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Cllr Khan addresses the conference.
Cllr Khan addresses the conference.

Succeeding Through Setbacks

Cllr Rabina Khan’s speech to BNP Paribas
Diversity Conference, October 2017.

First, I would like to thank Anne and Connor for organising an event on behalf of BNP Paribas to recognise how important diversity is, both in Britain and globally.  This is especially important in this Brexit era.

My background has been in regeneration and community inclusion. I have campaigned on many issues, including tackling welfare reforms to alleviate homelessness, challenging planning and strategic development of new-build sites in recognition of tenants with complex physical needs and improving the maternity wards in a London Hospital. In 2014, I was also fortunate to win the European Diversity Hero of the Year Award.

In 2010, I stood as a Labour Councillor Candidate in Tower Hamlets and won my seat, and between 2010-2015 I served as the first Bangladeshi Muslim woman in Britain to be a Cabinet member – for Housing and Regeneration.

I am proud to be a woman, Bangladeshi, Muslim and British.

My borough won the Sunday Times Award for best transformed council estate and won a national award for delivering more sustainable homes than any other council in England.

Nevertheless, in my work in local government, in leadership and campaigning, I’ve faced prejudice and been patronised.

Boards stacked with white middle class men have stereotyped me based on race, sex and class and attempted to sweep my opinions under the carpet.

Comments I have received include: “It must be hard for a Muslim woman to understand complex housing situations: do you learn everything by heart?”

However, my knowledge and experience gained through my councillor casework of people and their housing needs has helped shape policies that empower people and has also assisted the council and housing associations financially.

For example, I instigated the Project 120, which helps build homes for people with complex disabilities on new housing developments, so before the spade hits ground there is a personalised home for a person with profound needs.  This helped saved money for the council and housing associations by preventing further work from being carried out if the home did not meet a disabled person’s needs.

It is clear that diversity dividends work in both the public and private sector.  Not only is there a strong link between a diverse workforce, greater innovation, creativity and economic returns, but a wider talent pool enables a business to develop and tailor services for a more diverse group of customers at home and capitalise on market opportunities abroad.

According to the management consultancy McKinsey, research shows that mixed-gender boards outperform all-male boards, while other studies observed a positive relationship between the diversity of executive boards and returns on assets and investments among Fortune-listed US companies. There are also numerous studies that show that adding women to the labour force increases GDP.

Inga Beale, the first female chief executive of Lloyds of London, has said that she doesn’t worry about tokenism, but that the “rule of three” matters – you need three people of diverse backgrounds and not just one. Once teams are diversified, there won’t be tokens.

Beale, in an interview with the Evening Standard last year, said, “It’s much healthier to come to work and be yourself. We are focusing more on inclusion than diversity because that is the key. People don’t necessarily want to be the diverse one; they want to feel like the included one.”

I am delighted to know that BNP Paribas is developing a workforce that reflects the diversity of its customers and that the partnership with Compte-Nickel enables all customers, regardless of circumstances, to have the opportunity to hold a bank account.

I am acutely aware that the role of women in leadership is underestimated and this impacts upon my life. We can be propelled, often through no fault of our own, into difficult and controversial circumstances, yet our ability to cope with such setbacks is testament to our resilience.

As you may have read in the newspapers, Tower Hamlets council has been at the centre of political controversy in recent years, and the former mayor was removed from office and a new election held in 2015.
I stood as an independent candidate in the Tower Hamlets’ mayoral election and managed to inspire over 26,000 people to vote for me during a period of difficulty, while facing mainstream opposition from all three of the major parties because I had served in the previous Administration.

Although I did not emerge as the eventual victor, I see the result as a victory of sorts as the margin was so slim between the winning candidate and me – even though throughout the race I was said to be the puppet of the former mayor, or my husband, and my main rival refused to say my name.

One of the lessons I learned from that election was the importance of re-defining stereotypes and being able to pick yourself up again and get back to work after a setback, as tough as it feels at the time.

There were some lighter moments, however. During the campaign, a very polite gentleman asked me what colour my hair was under my veil, so I said it was pink. He said, “Really Rabina?” I laughed and replied, “Don’t be silly… it’s green.”

Following that interaction, I went on to write an article entitled My Hair is Pink Under this Veil and delivered a lecture of the same title at Cambridge University.

Past mayoral elections have been more about personal and petty battles than about people and their interests. There are those who say I lost 2015 election because certain quarters of the Muslim community do not vote for a woman.  That kind of narrative must stop for a new kind of perception to flourish.

So how did I cope with defeat?

Well, it gave me the opportunity to consume large quantities of bread, chocolates and greasy food. In fact, I ended up in a café called The Hungry Cow one day talking to constituents – and in the East End a “cuppa” tea does a lot of good!

It was ordinary folk who said to me, “Rabina, go back and do what you enjoy,” and that was supporting people in my casework, challenging things that were not right and campaigning for change.

I also knew that I had a responsibility to connect, engage and inspire, so that future generations can re-define stereotypes.

We often learn greater lessons in adversity than we do in victory.

Setbacks are inevitable.

The difference for successful people is that they expect them and do not view them as the end of the story.

Setbacks enable people to reflect and learn, rather than blame.

Author Roy Bennett said, “When you start living the life of your dreams, there will always be obstacles, doubters, mistakes and setbacks along the way. But with hard work, perseverance and self-belief there is no limit to what you can achieve.”

Discrimination comes in all sorts of forms. It can be the kind of insensitive comments I received during the campaign, from people who no doubt meant well but should have known better. And on the other hand it can take violent forms.

Over eight years ago, when researching for the screenplay for my short film Shrouded, I spoke to women who were victims of acid attacks but had chosen to wear the Niqab – the full face veil – to cover their scarred faces.  The film brought to light the issue of gender terrorism, where acid is not used to kill women, but to torture, humiliate and cause life changing injuries.

Despite their horrific injuries, many of these women have rebuilt their lives and gone on to achieve something positive as a result of their experiences.

I am sure you’ve all heard of Katie Piper, the former model who was attacked in 2008 by an ex-boyfriend. Just one year after the attack, she launched the Katie Piper Foundation to campaign for more specialist help for burns’ victims. She has also written her autobiography and become a regular on several TV programmes.

You may have seen there’s been a lot in the news lately about a recent spike in acid attacks, and I’ve been campaigning for the victims in London. These women have faced one of the greatest setbacks imaginable – making them, in some cases, physically unrecognisable – but if they don’t give up after that, it shows how it is worth it for us to persevere and to overcome the challenges we face.
The other thing that you can’t get away from in the news is Brexit. And since the referendum we’ve had very disturbing reports of rising hate crimes, attacks against European migrants and other incidents of bigotry.

I think the upheaval of Brexit means we should be fundamentally rethinking how we see other human beings in society.

We don’t know what the post-Brexit era will look like yet. But we can campaign for the one we want to see.

I want growth and change from which we all benefit, which doesn’t leave behind the women who have lost twice as many jobs as men in recent years, or leave behind disabled people, or leave behind those who want to balance working life and raising a family, or which doesn’t leave our young people unemployed and disillusioned.

I want a society that challenges all forms of prejudice and phobia.

On Tuesday, Theresa May published a report highlighting severe racial disparities in schools, councils and in the workplace. White working class pupils heavily underperform at school.

Black men face the highest likelihood of being found guilty in court. Ethnic minorities struggle to find jobs. I hope that any post Brexit settlement takes full account of these issues which if left to their own devices can only get worse.

The story of diversity and inclusion is right here in this room with all of you.

Diversity and inclusion ensures that everyone has access to the same opportunities and is treated equally and fairly. In fact, organisations that embrace and actively promote diversity, equality and inclusion tend to thrive, because they attract and retain top quality employees and increase productivity, while also benefiting from different cultural perspectives. Nevertheless, there are still challenges to overcome, including discrimination and negative stereotyping.

There will always be those who resist diversity and change, but in the workplace this problem can be managed by business owners and bosses through, for example, workshops, social events to promote cohesion and even diversity seminars. It’s about creating an atmosphere where it feels – and is – safe for all employees to ask for help.

However, although diversity is good for business, we shouldn’t have to justify everything in terms of profit and loss, or GDP. Treating people equally and valuing diversity is ethically correct and is about justice, not profit margins.

Diversity is about making a conscious and collective effort to break down barriers and provide a voice for marginalised people. It’s about bringing a wider breadth of experience to the table, capitalising on everyone’s strengths within a collective.

Here’s an example. In the past few days, we’ve seen the row about Dove – the soap company – producing an advert where a black woman turns into a white woman. It seems like it was intended innocently, but a lot of people found it deeply offensive and perhaps (and I can only speculate) if they’d had a more diverse team working on the advert, this could have been avoided.

On the other hand, it’s not all doom and gloom. It was a pleasure to view the recent L’Oreal campaign Yours Truly, which included a Muslim woman in Hijab modelling. Because we are all worth it!

•Read more about it:
Cllr Rabina Khan steps up to the front line
Our Rabina is the hero!

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