How does Identity drive performance? The Foxtons networking group, Afro Foxtons, delves into this question.
In late October, Foxtons employees attended a discussion on Identity that is well worth sharing. It was introduced as “part of the Foxtons strategy, along with Women at Foxtons and the Foxtons LGBTQ+ network, to create a more equitable workplace through sharing unique insights into areas which help us to better understand ourselves and our colleagues,” by Dom Scott, Managing Director of Alexander Hall and co-founder of Afro Foxtons. He, along with HR Director and member of Afro Foxtons, Cheryl Carr, invited Dr Victoria Showunmi to speak. After all, when it comes to Identity in the workplace, Dr Showunmi wrote the book on it…well, literally, writes numerous publications and conducts research in this area (one of her books will be out in February, 2022). She is an Associate Professor at the UCL Institute of Education, and has a national and international reputation for her work on the subject, and she has published numerous research projects, including, “Ethnic, gender and class intersections in British women’s leadership experiences.”
This research explored leadership and Identity through the lens of race, which is pivotal for organisations looking to improve corporate culture. We can learn a lot from her findings, such as, “The majority (90%) of the minority ethnic women discussed having to ‘leave their culture at the door’ to fit into their organisation’s culture and advance in their organisation. Those who opted out of this reported serious consequences for nonconformity,” a significant statistic, especially if our aim is to make a more equitable workplace.
We started our discussion with how Dr Showunmi got into this line of research. After being the Interim Head of Equality at University of Cambridge, she was appointed team leader for a struggling group at another university. She discovered tension in the way they responded to her, “they wanted to embrace the notion of Identity, but they weren’t ready for a black leader. The team I was leading was all white ... So I started to take a step back and think, ‘does one’s identity have an impact in the way one leads?’” She realised the group had reacted to their preconceptions of her Identity. They perceived her as uncooperative because they had started with a stereotype of Black women, “that was very difficult to work through, for myself and for them, so I started to do a piece of research around that.”
Dr Showunmi then gave us an exercise. She posed two questions to everyone in attendance:
1. Who are you?
2. Where do you belong?
She asked, “which of those questions was more difficult to answer?” This event comprised of more than 200 feeds across our London offices, so these questions went out to a great proportion of the Foxtons team. The Foxtons team are highly diverse, hired that way so that we can better serve the tenants, buyers, landlords and sellers of London, a vibrant global city. So, every answer in that virtual room was unique. To give us an example, Dom said, “the harder one for me was very much ‘where do you belong.’ I think, I’ve always felt like I’ve been the odd one out and over the years I’ve made peace with that, so I actually feel like I belong where people like me don’t exist, because then I have something new I can add to the conversation.”
Cheryl then asked, “as a leader starting in a new role, you’ve got it in your head, ‘I know what my objectives are, I need to lead my team and I need to support the people within the organisation.’ If I’ve got all these real positives, but I’m confronted with a group of people with a preconception about my management style and how I react and behave, there’s going to be conflict there from day one. How do you overcome that?”
Dr Showunmi replied that it’s important to have a critical, courageous conversation on Identity. She said, “You might be thinking, well here I am in the middle of working with a team. I haven’t got time to have a critical conversation! But it’s being able to open that up within the team, to talk about ‘what is it that’s making you tick?’” This tied nicely back in to her exercise questions – who we are, where we belong and which is harder to answer. She described her group of students from a wide range of nationalities, “Many of those students, who were Chinese, Columbian… just a whole range of nationalities, felt that race did not impact them. But once I started to get them to think about who they are, they are also racialised beings, then that makes sense.”
Dr Showunmi also gave us a peek at some advice from her upcoming books. She is co-authoring Sophisticated Racism: Understanding and Managing the Complexity of Race Everyday, release date TBC, described as a book “which explores racism within the workplace between White and Black women.” She’s also lead editor in an edited volume: The Bloomsbury Handbook of Gender and Educational Leadership and Management, which will be released on 22 February 2022. From its review, "This will be one of the rare books I buy multiple copies of as it will quickly become essential reading for students and colleagues interested in gender and leadership!" - Karen Edge, Professor, UCL Institute of Education, University College London, UK
One helpful anecdote we can share, which has continued to circulate around the office since the event, came from a problem Dr Showunmi’s daughter faced at school. She had been put into a group of girls to act out the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. She wanted to be Goldilocks, but another child, a white girl with long blonde hair, insisted it was her right to be Goldilocks. Dr Showunmi’s daughter handled it in an enlightening way, “Do you know what she did? This is a seven year old. She decided, because she had the notepad and she was writing all the different roles, so she said, to be Goldilocks, you had to be able to do Gangnam Style. You know that dance? Because she could do that that was part of the criteria of being Goldilocks…She wrote her own criteria of what you had to be.”
Identity and Intersectionality
Throughout our discussion, Dr Showunmi framed her analysis with intersectionality. Intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1989), describes how aspects of a person’s identity, like gender and race, interact in relation to discrimination and privilege. Dr Showunmi used data as an example of how it impacts Identity and Leadership in a workplace, “the majority of data is to do with white men and more recently white women leaders. So, [I want to] look at this organisation, Foxtons. I want to know how many women are being developed within this particular organisation…Then, I want to look at how many Black women are actually also being developed within this organisation. …How many Asian women? etc. And I want to look a bit more how many women who’ve identified that they’ve had a disability, and so, you then start to get a different group of women instead of thinking it’s just a white, heterosexual group of women who represent Foxtons.”
What we've gained
We’ve just scratched the surface of a hugely informative conversation, which in itself only scratched the surface of this research. At the end of the meeting, we discussed how positive changes are coming in the working environment. “One of the important, positive outcomes is town hall discussions,” Dr Showunmi noted. She pointed to Lunch and Learn events and reading clubs. From Dr Showunmi’s research, “In general, minority ethnic women felt they required more guidance and support to counterbalance their lack of networking opportunities.” So, bringing about opportunities to build up networks and have these discussions, these critical conversations, is a real path forward. Dom concluded, “I am really happy that the willingness of people to be open and to be vulnerable, I think, has increased exponentially over the past 5 years. Even just having a call like this today…it was sort of unheard of in the workplace 20 years ago. So it feels like we’re moving in the right direction.”
- Afro Foxtons is a networking and support group at Foxtons for supporting people at every stage in their career and encouraging black leadership in the property sector.
- Showunmi, V., Atewologun, D., & Bebbington, D. (2016). Ethnic, gender and class intersections in British women’s leadership experiences. Educational Management Administration & Leadership
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a narrative by Victoria Showunmi in Respecting Children and Young People
- Showunmi, V., (2021) A Journey of Difference: The Voices of Women Leaders. Frontiers in Education