When I was studying hard sciences during my undergrad, I found it incredibly daunting as an Asian woman entering into a field where women of colour are still a rarity. Being raised in a very diverse, multinational academic environment back at home, where my peers and teachers in my international school were from across the world, I never felt daunted or doubted my competence based on my skin colour.
But my experience as a young fresher during my first year as an undergrad in Leicester remained vivid in my memory. I walked up to a white, middle-aged professor after one of my first few lectures of the semester, to ask his opinions on my freshly drafted essay on biochemical reactions in the brain. The man glanced at me head to toe, refused to look at my paper, and coolly replied, “it must be problems regarding your English. Maybe work on that.” Having been educated in English my whole life since I was three (not saying my English is pristine and perfect by the way), the language I feel more dominant than my own native tongue, I was shaken. I stood there, as he left the lecture theatre, astonished. I later learnt from my peers that what I experienced was called a microaggression, something I would continuously experience over the next four years of my degree in Leicester. Being a very diverse city that it is, I never felt like at some point I could ever get used to every next instance of microaggression I’d get from people.
Racial prejudice is only one part of the problem. Being a BAME woman, to me eventually felt like a double-whammy. Compliments would increasingly feel back-handed, whether it be how surprised people are about my educational background despite having born and raised in a third world country. As a woman you are also expected to carry yourself in grace and poise. Don’t be angry. Be nice. “Smile.” Because that’s what nice, demure, Asian women would do. Doesn’t matter I am here in the UK by my own right, my right to freedom of movement, freedom to educate myself and freedom to work, if I am not a terrorist threat, I am an occupational threat. Growing up 8000 km away from here, I’ve always looked up at the UK for being a wise country. Instead, I spent most of my time in Leicester explaining why I was not from China and why I spoke fluent English. And that does not mean at all that you should all go “okay let’s just not say anything because it’s a conversational minefield”. If you don’t know or understand, ask. Don’t just presume.
Nonetheless being supervised by an incredibly accomplished, BAME female academic really did help me thrive and grow. My experience with most academics (not all) during my final year, whether it be white or non-white, male or female, was much more positive. With genuine hard work combined, I ended up graduating well in my faculty, and looking back, I thought that should somehow neutralise the microaggressions I faced over the past four years. Coming out the top 3 students out of the top 16 students of the faculty, I was the only Asian student on the list. But I wondered, what would have happened to aspiring students that continued to face institutional racial prejudice in academia? What if the amazing academics that I was surrounded by during my final year, were instead similar to the ones I faced during my first year?
Moving to London, despite the usual intimidating London-factors that are so often exaggerated, to me felt like a relief culturally. Being at King’s so far feels like I could finally relax around both the academics and the students. Before I left Leicester for King’s, this one lady ‘encouraged’ me saying that getting into King’s is quite an achievement, since she thinks “there aren’t many international students there.” I knew she was wrong, because I knew a diverse set of brains generate academic excellence, but at the time I did not want to be confrontational, as after all it was my last month in Leicester, and with that I let that moment be the last microaggression I’d face in the city. King’s is actually one of the most international universities in the world, by 2020 statistics. It is 11th globally, and 4th in the UK. Looking back, I wish I spoke up. But the whole expectation of ‘women shouldn’t be confrontational’ held me back, especially when I felt prejudiced by an older, fellow woman. I didn’t know how I could point out to her that she was wrong without letting it affect our dynamics. I was still confused whether or not it was a compliment.
King’s has been so accommodating so far, however, it is not to say that I have found workplace dynamics not challenging at all here. Working with students here has been a strange learning curve for me and I still have mixed feelings. When it’s not race I’d wonder if it’s a gender thing too. When occasionally I find it challenging to get along with my colleagues, I’d do a mental, gender ratio calculation to see if whether or not I should be disillusioned with #womensolidarity. But then I realised that thinking this way shows that I too, am part of the problem. Experiencing a few difficult women that I felt were biased against me doesn’t mean I should forget the fact that I am more surrounded by an abundance of many other supportive women. I have to stop making it so black-and-white (pun-intended).
However, we are still not there yet as a society. There are still limited spaces for women in the workplace, and usually that ‘one female spot’ creates a deeply embedded culture that we have to fight for it. “Who’s going to get that female spot?” Men, letting go of 1 out of 10 seats is not female empowerment. We have to realise that the system is still not the way it should be, and to change that, we need to remould the culture amongst each and every one of us, and also within ourselves as women. We always talk of “creating a table for women.” “Creating space.” But how exactly do we do that?
Well, one way is that when you see an aspiring fellow woman trying to climb up her career ladder, let’s not feel intimidated. Let’s not feel her success might mean less space for you. Yes, there are still limited spaces. But help. Help them climb up the stairs as you climb up the stairs yourselves. Listen to them, believe them and eventually we will grow through the process. This process will create more space for other women. The fashion will follow. Let the ‘helping’ trend continue. Helping your fellow female colleagues would also mean that sometimes, females in leadership positions should not feel timid to confront less competent male co-workers who aren’t being helpful to other women in the workplace. Your hard-earned authority should be one that is balanced and not biased – it should be fair and be one that inclusively uplifts and cultivates fellow women.
Let’s celebrate women who are accomplished, as we celebrate ourselves for helping others along the way. Rolling up our sleeves and helping each other will accelerate ‘creating more space for women’ than waiting for institutions to do it. After all, we are inherently institutions. If we don’t change the culture amongst ourselves, how can we expect the system to change?
Helping each other is truly the best way to ‘fight the system’. I have learnt that making amends, saying sorry, talking it through, starting over, practicing empathy, is a hell lot more sustainable in the long run in reshaping our culture because that is what is going to help us create more female places in society and in the workplace, than continue in our natural inclination to internalise unresolved emotions and resentments. It’s natural to feel these emotions because it’s only been over a hundred years women have been allowed to vote. We’ve always had to fight for our rightful place in society. Back then and still now. There hasn’t been a female U.S. President yet. Nor a female U.N Secretary General. Growing but still quite a few female professors. But Finland’s got Sanna Marin. The UNDP had Helen Clark. Australia had Julia Gillard. That should give us hope but it’s still a slow, time-consuming process. These female figures still remain as anomalies. For us to change anomalies into a norm would require us to change the culture within ourselves, the ones that we have been unconsciously accustomed to, and only then the idea of female presidents, professors, prime ministers or secretary-generals will become less and less far-fetched.
“Wanting to change the system would also require us to change ourselves.”