Deprioritising the perspectives of minority women to a footnote in the story of female gender empowerment can feel stifling

Rezwana Khanom is training to become a driver with Southern

By Nafisa Nathani

The Interational Women’s Day 2023 campaign theme - #EmbraceEquity – seeks to get the world talking about why “equal opportunities are no longer enough” – and can in fact be exclusionary, rather than inclusive. This theme really got me thinking, about what it means for all women including someone like me who has a number of overlapping identities that in my eyes, peacefully co-exist with one another, such as being British, Indian, Female and Muslim.

If we can just think about South-Asian women as an example for one moment, it is important to recognise that we aren’t just one homogenous group. We all have different faith and beliefs, languages, and cultural traditions, interwoven with varying issues of class and caste privilege. There are a number of stereotypes and tropes we have been reduced to, thanks to the orientalisation of Asian women such as being passive, docile and quiet. More recently new stereotypes have been added to our list of labels, including bombers or bashful brides. The experiences and stereotypes South-Asian women must contend with is unique compared to our white and black colleagues. Furthermore, while incidents of blatant racism and sexism might be deterred by zero-tolerance policies in the workforce, microaggressions still plague the daily interactions of many minority women.

Comments run deep

Microaggressions are just one piece of a systemically problematic machine. Imagine a microaggression as a tiny paper cut. When it first happens, it stings but you won’t bleed to death. But imagine getting ten paper cuts a day, your hands would really start to feel hurt. By the tenth paper cut, you’d be fuming. Imagine then when you start talking about your pain, you are gaslit and told ‘come on it’s only a paper cut’. Little can they see you are covered in them. The perceived smallness of the action can make microaggressions all the more sinister. But there is nothing micro about microaggressions. They creep into the workplace and into society in general. Like many of the buzzwords that have surfaced in recent years, the true meaning of microaggressions gets diluted or worse still ignored completely. But that doesn’t erase how truly harmful they are. All these paper cuts are eroding minority women’s mental health, job performance, career progression and the quality of our social experience.

Micro-intervention training is an example of an equitable based solution to counteract this form of discrimination. The first rule of effective intervention is being able to see beyond the obvious, read between the lines and decipher the double meanings of microaggressions. This has been proven successful in helping white allies to recognise prejudicial and discriminatory actions in the workplace and challenge them.

For our workplace to become happier, healthier, and safer places for minority women, we desperately need a shift in resources away from exclusionary zero tolerance policies and towards inclusive empathy-based programmes. Studies overwhelmingly show that bias training is really great in raising awareness but fails to actually change behaviours. This can also be where the use of virtual reality training comes in. Being able to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is unlike us, may provide us with a level of understanding about their situation that can be very powerful. Immersive technologies have proven successful in industries that are heavily skewed towards one demographic – just like the rail industry. Activating a universal value like empathy allows individuals to truly utilise their rational and emotional brain, reflect and consider a broader perspective and adjust the lenses through which they tackle their day to day lives, but also build a deeper level of understanding with colleagues, clients and customers alike. It turns awareness into engagement and then ultimately action.

I would ask everyone reading this to please widen your perspectives when it comes to gender-based solutions and not ignore racialised elements to this

I would ask everyone reading this to please widen your perspectives when it comes to gender-based solutions and not ignore racialised elements to this. I do think as an industry we have matured enough to question the utility of all-male panels, but I would ask us to please put the same energy into scrutinising all-white panels. Having others tell our own stories for us, an overreliance of stereotypes or even deprioritising the perspectives of minority women to a mere footnote in the overall story of female gender empowerment, can feel stifling – almost like a form of intellectual colonialism.

For this international women’s day, let’s all come together. Let’s take the time to listen to each other’s experiences, and truths, hear each other from our own voices and create equitable based solutions. The way we experience the world may be different, but we all want the same things: to be respected, valued and safe at work and beyond. This is what #EmbracingEquity means to me.

WATCH: Network Rail produced this video to mark International Women’s Day 2023…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nafisa Nathani is Southern Region Lead for Cultural Fusion, Network Rail’s race equality network. Cultural Fusion is open to all those who work in the rail sector. To join, email

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!