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“Anyone can do what I do”, says equality campaigner Akeela Ahmed modestly. “If anyone is passionate about a cause, they just need to follow their convictions.”
In the last two years, she has been awarded an MBE for her work with Muslim women as founder of the She Speaks We Hear platform, spoken to over 100,000 women on the Women’s March on London – for which she was named one of Stylist’s Women of the Year 2017 – and listed as an ‘Activist Making a Difference’ in Nylon magazine for Muslim Women’s Day 2017.
Ahmed, who will be taking part in a panel discussion on gender equality across cultures at the Women in Business Conference, taking place on 1 March in London, has a portfolio career encompassing property development for the homeless, advising the UK Government, the NSPCC and The Prince’s Trust, and contributing regularly to national and international media.
“We are thrilled to have Akeela Ahmed participating in this year’s conference,” says Tamara Fournier, Co-Chair, Speakers for the conference. “She is a social entrepreneur and equalities activist with nearly 20 years of experience specialising in youth and gender issues. Facing gender equality is her everyday practice and our audience will have the opportunity to hear her thoughts and involvement in empowering women in unifying humanity to bring change across cultures.”
Ahmed’s work to combat Islamophobia has drawn the most attention. She Speaks We Hear will soon enable women to anonymously record and share their experiences of Islamophobia. The website is not a way to report crimes – “There are enough reporting mechanisms already,” she says – but to spread awareness. “I’m very passionate about ensuring that people at the margins of society or people whose voices are silenced, are heard, and that they’ve got access to the type of opportunities that other people have”, she says.
As a British Muslim woman, born and raised in London, who wears a hijab (headscarf), Ahmed is no stranger to judgement herself. As a teenager on work experience in a law firm she was criticised for dressing unprofessionally, an experience that highlighted at a young age that certain things would be harder – as a “young, brown Muslim woman” – for her. It’s not the reason why she didn’t become a lawyer, but, she says, dressing the right way for a law firm was a soft skill that her parents and, by extension, she didn’t naturally have.
“That’s the case for lots of people whose parents are migrants,” she says. She’s quick to add that she hears positive stories about workplaces too, but, “There are still women who have to take off their hijab to get the jobs they want. There are stereotypes that exist all through the system: at school, at university, applying for jobs and within organisations.”
The thousands of women who lose their jobs every year after falling pregnant is stark evidence of how far the UK has to go in addressing gender inequality. And for ethnic minority women, the hurdles are higher still. Although girls of all backgrounds do better than boys at school, the edge falls away when they enter the workplace, and crumbles further at the time when most think about starting families.
For minorities, the penalty is even higher. “The gender pay gap is 11% on average,” says Ahmed, “but if you look at ethnic minority women, particularly those of Pakistani or Bangladeshi background, they’re facing a gender pay gap of 26-28%.”
“More needs to be done by businesses and organisations,” she says. “This could be simple things like changing the way recruitment is done. Big organisations monitor from a diversity perspective, but there needs to be more auditing of that information, across the board in larger organisations. And there needs to be more recognition that once someone is recruited to an organisation they’re still going to face different types of barriers that can impact on their ability to progress. We need to take a step back and address structural issues.”
The earlier we can start to break down barriers to progress, the easier it will be, Ahmed says. When schools help students from minority backgrounds prepare for university, for instance by providing mentors or taking part in schemes to give students the skills to get through university interviews that they might not have if they come from – for example – a poor background, they can tip the balance from the start.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done around showing the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workspace,” she says. “From a very basic point of view, if your organisation is more diverse then you will think about the needs or wants of your customer base which is going to be more beneficial for your business.”
She describes herself as an activist, but Ahmed’s approach to campaigning is measured and steady rather than reactionary. Receiving her MBE from Prince William last year reinforced a confidence – held since childhood, courtesy of her hardworking and supportive immigrant parents – that has steered her course thus far. “It took me completely by surprise”, she says, of getting the honours. “Being a woman from a marginalised group, it was really special to have that recognition. Many activists or campaigners are in this space not to get recognition, but to make changes, so it’s a surprise when it happens.”
Though her accolades have come as surprises, her career path has not. “I always knew I wanted to make a difference,” she says. “My parents inspired me from the beginning. They’ve always helped people where they can and had positive attitudes around social justice and given to charity. We were always brought to give to charity and help people.”
Her own confidence has grown through doing. “I know now that if you start doing something, you will learn as you go,” she says. “I would tell anyone who has an ambition that if you have a good idea, and passion, then it might fail or it might work out. But the best learning comes through experience.”
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