Careers Advice From The Woman Tackling Racial Inequality In The UK

Photo: Courtesy Of The Cabinet Office
Zamila Bunglawala’s current job description includes "tackling the burning injustices that affect ethnic groups in the UK". Her official title is Deputy Director of Strategy and Insight within the Race Disparity Unit of the Cabinet Office.
Zamila is a second generation British, Muslim, Indian woman, raised by a single mother. She joined the civil service at 26, her first job after law school, working in Tony Blair’s strategy unit. Since then, she’s worked in six countries around the world for the United Nations and for nonprofit, nongovernment think tanks specialising in structural inequality. She advises No. 10 ministers and heads of UN agencies and sits on six boards including for UNESCO-UK, UKRI and Concern Worldwide, an NGO working with the world’s poorest. In 2004, Zamila took a post in Darfur at the height of the conflict and humanitarian crisis there. She felt compelled to go after hearing that women and children were being raped. "It was seven days a week working in 40-degree heat in an environment where lots of people have guns and lots of people die, and your job is to try and make a difference that is positive," she tells me in an office at the International Inequalities Institute, part of the London School of Economics, where she is completing a three-month fellowship.
In an article published in The Times a couple of months ago, Zamila said: "I, like many other ethnic minority women, have become familiar throughout my career for being mistaken for the PA when entering a meeting room." As a result, she has come up with several personal strategies for tackling gender inequality in the workplace, which former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard condensed into the catchphrase: "Channel your inner Zamila."
With the employment gap between ethnic minorities and the white majority at 10% compared to the gender pay gap at 9%, Zamila is looking at the success of campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp and hoping for a similar mass call to arms for racial inequality. She’s even created her own hashtag – #3-OD, "meaning open data and open dialogue to open democracy", relating to the website her team has been building for the last few years, where all the government stats on race disparity are published, organised by issues like housing, work, pay and benefits, education, health and crime. For the most part, it's a shocking and sad read, but a vital one.
Here’s what Zamila had to say about working life behind the scenes at No. 9 Downing Street, networking, call-out culture and living with a long-term condition that means she has to cancel important meetings with an hour’s notice and lie silently in the dark at least once or twice a month.
What's a typical day like for you?
Not to scare anybody but I wake up between 4 and 5am. It's something I've had since I was very young. I've been checked by doctors and there's nothing wrong with me, I just wake up at that time! I have two cups of tea when I get up – that’s the only caffeine I’ll have all day – I eat my breakfast and then I get online, read a variety of online news outlets. I also watch late-night talk show videos and I check my emails. I’m also writing a book about my career – working title The Relevant Rebel – and so I’ll try to do some writing or editing too. I feed Minnie, my cute cat, get ready for the day and leave the house about 8 to get to the office just before 9.
Generally at the Cabinet Office I will have between five and seven meetings a day. That will be a combination of meetings with my team, with our external partners, and some with No. 10 – our customer – and other government departments. I leave the office about 6/6.30 and I try to make sure my team leaves with me. If I have a social engagement I'll go straight to it and that will be a late evening, if not I'll go home, have supper and be in bed by 10.30.
What are the objectives of the Race Disparity Unit?
The prime minister was clear that she wanted to tackle 'burning injustices' and commissioned my team to build a website – Ethnicity Facts and Figures – that contains all the government data broken down by ethnicity. No government had ever done this before. There were lots of sceptics who said, "Why do we need a website when we already publish this data?" but the prime minister was very clear that we needed to be transparent about ethnic disparities in the UK. I knew nothing about websites then, so I did wonder why I was asked to do it... but it has turned out to be one of the most challenging and stimulating things I've ever done.
The stats are overwhelming – once you've highlighted the disparities, how do you as a team go about tackling these figures?
You talk to a wide range of users, so academics, community groups and NGOs, public and private sector organisations. These are disparities that have been around for decades, so we asked "What do you want us to do? What do you want us to tackle first?" And they were very clear, which helped. They told us to look at employment and education first. In October this year the prime minister announced a huge package of policies on employment, including a consultation on ethnicity pay, building on gender pay which was very successful because it changed the dialogue on what women get paid. And a collaboration with Business in the Community to develop a charter so that employers could sign up and say, "Yes we are a good employer because we monitor by ethnicity, because we have zero tolerance on bullying and harassment, because we care about who works for us and the fact we are diverse".
You wrote the first UK policy report on British Muslim women and the labour market – what did it say?
I did! I found that British Muslim women had the lowest labour market activity and progression compared to any other groups. Many British Muslim women were getting their A-levels and going to university in large numbers but somehow were not entering the labour market or progressing within it. If we have a highly educated female demographic we need to support them, tackle the challenges they face, like religious bias, and enable them to progress in work. We need more women in work – at all levels!
As a Muslim woman, is your faith a source of strength to you?
My faith is very grounding. It is an integral part of me. Faith in its base form is an internal conversation, it's not something you necessarily need to talk about if you don't want to. It can be visible through dress, practices and behaviours but not for everybody. Personally, my faith helps me recognise what matters most.
In an interview you did eight years ago, you said: "I’m one of those people who has no idea where their career is going to go. I usually wait for opportunities to come to me." Is that still true?
When I started working in 2001, the concept of 'lifetime careers' was starting to end. I realised that maybe my career was going to be a series of short and medium-term contracts, which I was fine with because project-based work and short-term goals help you to focus and allow you to feel confident that new opportunities will come along – "If I do this one right, something else will come along". It means you generate lots of skills, make lots of new networks, come up with lots of new ideas and plans as you go along. I think that trajectory is healthy but I appreciate not everyone might be comfortable with that level of uncertainty. For example, I'm doing this three-month fellowship at the LSE International Inequalities Institute now, and I can slot that into my Cabinet Office role, whereas if I had too long-range a goal, I might not pursue short-term options, which are actually very exciting.
How do you know when the right time is to move on from a job and start a new opportunity?
I am a deeply passionate person – I love what I do! I damn well make sure I choose contracts that have something I know about, and something I don't know about, so that I can enjoy the learning curve. It's normal to go through lulls at work for a few days or even weeks, but if that feeling lasts more than a month, I think it's time to leave. If for any reason you start waking up in the morning and you don't like what you do, then think about moving on. Life is so short, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing then do something else.
What has been the most stressful part of your career to date?
Working for the United Nations in Darfur in 2004 at the height of the conflict and humanitarian crisis. I was very young in my career then and I was made Head of Office for El Fasher, North Darfur, which literally means I ran an office in the desert. I was one of two women who were Head of Office for the UN there. In 2004 in Darfur there were millions of people in camps – mostly women and girls, lots of people were being killed or were starving. I did it because I wanted to work for the United Nations in a field operation – I wanted to learn what it was like to really be at the front line and how I could help in a crisis. I did it because women and girls were being raped – often by the people who were there to protect them. Going in there was no way I could have known how bad it was going to be on the ground every day. It was working seven days a week in 40-degree summer heat in an environment where lots of people have guns and lots of people die, and your job is to try and make a difference that is positive.
What are your strategies for coping with the day-to-day stresses of the job?
As passionate and gregarious as I am – I am also very focussed and not easily stressed. My secret is I remember – I have worked in Darfur and there’s little that can be as stressful as that! I also have a great team and we share burdens. Talking about issues helps you resolve them; I'm not one of those people who thinks, 'I can do this all by myself'.
What would your advice be to younger women starting a career in the civil service?
The civil service is a great place to be because it's a supportive environment. The advice I would give anyone starting is to find yourself a sponsor – somebody very senior that will listen to and support you, and help you plan your career. If like me you don’t have long-term goals or are not sure of what you want to do long term, you need someone who can be a sounding board and also feed you information and ideas. The civil service is a great place to come in and out of, I've left many times and been welcomed back because I've maintained my networks. I tell young women to build their networks – with women and with men. If men are still the majority in the workplace, you're going to work for a man at some point. My sponsor was the late Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood. He supported my immediate career goals, he also supported my blogging, and encouraged me to apply to sit on more boards. So my advice is: Whatever level you get in, network with people and find out what interesting things and events are going on and go along. Focus on your job but try and maintain other interests and keep a lens on what other people are doing. My other piece of advice is: Don't be afraid! Lots of people are in the same boat as you, so don’t be so hard on yourself, enjoy your work, be confident in speaking out, share your ideas and don’t worry – we all make mistakes; the point is to learn from them.
Are you confident going up to a group of people you don't know at an event and introducing yourself?
You'll often find groups of men clustered together at these events, so I'll just walk up to them and say, "May I be the token woman in your conversation?" No one is going to say no to that! I don’t say it to insult them, but it’s an important thing to point out.
Any tips for public speaking?
Ooh, I always get very nervous before public speaking! If I'm on an event with other people, I will literally say about 15 minutes before, "Please just leave me alone because I will be in the height of my nervousness and the only way I can stay calm is to be very still and very quiet and just focus on what I'm going to say". In those 15 minutes for some reason, my adrenaline tries to knock me out! Once I start talking, I'm fine.
I’ve read some of your posts on migraines – when did you start getting them? How do they affect your life and work?
I started getting them in childhood but I wasn't diagnosed until I was a teenager. Migraines change as you age. When I was younger, my head would hurt, I would get nausea and throw up, but I could take two Nurofen and I'd be fine in two hours. Now they last a day, sometimes two days, and they fundamentally affect the way I work. So every time I start a new contract I tell my boss two things on the first day: one, that I suffer migraines at least once a month and they won't see me for a day or two when it happens. And two, that I believe leaders should invite challenge and that I will challenge them. My migraines come on very rapidly, within one or two hours, and I have to find my way home. I will tell my team in that moment and then I go and lie down in the dark. I will be in tremendous pain, I will vomit, I won't be able to eat or drink, and I have to be in bed until it passes. I met the Disability Champion Sir Philip Rutnam a few weeks ago and we're going to take forward a plan of action next year to do something positive to support people who suffer migraines and other invisible conditions.
The former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard coined the phrase "channel your inner Zamila" with regards to calling out sexism in the workplace and the gender pay gap. Do you think calling out is the route to progress?
The gender pay gap data told us that even though many of us thought we were working in gender-friendly environments, turns out we are still treated differently – the pay gap data is truly shocking. Not being able to talk openly about your pay has masked a lot of that for so long. I don't think it's impolite to talk about pay, or other challenges – why shouldn't we if there is an injustice being done to us? Calling these things out is the only way to tackle them and doing it in a way that is inclusive and positive is effective. If you are the minority in any conversation, you need the support of the majority to tackle the problem. The first step is dialogue. I'm really proud of the #MeToo movement and of #TimesUp because it has forced a conversation. The gender pay gap data is shifting the market and forcing companies to think, 'Okay this doesn't look good for us, we don’t want this to be our reality so we need to tackle it', and I think other injustices can be tackled in the same way, but only if we embrace them and if we're not afraid to talk about them. As a woman I am very happy, if somebody sends me a list of names, to say: "Why aren't there any women on this list? Why has nobody thought to recommend women?" If there are no women in a meeting room, I will also point that out. Provocation is healthy because you are challenging those around you to step up, so that we can all benefit.
You’ve said previously that your role model is your mother, what was she like?
My mother was truly amazing – she raised six kids and she was a single mother. She was clear that having moved to the UK in the late 1960s, she wanted to raise kids who understood their Indian and British cultures, and Islamic religion. She instilled in us a solid education and work ethic. She was also a brilliant role model in terms of helping us to recognise our strengths and how to deal with our insecurities, and recognise that being open to your environment is healthy. If you're a British, Muslim, Indian woman – all that has value. My mother taught me not to be afraid of any of it but rather embrace and celebrate it all. She was also a wonderfully happy and incredibly funny person, she never let things worry her too much. I'm not afraid to fail because I've learned that being positive is a better energy to have. My mother passed away 18 years ago, but my siblings and I remember her every day. That's what makes somebody inspiring – they stay in your immediate circle forever.