How this mum set up the Black Working Mothers network

Irene Muma was often the only black woman in her workplace, let alone in senior roles. So she started a network to take on this issue.

Irene Muma holding her son and sitting at a desk

 

Even before she had children, Irene Muma (pictured above) felt like she faced barriers at work. She was almost always the only black woman in the office and she repeatedly saw how managers were more likely to promote people in their image. She also had to deal with micro-aggressions, such as comments about her hair. 

“I had to work much harder to get what I thought were basic promotions and permanent positions,” says Muma, 32, whose career in HR has spanned sectors such as financial services and oil and gas. “And that came with a lot of stress, it came with a lot of self-doubt.”

When Muma became pregnant during the Covid lockdowns of 2020, she wondered if she would now face another barrier: that of being a mother. She became increasingly aware of how few black women she saw in senior positions. And so, in 2021, she started blogging about this issue while on maternity leave and this grew into the Black Working Mothers network (BWM). 

BWM aims to help more black mothers to reach mid-level and senior positions at work. In the UK, black women overall are the most under-represented group in the top percentile of incomes, according to an analysis of 2003-2020 workforce data by LSE academics. There are no women of colour in top positions such as FTSE 100 chief executives or Supreme Court Justices, a Fawcett Society report showed last year.

“I know a lot of educated black women so I would always question: why is this not represented in the workforce, especially in senior positions?” says Muma, who now has a two-year-old son and runs BWM alongside her HR career.

Writing CVs, building confidence, and campaigning for change

Illustration showing black women in a range of careers

BWM tries to tackle this inequality in three ways. Firstly, it provides a peer-support network for black mothers, where women can talk about the workplace issues they face and realise that they’re not alone – this helps to prevent self-doubt growing. BWM also provides women with one-to-one support in the form of coaching, CV writing, and job interview practice. 

Secondly, the network educates black mothers about their workplace rights, on issues from flexible working to discrimination. Irene and her team of four volunteers, who are all HR professionals with knowledge of employment law, answer questions that people submit online. And thirdly, the network campaigns for society-wide changes, such as childcare reform and more workplace diversity.

Muma is keen to break the current cycle where there are very few black women in senior roles, and this sometimes puts other black women off from even applying. Career progression is the topic that her members bring up most often. “[We have to] build our confidence to be able to apply for these positions, really go for it, and not be afraid to fail too. It’s still a learning experience, if you don’t get that position,” she says.

[We have to] build our confidence to apply for these positions, really go for it, and not be afraid to fail too.

BWM has 100 registered members, and it has helped a further 50 women with one-off advice and support. The network is funded via a mix of grants and donations, so that Muma does not need to charge her members and can also pay herself a small sum for the time she spends running it. She spends around 1-2 hours on the network a day, alongside her full-time HR role at a publishing company.

Signs of progress

Muma feels optimistic about the future – she says workplaces are much more inclusive now than when she started her career a decade ago, and many employers truly want to boost their diversity. BWM and other networks mean that under-represented groups can come together, to identify the “blocks” that they face and raise awareness about them.

While black women remain severely under-represented in senior roles, there are some individuals reaching the top. Dame Sharon White, chair of John Lewis, last year topped the 2023 Powerlist, an annual list that aims to provide professional role models for young people of African and African-Caribbean heritage. Afua Kyei, the Bank of England’s chief financial officer, and Claudia Natanson, the chair of the UK Cyber Security Council, were among those who made it onto the list for the first time.

But Muma also observes that many organisations that want to improve diversity and inclusion aren’t sure how to go about it. Others don’t do enough analysis on their own workforce data, such as breaking it down by departments and by different racial groups. 

“There’s definitely been a shift, and it’s a positive shift, but there’s a long way to go,” she says.



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