This year, the MWF Katherine Branson Essay Prize had an outstanding level of entries from medical students across the country. We have chosen to feature all entries on our website as they are all written to a very high standard.
Here are some entries on the essay title:
Women are advancing in the workforce, yet unique challenges are faced by various communities. What are the challenges faced by women of colour and how can we tackle these?
Entry 1: Written by Disara Hettiara
“Women in the workforce” – it rolls off the tongue.
I find the term ‘workforce’ striking - it refers to “people engaged in or available for work” . It is an uncomplicated and an androgynous definition, which is why I find it so paradoxical in the context of 21st Century society. Society was built on powerful institutionalisation, which forbade universal suffrage based on class, race, gender which prompted equally powerful reactions and movements to form from as far back as the feudal system in the Medieval times. Although these movements have propelled women’s role in the workplace, there remains “unique challenges” for women of colour (WOC). Can we restore a system where many with the power to do so, see it as a birth right?
Although a term coined since the 70s , the subtlety of microaggression has meant it has been difficult to address and eradicate, in the workplace. Historically, microaggression has targeted ‘minorities’; almost 2/3 of women face this on a daily basis. However, microaggression has been shown to vary when intersectionality is considered: Black women have been shown to experience the greatest variety of microaggression  and are four times more likely than their White counterparts – with Asian and Latina women being three and two time respectively – to hear people express surprise at their linguistic abilities. This has meant that WOC experience this sense of “othering”.
The implications are two-fold: the woman’s mental, and social wellbeing is jeopardized, and the culture of racial stereotypes are further reinforced. This sense of estrangement that WOC face mean that regular experience can make them twice as likely to be “burned out”. Persistent microaggression results in “psychological and physiological stress” that may lead to maladjusted coping mechanisms such as substance abuse. Moreover, there remains a breach between active and passive allyship with less than 50% of so – called allies, actually speaking out against bias. Progress remains stagnant as allies fail to prioritize the allyship action that WOC find most meaningful. 
Up to 50% WOC are often the “only” individual of their ethnicity in their workplace.  Many feel that them being the “numerical minority”  puts pressure on their performance and to uphold a certain representation for individuals like themselves. The underrepresentation has been further exacerbated by slower promotion of WOC to places of leadership; Black women especially are less likely to mobilise with senior leader.  Lack of diversity makes it difficult to seek mentorship,  preferably from individuals who have had similar experiences.
Imposter syndrome vs testimonial injustice
Words have definitions; these create meaning and ultimately a whole culture: WOC have played the role as the “imposter” to the extent they have become “pathologised” by it.  It describes the shared sense of not “rightfully” earning a position in the workplace however, by recognising the phenomenon as a ‘syndrome’, we dismiss the historical context of how it manifested and affect WOC. 
An alternative novel term “testimonial injustice” rips-off the band aid of polite misogyny. Testimonial injustice is the idea that one’s credentials are questioned based on external prejudices. Credibility deficiency has been shown to have wider impacts: WOC are less likely to have allocation of resources as they do not receive the equitable recognition. ‘Epistemic injustice’ against Black women in the workplace have been particularly pervasive throughout history  – White feminism, historically has been a barrier to acknowledgement of Black women’s achievements. For instance, Susan B. Anthony, a women’s rights activist 1800s, refused to assist several Black women who wanted a branch of the suffrage association, out of fear that it will discourage White women of supporting women’s suffrage.
Essentially, “unique challenges” in the workplace remain, as systemic changes have failed to be made. The primary solution will be to incorporate more representative decisions, particularly from WOC through adapting meetings, teaching sessions, seminars to create a more inclusive environment that encourages dialogue between all women.  The employment rates of WOC still remain up to 16.7% lower than that of their White counterparts ; this emphasises the need for companies to invest in creating a level playing field from the onset of employment through to promotions.
It is important to reflect on historical political milestones: The ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) movement, demonstrated the dichotomy of performative and true allyship . Acknowledging privilege can be a powerful tool for reformation whilst performativity can be equally powerful at diluting the movement. It is crucial to incorporate these into school curriculums, so as to instil a sense of competence and ambition in every child regardless of their own social narrative.
The label ‘BAME women’ has been controversial – it suggests marginalisation yet familiarity and comfort of belonging to a community with shared struggles. Regardless of the terms, these “unique challenges” should be a global agenda, if we are to not suffocate ALL women’s suffrage any longer.
Words (excluding title and references): 798
- (workforce noun - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced American Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com, 2022)
- Williams M. Microaggressions: Clarification, Evidence, and Impact. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2019;15(1):3-26.[Accessed 3 March 2022]
- Women in the Workplace [Internet]. McKinsey & Company. 2021 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
- Puffer S. Introduction: Rosabeth Moss Kanter's Men and Women of the Corporation and The Change Masters. Academy of Management Perspectives [Internet]. 2004;18(2):92-95. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4166065
- Women of Color Get Less Support at Work. Here’s How Managers Can Change That. [Internet]. Harvard Business Review. 2019 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2019/03/women-of-color-get-less-support-at-work-heres-how-managers-can-change-that
- Wingfield A. Women are advancing in the workplace, but women of color still lag behind [Internet]. Brookings. 2020 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.brookings.edu/essay/women-are-advancing-in-the-workplace-but-women-of-color-still-lag-behind/
- Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome [Internet]. Harvard Business Review. 2021 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome
- Hart H. Is ‘Imposter Syndrome’ Just Another Way Of Blaming Women? [Internet]. Forbes. 2021 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/hannahart/2021/02/24/is-imposter-syndrome-just-another-way-of-blaming-women/?sh=6a6a915e6bea
- Reframing imposter phenomenon by Rageshri Dhairyawan – The official blog of BMJ Leader [Internet]. Blogs.bmj.com. 2020 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://blogs.bmj.com/bmjleader/2020/10/08/reframing-imposter-phenomenon-by-rageshri-dhairyawan/
- Epistemic injustice in white academic feminism [Internet]. Scholarworks.gsu.edu. 2018 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1240&context=philosophy_theses
- Davis A. Women, Race and Class. New York; 1983.
- Scheme B. BPA/SWIP Good Practice Scheme – The British Society of Aesthetics [Internet]. British-aesthetics.org. 2018 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://british-aesthetics.org/bpaswip-good-practice-scheme/
- [Internet]. Bitc.org.uk. 2017 [cited 3 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.bitc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/bitc-race-report-bamewomenatwork-march2020.pdf
- Wellman M. Black Squares for Black Lives? Performative Allyship as Credibility Maintenance for Social Media Influencers on Instagram. Social Media + Society [Internet]. 2022 [cited 3 March 2022];8(1):205630512210804. Available from: https://doi-org.uea.idm.oclc.org/10.1177%2F20563051221080473
Entry 2 : Written by Lilian Nwosu
The legendary poet, author and black icon Maya Angelou said, “A wise woman wishes to be no one's enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone's victim” (Rice, 2014). If anyone has lived this quote and the dark history reflected in it, it would be Ms Angelou. The world was very different in her youth and even just a decade ago for women like her and I. Women who looked, acted, and thought in a way that was deemed ‘different’. Women of colour (WoC), particularly black women, were told for as long as racism has existed that our clothes were strange, our hair unprofessional and our beautiful skin unattractive. At the same time, we’d be sexualised in movies and TV shows (Awad et al., 2015), called promiscuous and told to be ‘grateful’ we were no longer slaves. Made to feel like we didn’t have the right to be in any room we were in, we tried to make ourselves smaller to make others feel less ‘threatened’. We straightened our hair and bleached our skin, and still, we were deemed the ‘Angry Black Woman’. For too long, this was the real-life experience of WoC across the globe, including at work. Until we began slowly reclaiming our power from those who would keep us contained and refused to be their victims. Until we accepted that the problem wasn’t our blackness, but their bigotry and racism. Slowly, slowly, the world has become more inclusive, racism more unacceptable and education more diversified. Are we in a better place than we were even 50 years ago? Absolutely. Is it good enough? I don’t think so.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a social reckoning for not just America, but every society (McLaughlin, 2020). This horror allowed for the conversation about race in UK to be re-evaluated. For such a long time, race was an uncomfortable topic for everyone other than those of us impacted negatively by it. It was never a ‘good time’ to talk about what people of colour face in the UK, especially in the workforce. They would say we should ‘move on’ from it. Now, the conversation surrounding racism has been inescapable. This has allowed for some truly hard topics such as racism in the workplace to be visited. Also, education on subtle racism, including microaggressions and its effects on people of colour, have been introduced to the discussion (Solorzano et al., 2000). It’s shocking how often someone would touch my afro in and out of work without permission, as if I were a zoo attraction, or would look at a woman in a Hijab and assume she was oppressed by a sexist patriarch. The notion of the ‘white saviour’ coming to rescue WoC from their own cultures and ways of life is a problematic one and it seeps into the workplace.
At work, WoC are still heavily outnumbered and underrepresented in most fields, including in medical school. Almost 78% of all NHS workers were white in 2020 (NHSDigital, 2021). The NHS employs a large number of female healthcare workers, but incredibly few BAME in powerful senior management roles (8.4% in 2019) that can affect change in the system at the institutional level (O'Dwyer-Cunliffe and Russell, 2020). The message sent is clear: WoC can work, but not be in charge. The current statistics are fact, albeit a demoralising one. The lack of representation in certain work sectors, including among doctors, creates a cycle of young girls and women not looking to enter that field for fear of being discriminated against or treated like the ‘token’ woman of colour. This then leads to lack of representation in the next generation, and so on.
Representation has improved of course, but we need much more outreach to female students of colour by women in work sectors who look like them, to motivate them to break ceilings and go after their dreams, whatever they may be. Outreach programmes and more accessible career days would be incredibly vital to help achieve this. Furthermore, education on racism and cultural tolerance in the workplace need to be much more widespread. As it is, these courses seem to be done to achieve the sole purpose of the company saying they did it. Education into the sexualising of WoC needs to be more frequently carried out, and HR departments need to consistently take complaints of racism, sexual harassment, and assault seriously. We must protect WoC, like everyone else, from these kinds of behaviour and abuse.
I think many women, including those of colour, would agree with my idol Ms Angelou when she said, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style” (Angelou, 2011).
Word Count: 792
ANGELOU, M. 2011. My mission in life is not merely to survive. In: @MAYAANGELOU (ed.). Facebook.
AWAD, G. H., NORWOOD, C., TAYLOR, D. S., MARTINEZ, M., MCCLAIN, S., JONES, B., HOLMAN, A. & CHAPMAN-HILLIARD, C. 2015. Beauty and Body Image Concerns Among African American College Women. J Black Psychol, 41, 540-564.
MCLAUGHLIN, E. C. 2020. How George Floyd's death ignited a racial reckoning that shows no signs of slowing down. [Online]. CNN.com: CNN. Available: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/08/09/us/george-floyd-protests-different-why/index.html [Accessed 1st March 2022].
NHSDIGITAL. 2021. A look at the diversity of our workforce [Online]. digital.nhs.uk NHS Digital. Available: https://digital.nhs.uk/about-nhs-digital/corporate-information-and-documents/how-we-support-diversity-and-inclusion/annual-inclusion-report-2019-20/a-look-at-the-diversity-of-our-workforce#2020-workforce-diversity-snapshot [Accessed 5th March 2022].
O'DWYER-CUNLIFFE, F. & RUSSELL, J. 2020. BAME Representation and Experience in the NHS [Online]. NHS Providers. Available: https://nhsproviders.org/inclusive-leadership/bame-representation-and-experience-in-the-nhs [Accessed 1st March 2022].
RICE, F. 2014. Maya Angelou: An Extraordinarily Wise Woman [Online]. Marie Claire Marie Claire Available: https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/entertainment/people/maya-angelou-an-extraordinarily-wise-woman-84132 [Accessed 5th March 2022].
SOLORZANO, D., CEJA, M. & YOSSO, T. 2000. Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69, 60-73.
Entry 3 : Written by Shreya Chauhan
Over 100 years ago, the first female physician to be awarded membership to the Royal College of Surgeons was Dossibai Patell, at a time when being accepted as a female physician was hard enough. Being a woman of colour and doing so makes her efforts even more impressive. Despite the medical field becoming more inviting to female physicians and physicians of colour since then, significant difficulties for women of colour who choose to work in the medical field still prevail.
Medicine is a career in which one interacts with people from all backgrounds and cultures. There are often unconscious biases and stereotypes associated with women of colour that feed into people’s attitudes when they interact with a doctor. Oftentimes colleagues who are not from a marginalised background can fail to identify these biases, and this contributes to the issue. This can be deemed as a lack of support and can result in the issue not being addressed. Women of colour experience discrimination twofold; due to both their gender and their race. A 2021 paper by Hennein, R et al. identified that exposure to racial and/or gender discrimination of healthcare workers was predictive of psychological symptoms such as depression and burnout. The study also identified that unmet support needs could increase the risk for adverse mental health outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on healthcare workers, and with people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds being disproportionately impacted; there is an even greater need to recognise the effect of discrimination so that it does not continue to act as a contributing factor to mental health issues and increased risk of burnout. The sense of isolation that can occur after discriminatory experiences has the potential to knock one’s confidence, both personally and professionally. As a woman of colour who is studying medicine, I have thus far found there is a lack of representation of female consultants of colour. When considering potential career paths it is beneficial to see representation as it allows one to recognise themselves as being capable of making a similar career progression.
The most important aspect for tackling these issues is to provide support and increase access of the support that is available. Support networks that allow women of colour to discuss the discrimination and biases they are subject to will make them aware that they are not alone and importantly, to make unconscious biases conscious so people are able to change their damaging behaviour. With greater awareness of the lack of support and isolation women of colour in healthcare may experience, their colleagues will be better equipped to assist them and help them to establish much needed support mechanisms. In order for greater representation, women of colour in medicine require wider-reaching platforms through which to reach out to people earlier on in their careers. Mentorship schemes would be beneficial and crucial to provide easy access. In the age of online meetings this has the scope to be highly successful as people from all around the country can be reached.
Whilst it is encouraging that there are more women of colour reaching consultancy level, the extra challenges they face both in order to get there, and continuing to be experienced even after, are still occurring. As discussed, greater recognition of these challenges and better support for women of colour in medicine will go a long way in tackling these issues. The main way to benefit these women is to provide adequate access to support and show them representation at the top of the hierarchy. As a woman of colour starting my journey into the role of a healthcare worker it is imperative that these issues are appropriately resolved, and it is promising that they are being highlighted.
Hennein, R., Bonumwezi, J., Nguemeni Tiako, M., Tineo, P. and Lowe, S., 2021. Racial and Gender Discrimination Predict Mental Health Outcomes among Healthcare Workers Beyond Pandemic-Related Stressors: Findings from a Cross-Sectional Survey. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(17), p.9235.