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#SELFCARESUNDAYS: why women of colour need to demand more in the workplace

25 Mar 2018

Soma Ghosh’s cat, Flower, let me pat her on the head. “She knows you’re a cat person,” Ghosh tells me.

I smile. I have a cat who is currently over 200 miles away, I tell her. She sympathises with me. We are both cat lovers, but have met up today in Ghosh’s front room to talk about her tumultuous past and how it links to her commendable work in helping women gain “career confidence”.

Soma Ghosh, 34, is a careers mentor, who I met recently through Twitter while searching for people’s stories to tell. When I heard the kind of work she did, it struck a chord with me and I had to find out more.  

She is from Essex but now lives in Harrow. She welcomes me into her home with a smile, and her warm and bubbly personality shines through, despite her protestations that she is an introvert.

It’s been two years since launching her own business, and Ghosh has been written about in The Guardian as well as appearing in Women’s Own magazine.  I’m really interested in Ghosh, not least because she is an woman of colour who has had to go through the same cultural obstacles I have had to, to get to where I am now. And they are the very same ones that thousands of women face every day; some of whom she works with.

As I sit in her cosy and slightly cluttered room, I notice some of the religious and cultural trinkets on a bookshelf in the corner. I comment on how lovely they are.

“My husband bought them, and some are wedding presents.” she beams. Next to them there is a wedding picture of her and her husband, “my husband really, really encouraged me to start a business and to go freelance,” she says.

But it’s not just her business I want to get to grips with today. I’d like to know who the woman behind the mentor is.

She began telling me about her father, who threw her a big party when she was five years old. “I think he knew he wouldn’t be around much longer,” and a year later, he died.

She showed me a small, black and white photograph of a smiling child and a proud dad, “When he died, something changed in me, and I just couldn’t understand the other kids around me, I couldn’t understand why my dad had gone and their dads were still around.”

Ghosh thinks she took her need to help people from her father, a west Bengali man who had travelled from India to eventually work as a solicitor in the UK.

“He really loved helping people and when he was at home he wasn’t able to do that. It was really hard but it’s made me who I am today, so I feel very immensely proud that I keep on learning from somebody like my dad because his spirit’s around me and I know that.”

Before starting her business, Ghosh was made redundant. This caused a lull in her confidence and self-esteem. Her new job didn’t fit the bill; especially after the bullying she encountered there by a senior colleague.

“She humiliated me in front of a colleague, telling them everything I’d done wrong in my job. No one else was complaining about my work. I think the problem with workplace bullying, is that people don’t know how to handle it, because there isn’t a cut and dry definition it’s how it makes the person feel.”

Ghosh achieved her dreams through this adversity, and didn’t give up despite the pressures she faced as a South Asian woman. But I wanted to know whether the line between raising a family, which is traditional in many ethnicities, to having a career was blurring with every passing generation.

“A lot of my clients, especially Asian minorities, have a lot more cultural pressure to get married, have babies, and dress a certain way all those sorts of things.”

Her mother was widowed young, and she was one of the reasons Ghosh is so strong minded, “there is immense pressure to be married by a certain age, in some cultures it’s younger and in others it’s older. I think that women are definitely choosing between a career and a family, they’re prioritising one over the other.”

In helping women deal with their demons, I felt she was more of a counsellor than a mentor, and when asked, she also agreed. “I had a client recently who i was working with for about a month, and there was something going on that was blocking her.

“I’m not a qualified counsellor, but it’s about making sure whether they need to offload on me a bit. In some situations, unfortunately, it’s really sad, and it makes me feel bit sad that they don’t have anyone else to talk to.”

Carrying more than their fair share of burdens then, I wanted to know what women should do to aid their career journeys, coming from an experienced careers counsellor.

“There are a lot of women I know that have been in the same industry for maybe five or six years and they’re seeing their younger counterparts get promoted. And they have this voice in their heads saying ‘why is that not me?’ But it’s not you because you’re not speaking up, you’re not having that discussion with your manager.

“We’re so cultured into believing only men can go for it that we don’t do it.”

I wanted to know how she has helped some of these women who are going through career and emotional blocks. Ghosh told me she has supported a client to take on a more senior role and empowered another to ask for a well-deserved promotion.

I then left Ghosh to her work. I felt a sense of achievement, in the quiet acknowledgment that Ghosh and I shared, and for all the other women out there: that we were finally speaking up for ourselves.

Because life is far too short to not go for that job you’ve always wanted. Forget holding back. Now is the time.