

    Unfortunately I can't subscribe to that school of thought. I will stay true to myself and if that means getting on my bike and taking my talent somewhere else so be it.

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    • Jason

      Agreed! Similar experience here.
      In my experience they prefer people who do not have a clue what they are doing.

      I have laid out my own HONEST experience in another comment (which should follow this one). It is complete inflammatory, but not what they want to hear, so will be surprised if it is published.

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  8. Linda Smallwoods

    Your headline 'keeping your career on the up, against the odds' regarding minorities I am all for the best people in any job in any employment irrespective of their background. Our employer isn't too concerned though about the talent they are loosing when they close HMRC offices beyond Belfast - and neither do we have visits from Senior Civil Servants!

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  9. Caroline

    An individual once told me that it was better to hide your knowledge, experience and capability as it rubs those in higher places the wrong way. His words "nobody likes an articulate, strong BME woman".

    I think that is a disgraceful comment and that he should have been reported for discrimination.

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  10. Anon

    Thank you for sharing your insight and I can really relate to that. congratulations on reaching the SCS grade, its good to see change is starting to happen and this will serve well in providing role models that others can aspire too.

    Having reached the grade just below SCS 1 (G6) about 3 years ago, im now finding that i no longer have the energy to prove myself over and above that of my non BAME colleagues and have decided to throw in the towel and leave the CS.

    Having said this I would encourage others to keep trying and supporting others to reach their full potential.

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  11. Jason

    My advice for any ethnic minority with talent and a good education currently in the civil service struggling to get promoted is - LEAVE AS SOON AS YOU CAN! I did, and moved straight into a role paying TWICE as much. I also get an unparalleled level of job satisfaction from my role, and wouldn't wish my experience on my worst enemy!

    For me, I decided I couldn't 'wait' for the Civil Service to end its so-called 'unconscious bias' and blatant cronyism. I struggled for nearly 5 years to be promoted, and although I passed a number of their very subjective 'boards' for promotion, there was always one excuse or another why I was not promoted. At the same time, there were Caucasian friends of mine who would agree that they were generally ineffective and disinterested in what they did that got promoted above me. Hopefully without sounding too smug - fortunately for me I now earn several times their salary now and LOVE what I do.

    After perhaps 2.5years of 'biting my lip' when being overlooked not only for promotion but for opportunities to demonstrate what I have clearly demonstrated throughout my career away from the civil service (including a science PhD - completed in 3 years - from one of the top ranked Universities in the world), I decided I would join the departments woeful Ethnic Minority Network. And having outlined my concerned to the then Permanent Secretary (PS), I actually thought my views resonated and an effort would be made to truly address the issues at hand. I do believe the then PS did make an effort, as everyone in the department was then rushed to complete an 'unconscious bias' questionnaire. But unfortunately I honestly believe the bias is not unconscious, quite deliberate in fact, and compounded further by the cronyism of 'middle managers' (Band 6 and 7s in particular) who are mostly interested in promoting their mates and people who they themselves look like (or can head down to the 'Marquis of something another' on a Thursday evening).

    I am a Londoner - born and raised, and very very proud to have friends and family from every continent on earth. I never struggled during my years in education or really 'suffered' from any noteworthy form of racism or other form discrimination in work until I joined the civil service. And having moved through the ranks and found GREAT success in other organizations, I would say to any ethnic minority this: If you are waiting for the Civil Service to change or think that the 5 tips outlined in the article above are going to make any significant difference to your prospects, then THINK AGAIN!. If you believe you are talented and want to make progress in your career, then the Civil Service may not be the best place for you! GRAB ALL THE EXPERIENCE THEY WILL ALLOW YOU TO GET and LOOK FOR REAL OPPORTUNITIES ELSEWHERE. There are other organizations out there that will CELEBRATE the fact that you are 'different (even if it is just the colour of your skin) ', and judge you more on your character and ability to deliver good work, not just on whether you 'fit in'.

    I will forget the day I decided to spend my efforts applying for jobs outside the Civil Service when many of my colleagues were applying for an internal board. Best decision I have ever made.

    Black, white, gay, straight, and every other 'sub group', I wish you all the best. I leave those who want to hear the truth this article, written by someone from a 'minority group' who also made it. I hope that you are this LUCKY. I chose to rely more heavily on my talents.
    http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/nov/21/minorities-whitehall-civil-service-racial-discrimination

    Link to this comment
  12. Gavin Thomas

    Thank you Dily for your thoughts on this very important topic. For someone who has been in the service 25 years, I would agree that we have seen a massive change in the landscape in terms of Diversity but we should also be honest in that there is still room for improvement. I cannot recall when I joined my present Whitehall Partner 25+ years ago of be aware of having such a wide range of Staff Associations in place nor having such an open discussion at ALL levels about Diversity. I would certainlty agree with your tips and in particular the importance of engagement, networking and resilence.

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  13. Angela Patel

    Congratulations Dilys and well-deserved. As a fellow META graduate, I have heard you speak at a META event and you are truly inspirational! Your advice and tips are spot-on. The only additional point I would make is that the hurdles are particularly high for BME staff in the policy profession across Whitehall so well done indeed!

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  14. MogP

    My advice for any ethnic minority with talent and a good education currently in the civil service struggling to get promoted is - LEAVE AS SOON AS YOU CAN! I did, and moved straight into a role paying TWICE as much. I also get an unparalleled level of job satisfaction from my role, and wouldn't wish my experience on my worst enemy!

    For me, I decided I couldn't 'wait' for the Civil Service to end its so-called 'unconscious bias' and blatant cronyism. I struggled for nearly 5 years to be promoted, and although I passed a number of their very subjective 'boards' for promotion, there was always one excuse or another why I was not promoted. At the same time, there were Caucasian friends of mine who would agree that they were generally ineffective and disinterested in what they did that got promoted above me. Hopefully without sounding too smug - fortunately for me I now earn several times their salary now and LOVE what I do.

    After perhaps 2.5years of 'biting my lip' when being overlooked not only for promotion but for opportunities to demonstrate what I have clearly demonstrated throughout my career away from the civil service (including a science PhD - completed in 3 years - from one of the top ranked Universities in the world), I decided I would join the departments woeful Ethnic Minority Network. And having outlined my concerned to the then Permanent Secretary (PS), I actually thought my views resonated and an effort would be made to truly address the issues at hand. I do believe the then PS did make an effort, as everyone in the department was then rushed to complete an 'unconscious bias' questionnaire. But unfortunately I honestly believe the bias is not unconscious, quite deliberate in fact, and compounded further by the cronyism of 'middle managers' (Band 6 and 7s in particular) who are mostly interested in promoting their mates and people who they themselves look like (or can head down to the 'Marquis of something another' on a Thursday evening).

    I am a Londoner - born and raised, and very very proud to have friends and family from every continent on earth. I never struggled during my years in education or really 'suffered' from any noteworthy form of racism or other form discrimination in work until I joined the civil service. And having moved through the ranks and found GREAT success in other organizations, I would say to any ethnic minority this: If you are waiting for the Civil Service to change or think that the 5 tips outlined in the article above are going to make any significant difference to your prospects, then THINK AGAIN!. If you believe you are talented and want to make progress in your career, then the Civil Service may not be the best place for you! GRAB ALL THE EXPERIENCE THEY WILL ALLOW YOU TO GET and LOOK FOR REAL OPPORTUNITIES ELSEWHERE. There are other organizations out there that will CELEBRATE the fact that you are 'different (even if it is just the colour of your skin) ', and judge you more on your character and ability to deliver good work, not just on whether you 'fit in'.

    I will forget the day I decided to spend my efforts applying for jobs outside the Civil Service when many of my colleagues were applying for an internal board. Best decision I have ever made.

    Black, white, gay, straight, and every other 'sub group', I wish you all the best. I leave those who want to hear the truth this article, written by someone from a 'minority group' who also made it. I hope that you are this LUCKY. I chose to rely more heavily on my talents.
    http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/nov/21/minorities-whitehall-civil-service-racial-discrimination

    Link to this comment
  15. Eve

    Great article and one that possibly relates to those of us who wear other sticky labels. The personal stories I read have such an impact in reassuring me that I'm not alone. I would love for this to be available as a vblog so I can share it across my organisation - are there any plans to make this available?

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    • The Blog Team

      Eve, thanks for your comment. We're glad you appreciated Dilys's article, but at present there are no plans to create a video version.

      The Blog Team

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  16. Jules

    Brilliant article Dilys. For me as a white woman but older, trying to get a fair go is a battle I will probably have to go on fighting for the rest of my life. I've been assigned to the scrap heap now by my current boss who believes that if you haven't made it to senior management by mid 50's you are never going to so needless to say I'm looking to move on! The assumption is of course, that if you are 56 you will be looking to retire in four years so what's the point? In my case, and I can't believe I'm alone, the very thought of retirement fills me with dread and I want to go on enjoying my career for as long as possible - 70+ if I can. Therefore, why shouldn't I bring all of my (considerable) experience to bear and look to move up and lead other people. Only I can make it happen and it will take an awful lot of stamina to fight the good fight.

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