Black Women Breaking Race and Gender Barriers At Work

Featured Illustration: Melissa Koby

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It’s no secret to us Black women that we are absent at work. Operation Black Vote found that in 1000 U.K. organisations, only 3.5% of Black people were at the top of a company, with 12.9% in the general workplace. Less than a quarter of these positions are held by Black women.

It’s enough to give you the familiar feeling of isolation that sometimes comes with being Black — but today, we’re more powerful than ever.

Not only are we slowly getting more represented, but many of us are determined to break down the hidden barriers of racism in work, such as Jade Macpepple-Jaja, a 23-year-old graduate from London.

Featured: Jade Macpepple-Jaja

While working as a paralegal, Jade started ‘influencing’ on Instagram which led to her designing a pair of trainers with Nike, inspired by her journey as a Black woman in both the legal and creative industry.

“I didn’t take Instagram seriously,” says Jade. “I was just into sneakers and streetwear. I liked sharing what I wore online, but I knew Black influencers were often ignored by brands.”

Jade never thought of posting as more than a hobby until Nike announced their ‘Nike By You Workshop’ in March 2020, which allowed 20 creatives from London to design their own shoe.

“I kept seeing it in my tailored adverts but ignoring it. I thought ‘I’m never going to get that, why would they care about the story of a Black girl who wants to be a lawyer?’ I thought my story was boring to others because I wasn’t part of the white target audience.”

But a day before the deadline, Jade’s best friend sent the competition to her and Jade decided to ‘just do it’ (Nike pun intended) and apply.

“They asked about my experience of London. I said that I was a Black creative and professional in London trying to enter two industries where the statistics are not in my favour, but also how I was determined that my appearance would not be a barrier.”

In April, Jade received an email from Nike saying she had been selected, during the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement. After seeing the reactions following the death of George Floyd, Jade realised that her story was more important than ever.

Featured: Nike shoe designed by Jade Macpepple-Jaja

“I designed the shoe with Black women in mind. I wanted the tongue of the shoe to be black, to emphasise the strength of my community but also wanted to embody feminity in the shoe with the shades of pink and nude. I called the shoe ‘INC.’, short for inclusion. I want it to be the catalyst for conversations of diversity. In my office of three hundred people, I’m the only Black woman. Even in the creative industry, Black women are constantly paid less and ignored. I want people who wear these trainers to start a conversation from it — about how the shoes were designed during the Black Lives Matter movement, by a girl who was desperately trying to enter industries she was misrepresented in.”

After dropping the promotional video on her Instagram (@jademacj), the limited 350 pairs of the meaningful shoe sold out straight away and Jade’s DMs were filled with praise.

“There were articles written about me and people screenshotting and posting their orders of the shoe online. I was mind blown. This is what I always wanted to see, not just for me, but for every Black woman: to be supported and celebrated. Black women messaged me saying ‘it isn’t just a win for you, it’s a win for us.'”

For Jade, the trainers will always represent her realisation that no matter what statistics say, she can do what she loves and make something great.

“Our society is shaped in a way where we know barriers exist,” Jade says.

“I have fallen short to thinking I can’t do something just because I’m the only Black girl there. We must keep putting ourselves out there and demanding people listen. We must take up space. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking certain organisations are racist so we avoid applying but if that’s what we want to do, we should apply because it’s the racist that needs to go, not you!”

Jade isn’t alone in her thinking.

Avila Thidma, 23, has embodied the idea that we shouldn’t let racism dictate us. In her third year of university, she created Avila Diana Cards, a business selling greeting cards with people of colour (POC) depicted on them.

She said: “When I was younger, I received so many cards from birthday parties with white characters like Snow White, Groovy Chick, and Barbie. People don’t realise the impact this has. It influences you to think the default is white.

“When The Princess and the Frog came out, I realised that a large company having a ‘Black princess’ shouldn’t be so unusual. I want to normalise cards featuring POC so that when you receive one, you’re not shocked that it looks like you. During Black Lives Matter, I noticed a lot of greeting cards with designs of POC but a month later, they were pushed to the back of the site. A lot of companies are performative like that and as a Black woman, it made me angry — but eventually, you get tired and think ‘I’m just going to do it myself.’”

Avila has a sweet manner about herself. She sits on the other side of the Zoom call quietly and speaks about her business in a polite and humble way, as if it hasn’t filled a huge gap in the market that has gone unrecognised for years.

 

“Everyone has a birthday or something to celebrate so they need a greeting card — it shouldn’t be difficult to find one with someone on there who reflects you,” Avila explains.

Avila now runs Kutendai, an online marketplace specifically for exclusive gifts.

“This all started from me selling cards at market stalls, building up my brand, and making people understand why I’m doing it,” Avila explains. “I’m just trying to fill in a need I had since I was a child, but I could never fill because the representation wasn’t there. Today, POC are more represented but it needs to be in every sector, not just cartoons and movies.”

However, not everyone sees her work as a positive change.

“When I’ve applied for mentorships or funding, people imply I’m only successful because I’m a Black woman and I’m ‘ticking a box’ for the industry,” Avila said.

“I’ve worked too hard these past 2 years to be told I’m a ticked box. I have competitors whose designs are just as unique as mine — to be told I’m only succeeding because of my skin is crazy.”

Avila’s customers have always been grateful.

“My favourite experience was at a stall where a little boy pointed at one on my cards excitedly and said to his mum: ‘that looks like me!’” Avila beams. “Finding something as generic as a card to really represent you and show the thought which has gone into choosing the card is amazing. You have to make the way for other people. Dominate industries who have failed to acknowledge you!”

Chella Ramanan is a 47-year-old game developer who decided to do just that.

Featured: Chella Ramanan

She founded POC in Play, an organisation which aims to increase the visibility of POC in the gaming industry.

Creative Skillset found that only 4% of game designers from the U.K. are Black and 24% are women.

The lack of diversity was noticeable when Chella entered the gaming industry, fifteen years ago.

“I was constantly the only woman and Black person in the room,” Chella tells me.

“I would get annoyed about the lack of Black people in gaming and racist adverts, like Sony’s PlayStation ad of a white woman grasping the face of a Black model. Even when designing characters in a game, there was a lack of Black textures. I was unable to get curly hair for my character or the correct shadowing when making their skin tone darker. I think the industry wasn’t ready to listen for so long, simply because there weren’t many Black people in it to notice.”

Chella decided to go to a networking event ran by BAME in Games, which encourages more POC to enter gaming.

“I was so shocked when I walked into a room full of Black developers!” says Chella. “I met Adam Campbell and we both expressed our want for Black people to have more representation in the industry.”

Together, the pair created POC in Play — which is now a team of 9.

“For Black History Month, we took over BAFTA Games’ Twitter for a week,” Chella exclaims excitedly.

“We tweeted about 100 Black people in the games industry who have made an impact. Gaming companies can’t give excuses of ‘not having Black candidates/speakers available’ when we put work in to find them.”

“After lockdown, we want to create stock photography which features Black gamers, so that marketing organisations can use it to represent the gaming community fully.”

Chella believes that having a good support system is vital. She says: “You need to find people who have the same values as you but different skills. If you want to make a difference, you need to know how to collaborate, reach your community, and also be prepared to go through some difficult times.”

The extraordinary accomplishments of Black women aren’t new. We didn’t just arrive on the scene and aren’t going to fade. Slowly and hopefully, we are preparing the next generation for a more equal society — where no Black girl will have to look with dread at statistics ever again.