Published on Thu, 18/02/2021 - 11:05
Isma Illahi-Warren
Picture shows women

Diversity & inclusion - a personal view

During my 27 year Civil Service career, I’ve had many adventures and met some considerate, and supportive colleagues who I now regard as extended family. If I reflect on the way the Civil Service has evolved, especially as part of the BAME community, I’ve seen a difference between the inequalities I faced in my early career, where I had some challenging encounters with colleagues and our customers/general public.

I joined the Civil Service as a young woman in 1993, in a customer-facing role which involved dealing directly with simple enquiries. I can recall my first experience of racism whilst dealing with a customer of Asian descent, in the background I heard someone say, “what do you expect, she’s a Paki too”.

I looked around astonished at what I’d heard - catching the girl’s eye. Staying calm and looking directly at her in disgust, I pulled the screen down to show the counter was closed. There was a collective “Uurrrgh” from the public area as they realised this “Paki” was making herself unavailable for any further service.

I went to the backroom; I was so angry I punched the wall. My supervisor at the time heard the thud and asked, “Who did that?”. I told her in a clear voice, “That was me”. She looked at me and asked “Why?” I replied, “because a customer just called me a Paki.” My manager replied, “I suggest you sit quietly till you calm down.”     

Amazing. I was racially abused in my place of work and rather than provide support and empathy, I was told to keep quiet and calm down.

I don’t think that would happen now, there are more ‘no tolerance’ policies in place that protect workers from taking abuse from customers; managers are trained to support staff in their role.  My situation highlights the micro-aggressions staff from the BAME community have to face every day of their working life. The experience left me feeling belligerent and bitter towards that manager for some time. Like most members of the BAME community, I had to find forgiveness to move past it for the manager and customer. I acknowledge this was of no consequence to either. 

Fast forward the years, attitudes have changed, in part through training and awareness, such as unconscious bias and micro-behaviours. Racism isn’t as overt as it used to be, it’s much more subtle and more difficult to call out. I can assure you it stills exists.

I found it difficult to progress in my previous department. It’s a smaller department than HMRC and I worked in a provincial office with relatively junior managers in charge. I was often chosen to run special exercises and given complex work to clear due to my skills, but when it came to deputising or promotion, I wasn’t considered. I felt this was due to my non-smoking and non-attendance in after work activities which seemed the only way to fit in.

In 2017 I started a talent program called Crossing Thresholds. My attendance was approved by a manager who was a friend. I felt I wouldn’t have had a chance had I not sought help from her.

The course was brilliant. It made me see the limitations I had imposed on myself and what work I needed to put in to achieve promotion. I worked extremely hard that year using Crossing Thresholds material as a source of inspiration. I applied for seventeen jobs and was called for seven interviews. By the end, I achieved my ambition and left my old department with a huge sigh of relief. When I told the office manager, I got my promotion she said, “I knew you had it in you” to which I thought, “why didn’t you give me a chance then?”

HMRC has more opportunities. The offices I have attended are diverse in terms of ethnicity and grades. I have found these two factors make things more open in terms of attitudes and behaviour. There is a quicker recognition and acknowledgement for talent.

I welcome the discussions that have started to take place over the past few weeks, and grateful to people who have exposed vulnerability and spoken their truth. My hope is collectively we can make a difference, not just in HMRC and the Civil Service, but across the country with Society.