Interview: Rukasana Bhaijee on benefits of inclusion in the workplace
Rukasana Bhaijee, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lead, EMEA Technology at Google, meets Kitty Finstad to discuss how workplaces can ensure that areas of difference unite rather than divide
When she thinks back on the changes she’s witnessed over the past decade, Rukasana Bhaijee feels optimistic for the future. In her role as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lead, EMEA Technology, Google, Bhaijee speaks with ease about the whole spectrum of what equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) looks like – or should look like – in 2022. It is not so long ago, when corporate discussions about “diversifying the workforce” meant one thing only: more women. But true diversity, true equity, true inclusion, encompasses so much more in 21st-century business and society: greater awareness of and representation around gender, race, disability, religion, culture, ethnicity, age, language, socioeconomic status, neurodiversity and sexual orientation. A big picture of the whole world.
For tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, TikTok and Tencent, almost the whole world is the customer – one who until recently was served by a largely young, male, white, stereotypically “tech bro” workforce. “That’s one of the reasons I accepted the role at Google, supporting the EMEA technology business specifically,” says Bhaijee. “Google was the first big tech organisation to publish a diversity annual report, and has continued to be transparent about how the organisation is doing. I’m seeing more engagement, more appetite for rethinking stereotypes – stereotypes that aren’t even that historical.”
She reels off the grassroots changemakers she believes are “moving the dial”: Stemettes, Women Who Code, TLA Black Women in Tech. “TLA recently published a book of stories about 51 amazing black women role models in tech [The Voices in the Shadow], which Google has supported – we’re proud of those stories.”
As a woman of colour, visible faith and invisible disability, Bhaijee has personal experience in confronting – and confounding – stereotypes. Her early career was in finance, working in foreign-exchange currency and settlements for the Bank of England and, later, JP Morgan – “very male-dominated organisations in those days”. She took a career break to have children and “fell into the world of HR” at Queen Mary University of London, where she realised how much she enjoyed people management: “What really excited me was the concept of managing talent and planning a workforce with a diversity lens – and how to get the best out of that workforce.”
It was a period of deep reflection in Bhaijee’s career. “Thinking back to my days in banking, I was there a long time without really noticing the many microaggressions I experienced,” she says. “By the time I moved into HR, I’d also been through a visible change in identity [Bhaijee has spoken publicly about her decision to start wearing a hijab after the 9/11 terror attacks]. I know what it meant to be an insider and an outsider, what belonging meant, what it meant to belong somewhere based on your personal identity.”
The path to becoming an EDI champion was paved with these personal experiences, driving Bhaijee’s desire to help organisations reach their goals: “I looked at EDI as an opportunity to create change and drive an effective talent management strategy. Thinking proactively with that lens really excited me.”
Back to basics
Implementing an effective EDI strategy has wide-ranging benefits, not just cultural and sociological, but also financial. But focusing only on the bottom line rather misses the point. “Of course there can be positive financial benefits,” says Bhaijee. “But it’s also about innovation and creativity, and thinking about how to manage diversity in the context of the skills we’ve had to develop quickly during this pandemic. People from under-represented or historically marginalised groups have probably been doing all those things for a long time anyway.
“Say you’re in a distributed team working towards a white-dominant culture, you’ll be more used to flexing your own style to suit the needs of the dominant culture across time zones. You’ll be more used to learning how to get attention on a Zoom call or making your voice heard. So yes, there are many obvious benefits in having a diverse workforce – because high-performing teams are the ones that get the best out of each person, that innovate well together precisely because of their different skills and perspectives.”
Bhaijee’s professional and personal experience, combined with her innate sense of curiosity, creativity and fairness, underpins a simple philosophy for organisations to get the best from their people: embed your strategy at leadership level. This was something she observed first-hand at EY, where she was D&I [before the ‘E’ was added] Senior Manager, working within the HR services function. “I was working with many accountants and data analysts at EY. And the appetite [for EDI] was there, the intent was there, the leadership commitment was there. But to make real progress in a sustainable way takes time, energy and focus. You need to build the pipeline – at school level, at university level and also within the industry.”
The same story of slow yet sustainable progress applies to the tech industry and higher education, Bhaijee asserts: “Very different sectors but all with very similar challenges, specifically when it comes to gender and race. The level of EDI maturity varies across sectors, but since the murder of George Floyd, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of organisations making commitments towards race equality. When I was at EY, we were very transparently talking about race at the most senior levels at a time when not many other large organisations were. But in the past 18 months or so, we’ve seen a movement towards companies making public commitments on what they plan to do for race equity.
“Within Google, we’ve followed up on our commitments, reporting what we’ve done, who we’ve supported, looking at all our users and local demographics. Supporting the Black Founders Fund in the EMEA region is something I’m really proud of because we’re not just talking about our own workforce but thinking about our broader communities. That makes me proud.”
CAs can play an enormous role in the success of EDI initiatives. Bhaijee stresses the importance of finance leaders “really thinking carefully about who’s being listened to, where funds are actually needed and how they can be distributed with equity front of mind. That could include pay equity or which projects are getting access to funding. A big part of where I’ve seen success is where remuneration leads have a curious, questioning mindset: asking why, when people with the same skills or experience are being treated differently. At the most senior levels, when it comes to remuneration and compensation, finance leads should be asking questions about who’s benefiting and who’s missing out.”
Close to home
Beyond the big, visible issues of race and gender, support for so-called “invisible” areas of diversity such as sexual orientation and, often, faith require the same level of leadership commitment if true inclusivity is to be achieved. Old-school HR regulations used to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to religion and “marital status”, as it was then known. But for Bhaijee, acknowledging her “visible faith” has meant the freedom to fully own her identity.
“As a British Muslim who wears a hijab, I’m quite often ‘the only’ when I walk into a space,” she says. “I joined Google remotely, during the early days of the pandemic, so I’ve not had the experience of constantly walking into a space where I’m the only and having that negatively affect my confidence. Or to have to work extra hard on my voice, my presence, my gravitas. So in a way, remote working has put everyone on an equal footing across the region, and that could be leaders in Israel, Germany, Switzerland, Poland – they’ve all been on my computer screen alongside me, which has made it easier to build my relationships at Google.
“On a personal level, what does inclusion in the workplace mean to me as a British, visibly Muslim woman, who’s a mum and has a non-visible disability? It’s not just that Google or any other organisation has hired me. It’s about having the right answers to questions like ‘is my voice valued? Are people listening to me? Do I need to work harder to have my voice heard because of who I am?’”
In the past, those answers were not the ones Bhaijee wanted to hear. Now, inclusion means being open about saying she needs time out to pray, or talking with colleagues about how to get the best from her when she’s fasting during Ramadan.
“My faith is an integral part of who I am,” she says. “I need to be in an environment where I can openly share my personal values, how they drive me and how my faith supports my work ethic and my ambitions to build better relationships and just do better. The ability to talk openly with leaders and to be comfortable being myself, to take control of my narrative and all of who I am… that’s what inclusion should feel like.”