Navigating the Corporate World as a First-Generation Black Muslim Woman

Navigating the Corporate World as a First-Generation Black Muslim Woman

The start of an academic year and the hollowness that comes with it puts pressure on graduates to “get their act together”. With the current pandemic and job cuts at an all-time high, this pressure is considerably elevated – even more so for minority groups who already have the odds stacked against them. A couple of years ago, I was in a similar position. As a recent life-science graduate, the job prospects looked bleak. Although the desire to succeed was strong, the confidence to navigate worlds so far removed from my working-class roots was not.

The Context

Being the eldest daughter in an immigrant household, much of my life has embodied responsibilities. I grew up adopting my mother’s nurturing manner as she took care of our home and family, with my priorities eventually shifting to financial duties as I followed suit with my father. Naturally, the pressure to support my family in all capacities was strong. In recognition of my parents’ struggles, I had assumed four part-time jobs while studying full-time in an attempt to relieve some of their burdens. This desire combined with my unhealthy concern is what ultimately drove me over the edge.

Upon completion of my final-year undergrad thesis, I began the job hunt immediately. The fear of falling into a period of inactivity and what I deemed at the time to be ‘failure’, was both daunting and out of the question. After more than fifty applications and interviews, I accepted a 3-month internship at a distinguished healthcare communications firm in London. Relieved, I assumed my problems were over. Little did I know, however, that this was but just the first hurdle.

Working with leading pharma, medical device and biotech companies at the very start of my career was pivotal. I would arrive at the office every morning, eagerly anticipating my assignment for the day. My portfolio of clients, as well as useful industry knowledge, was rapidly growing — and all within five weeks of completing my studies. I had to admit, even to myself, the achievement was pretty impressive. Much to the reassurance of my family and friends, I had secured the “dream job”. Everything seemed to be going smoothly and I had plenty to be grateful for.

Yet, I remained dissatisfied.

As a competitive individual with a habit to ruminate, I was constantly questioning my decision. Did I make a mistake? Had I rushed this choice? In accepting this placement, was I potentially missing a better or more suited opportunity? I would torture myself endlessly with the possibilities. Even though no real problem existed, I could not quite ignore the voice in my head. Doubt truly is a powerful sentiment. Only weeks into an otherwise pleasant placement, I found myself looking elsewhere (oblivious to the fact that the job at hand was not the issue).

Lunch breaks slowly transformed into hushed phone calls in abandoned corridors with recruiters, whilst evenings were spent attending interviews. The hell I thought I had escaped had returned. My worry had consumed me so much so, that I did not even partake in celebrations with my family on what should have been the proudest day of my life. A month into my internship, I attended my graduation ceremony with my parents. Since working a 9–6 (including Saturdays), meant that I had very little free time, I shamelessly used the opportunity to travel to a job interview at a company I was interested in at the time. Rather than follow the stream of graduates back to our seats after walking across the stage, I simply exited the auditorium. Restless, I joined my parents outside to capture those ever so monumental photos.

July 2018 – My Bachelor’s Graduation

After the short photography session and exchange of kisses and hugs, I ordered my parents an Uber home and headed for the station to travel to an interview almost two hours away. Instead of sitting around a table with those who loved me, I found myself amongst strangers, undergoing a gruelling 4-hour assessment.

Still feeling the effects of the interrogation, I returned to work the following day to a surprise awaiting me in the conference room. My colleagues had gifted me a thoughtful present congratulating me on my graduation. Touched (and a little guilty, I admit), my resolve was swayed. This small act of kindness reinforced the importance of a supportive team — an element missing in all the other companies I was considering at the time, including the one from just the previous day.

As a result, I decided to postpone the job search for the time being. I figured as I was just beginning to settle in and develop a routine, it made sense to see the placement through till the end. I had concluded that if after the three months I was still not content, I would take up a role at one of my other offers. It seemed like the best choice to make at the time. And praying Istikharah, alongside my parent’s duaa’s strengthened this assurance. I was the most at peace I had been since the beginning of the internship.

Following completion of the programme, I was extended a fixed-term contract which I accepted with delight. Three promotions and considerable growth later, I found myself fully immersed in the workplace culture. In fact, I struggled to recall a time in which I was not a tax-paying citizen. Now that I had finally made peace with my state of affairs, I was able to focus on the dreaded next step, otherwise known as “career progression”. But of course, this did not come without difficulty.

My Experience

The transition from student to jobseeker is difficult – full-time employee, even more so. As first-generation immigrants, we tend to be the first in our families to face such struggle, often with little or no resources to aid our adjustment. The pool of knowledge accessible to me came directly from my older brothers. Despite their willingness to guide me in my first corporate role, we worked in entirely different fields, so their advice was unfortunately inapplicable to my situation. Nor could they identify with my challenges of being a Black woman — a visibly Muslim one in that. Thus, I entered the corporate world at 21, naïve and ill-informed.

The first thing I noticed as I began my role, was just how much I differed from my colleagues. Not only was I, without doubt, the youngest person working in the building; I was also the only Black person in an environment with very little diversity. Coming from a community where I bore close resemblance to my peers, being thrown in a completely foreign space presented many challenges. I found myself amongst upper middle-class Ox-bridge graduates with PHD’s, MBA’s — you name it. Their cumulative knowledge and expertise were truly remarkable. Needless to say, the first-class undergrad degree I had just acquired became less and less impressive. They discussed mortgages, exclusive holidays, and private education for their kids, while I yearned for a companion to hash over Netflix shows and twitter memes. It was, and still is, a huge culture shock.

To my dismay, the lack of diversity was not unique to my small bubble. It extended onto larger scales and platforms too, such as our Industry’s awards ceremony — an annual, prestigious event which showcases and recognises excellence in the sector. During the presenter’s speech, where he spoke of his delight in witnessing the industry evolve to encompass diversity, I couldn’t help but study the attendees in their thousands (all of whom were Caucasian), and wonder what he was referring to. The only variation I could see was perhaps age, and even that was hopeful.

It is at socials like these, where exclusion towards Muslims is often heightened, with drinking culture being mostly to blame. In the corporate field, it is no surprise that drinking is the primary way teams socialise. It boosts staff morale, strengthens personal relationships and in some cases, even gives employees a deeper insight into the business and clientele itself. But for non-drinkers like myself, these occasions are approached with dread. I sometimes feel my seniors are closer to the other juniors in our team as they regularly join them for after-work drinks, whereas I do not. Consequently, causing me to worry that my career progression will be negatively impacted.

Being introverted with no desire to hang around in the office after hours did not help either. To make up for this, I put aside my reserve and went out of my way in being overfriendly. An attempt to accommodate those around me and ease any scepticism. Not realising I was compromising my own comfort in the process.

However, its vital as minorities in the workplace to detach from our worries of being perceived ‘different’ or ‘difficult’ by others. Admittedly, two years later, and I have yet to master this. Even during something as essential as Salah, I still find myself quietly slipping out of the office and heading towards the cramped hallway to perform prayer, desperately hoping, all the while, that it’s not occupied. This daily burden of trying to avoid what I thought would be an ‘awkward’ exchange with my manager, was in all actuality, causing me more distress. It is only recently that I’ve come to understand the truth in the statement “Ask and you shall receive”.

In addition to the physical and social barriers to overcome, there was also my own insecurity and increasing consciousness that I did not belong. Longing for a change of scenery during my first week, I decided to venture from my desk and into the kitchen to have my lunch. Met with uncomfortable stares, I regretted the decision right away. But it was too late. My entrance had already gathered quite the attention from the packs of middle-aged gents. After a few awkward bites of my sandwich, and some mumbling on the table adjacent to mine, one brave Samaritan approached my bench, ‘kindly’ redirecting me to the ESOL college downstairs.

Surely, this man did not miss the obvious lanyard around my neck? The same ID clipped to his belt which granted us both equal access to the floor. In that moment, I decided to give him the benefit of doubt, taking his concern as a complement— It must have been my youthful glow! But when these instances aren’t a one-off and you’re constantly on the receiving end of preconceptions, you gradually lose faith in society. Overtime, a simple trip to the communal kitchen or restroom was enough to provoke my anxiety. It was not until recently that I became aware of the toll my job was having on my physical and mental well-being.

Despite hopes that scaling down overall activity would alleviate my stress, I was shocked to find that this one job took up more energy than all four of my prior roles combined. The most obvious sign being my weight. Friends who I had not seen in months would comment on my rapid weight loss and increasingly slim face— something my naturally fast metabolism and high cheekbones could not account for.

Similarly, the stress, coupled with my anaemia contributed to extreme fatigue, limiting my overall productivity and performance. As time went on, the health implications became worse. Severe back pain, vision problems, premature greying and hair loss were just the start. Although these issues were easy to dismiss, the most recent incident was not.

Just before lockdown, I was under immense pressure due to complications with a project I was overseeing. Following an uncomfortable client call, I decided to step out to get some air. Standing outside the train station amongst the self-engrossed tourists and travellers, I was suddenly overcome with emotion. Unbeknown to me, it was the verge of a panic attack.

Anyone who has ever suffered from a panic attack before will know the feeling — racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea. You literally feel like you are dying. It was utterly terrifying not being in control of my own body. And the panic you experience at that moment just amplifies the entire ordeal.

Instantly, a couple spotted me, and unsure as to what to do recruited help from surrounding staff. Much to my embarrassment and refusal, I was forced to sit in the back room of the station until I had regained composure. After I had cooled down and reassured them all was fine, what did I do? Mustered a deep breath and headed back into the office (or in other words, “the belly of the beast”). It was my second panic attack shortly thereafter where I had understood the severity of the issue. A break was long overdue.

When accumulating my remaining annual leave in 2019, I realised to my horror, that I had only taken 13 days off the entire year. This overexertion, alongside teaching on weekends of course led to one thing – burnout. As a Black Muslim woman in corporate – Pharma, no less, I could not help but feel the need to overcompensate for my very existence. Long hours became the norm. And Impostor syndrome slowly became an all too familiar feeling. Eventually, I grew tired of constantly having to defend my presence in a space that seemed to oppose it. 

Upon reflection, it was apparent that I had thrown myself in at the deep end and taken on too much. Work had consumed my life and I was doing little of what excited me. The plans I made to rectify this in 2020 were unfortunately put on hold due to the pandemic – all but one. In the midst of lockdown, I was offered an unconditional offer to study the MSc of my choice at my dream university, alongside a scholarship covering my full tuition. Finally, the long-awaited respite had arrived.

Having worked intensively throughout undergrad, as well as immediately after, a change of scenery was much needed. Two and a half years later and my perspective on employment has completely changed. I am now in the process of abandoning toxic thought patterns and developing less socially conditioned views on self-worth and success. 

Key Takeaways

Although our twenties are the widely recognised period for risk-taking, this is often difficult for the less privileged like myself. Unlike our advantaged counterparts, we are generally not given the luxury of going down a journey of “self-exploration”. Commitments such as financially contributing to the household upon completion of our studies take precedence. And thus, engaging in risky ventures is not an option. With that said, going “conservative” during your twenties is something I would strongly advise against. This is exactly when you should go backpacking in Asia – or in my case, finish that novel that I’ve been delaying!

However, whether it’s because of circumstance, or your eagerness to delve into the world of work, make sure to take it easy. The stress you feel is usually self-imposed. Remove unrealistic expectations and be kind to yourself. Take advantage of the room for error that grad jobs allow. Making mistakes is all part of the process.

Likewise, overcoming impostor syndrome and feelings of inadequacy is vital. Remember you are deserving of your position – celebrate your achievements! There is a reason you were hired out of all the other applicants. Despite what you think, you are not “lucky” to be there. You earned your spot. Still, when I enter a new environment, whether that be a training course, workshop, or client event, I find myself automatically scanning the room for anyone that even remotely resembles me. A subconscious practice I now recognise as seeking reassurance and validation to my presence in that space.

Finally, and above all, enjoy yourself! Overall, I worked with a lovely team and was given the opportunity to be involved in meaningful projects and campaigns close to my heart.

Society has many misconceptions surrounding different demographics, and as a young, black, Muslim, working-class woman, I’ve borne the brunt of them all. But I’m slowly learning to appreciate the beauty and power that comes with it.

*I deliberated for a while on what to title this post. Despite being brought up in the UK since I was an infant and solely identifying as a “Londoner”, I was born in a poverty-stricken village in Yemen. However, I do not resonate with first-gen struggles such as my parents having to flee their homes and assimilate into a new country. Nor do I resonate with my eldest brothers battles of being bullied severely in school for struggling to integrate. But being firstgen does fill me with me a greater realisation that if not for my parents sacrifices, my life could have taken a completely different route, and I would not have had the fortune to be complaining about first world problems like the struggles (better yet, privilege) of work.


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