Speakfully Insider: Jelena Radonjic

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Welcome to Speakfully Insider, a weekly series featuring thought leaders on important topics surrounding workplace mistreatment, company culture, workplace safety, social justice and more. 

Please introduce yourself.

I am an award-winning Career Fulfillment Coach, passionate about helping conscious, aspiring professionals thrive in the careers they love. With over 25 years in international recruitment and education management, I’ve held managerial and business development roles globally.

I started my corporate career in Japan and have lived and worked in 3 countries and I currently serve clients from all corners of the world facilitating career transitions and leadership development. I am a Forbes Coaches Council member and contributor, speaker and author. I have also worked with spiritual teachers such as John Demartini and Deepak Chopra.

My powerful blend of personal, career and business coaching and spiritual approach has brought transformational results to over 300 clients. I am particularly passionate about gender equity and diversity and inclusion, helping my clients break down self -imposed barriers and challenging their limiting beliefs, as well as helping them navigate and challenge societal limitations.

In your opinion, how have career opportunities for women and minorities shifted in the last decade?

There has certainly been a shift in the right direction, however, there is still much to be done. While many corporate and public sector organisations have put in place gender- and age-blind recruitment practices, there is still bias in traditional industries which prevents women and minority employees from reaching the top-level positions. Unfortunately, women and ethnic minorities often internalise limiting beliefs around their gender or origin and I particularly like to address these in my work with my clients. Both nature and nurture play an important part; however, we essentially project outward what we believe about ourselves. Even if we are confident outwardly, nagging concerns or beliefs that ‘we are not good enough’ can transpire and be picked up on a subtler level. This is true for anyone; however, women and ethnic minorities have been exposed to social conditioning in addition to the usual early childhood conditioning when our coping mechanisms and belief systems are formed. This social conditioning stipulates what you ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ do and it takes a lot of work and self-awareness to consciously fight bias, even internally. As an example, men usually apply for roles where they meet 60%-70% of criteria, whereas women tend to apply for roles only if they match role requirements 100% or as close to that as possible.

According to a study by Social Talent, diverse companies perform better and there is no doubt about it. They have found that for every 1% increase in gender diversity, company revenues increase by 3%, while higher levels of ethnic diversity increase revenue by an amazing 15%. This data is important because decision makers can clearly see that, in addition to the ethical side of driving diversity, there is also a very tangible benefit to the business. Diverse workforce can come up with better solutions for product and service problems, tapping into creativity and diversity of worldviews, cultures and insights unparalleled by homogenous, and therefore limited workforce.

Inclusive Top 50 UK employers survey backs this up: “ Significant numbers of companies are practising inclusion as a routine event and are reaping the rewards. They are leaders in their field - not the diversity pitch, but the business stadia in which they play. And win. They aren't just ticking a CSR box or following a moral code, important as they may be. They are capturing the diverse talents of the wonderful population of the United Kingdom and becoming more competitive as a result.”

Would you say we are making real progress when it comes to a fair and balanced system as it relates to career opportunities?

Despite women performing better in academic studies than men (in the US, women earn 57% of undergrad degree and 60% of Masters, similarly in the UK, women earn 56% of (under)graduate degrees), women still earn on average about 20% less than men in the same position and hold less than a quarter of all Board positions.

According to the latest McKinsey report, whilst advances have been made in flexible working for women and representation of women in the C-suite, women are still heavily under-represented at Manager level. This has been called the ‘Broken Rung’ – for every 100 men that get to the first managerial role, only 72 women do. The narrowing of this ‘funnel’ so early on clearly diminishes further prospects for women.

Earlier this year, The Times published an article citing that only 11 out of the 3000 equity partners at the Big 4 accounting firms are black. The numbers speak for themselves. While there are numerous initiatives to level the playing field for BAME employees, again the numbers near the top are alarmingly low and it may take decades, at this rate to see more significant shifts. The ingrained ways of thinking and behaving are a true obstacle: old boys’ networks and the ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ philosophy that still drive these businesses.

If you are a woman of colour, then you are facing more often than not a double whammy discrimination. The report by the UK based Fawcett Society shows the continuing gender pay gap and the large disparity when you include data on ethnic background (which most organisations do not include). 43% of all working women and 50% of BAME working women are worried about their job or promotion. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, women have been worse off, both due to increased childcare pressures, growing redundancies, and even unlawful discrimination against pregnant women.

Even though there are some positive trends, such as flexible and remote working becoming the norm, and fathers contributing more towards shared childcare and household chores, there is still a long way to go towards both pay equity and true career progression opportunity equalisation.

How may evening out career opportunities for all genders and races improve our workplace culture?

The obvious benefit is that drawing on a multitude of life and educational experiences will enrich the intellectual capital of any organisation today. Also, with greater genuine diversity and inclusion in the workplace, those who used to be a glaring minority will have more liberty and assurance to speak up, show up authentically, and therefore bring new insights, innovation, creative problem solving, and perhaps not commonly used approaches to driving growth. As long as companies are not a true reflection of the population composition, they will remain artificial ivory towers of ascribed power and status, rather than transparent meritocracies where everyone can flourish. 

It is a well-known fact that happy employees are productive and engaged, contributing massively to the company’s success. So, the question is – what culture do we want to create where employees feel respected, heard, accepted, encouraged and where “no one is more equal than the rest” as Orwell so astutely put it in his famous prose?

In your opinion, what attributes to the growing proportion of cases where unfair career and workplace opportunities are becoming public? 

The issues of equality cannot be ignored anymore. The awareness surrounding workplace gender and race equality is growing and will continue to do so, thanks to the accessibility of information online, in the press, and across traditional media channels. Also, public personae, politicians, and celebrities have championed equality and inclusion. This does not mean, however, that there is no backlash. Take Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez standing up for being called “out of your freaking mind” and much worse by Ted Yoho and, in response, delivering a brilliant speech to congress: Rebecca Traister wrote about this in an article for The Cut, in which she examines why it is that when a woman stands up against “the poison of male incivility”, she’s seen as “disruptive”, whereas Yoho’s words apparently weren’t perceived as “norm-shattering”.  Traister goes on to argue that this is “because calling women nasty names, in your head or with your friends or on the steps of your workplace, is much more of a norm than most want to acknowledge”. This is where we see how much work still needs to be done. 

Inequality on the basis of gender intertwines with class and ethnicity, as one can clearly see scrolling through the nasty comments under any of Alexandria’s Twitter posts, where infuriated white men ask her to go back to working in a bar, or back to ‘her country’. As Gloria Steinem so concisely put in a recent “In Conversation” event streamed by the British Library: “Sexism and Racism – these evils are intertwined. And they can only be uprooted together”.

Alexandria called such an evil out. So did Tarana Burke, when she started the #metoo movement, but it was only through glossy pages of white celebrities that the movement gained momentum. That is, where even the positive side of a public space that is opened up for these discussions becomes problematic. One only has to look at the 2016 election, where 96% of black women voted against Trump, but 51% of white women voted for him. In the interview mentioned before, Steinem pointed out that this because, historically and economically, white women were usually dependent on their husband’s income and thus aligned with their interests. We can still see them aligning with this given, white, patriarchal power structure today. This holds true in politics, in society, at the workplace, which is why there is such a need to address the intersectionality of the issues we are fighting against and find a way to use the positive side of the media to voice concerns publicly to make them open for anyone, and not just for a white middle class.

Ideally then, as the general public is becoming more aware and educated to understand and promote equality, it is becoming easier for those who have been discriminated against to speak up and ask for a fairer treatment and recompense. This is where whistleblowing, for instance, can be effective. Whistleblowing is where you disclose a wrongdoing, usually at work, but not exclusively, to the public to push for change. As the Equality Human Rights Commission puts it, “As a whistle-blower you’re protected by law – you should not be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’” and you are not bound by a confidentiality clause either. However, as mentioned before, this is where not only law, but mindset has to be changed, so that women, BAME, or anyone discriminated against are no longer seen as ‘so disruptive’, but as putting in the work that needs to be done.

What steps do you believe will help in making workplace mistreatment and fear of retaliation in reporting it a thing of the past? 

I would like to turn this question around and ponder when and how the mistreatment in the workplace will become a thing of the past. While all the efforts to drive inclusion and diversity in the workplace should be supported and intensified, including engaging in conversations the ‘covert proponents of discrimination’ – namely all those who have made the rules of the corporate game so far, the change needs to occur way, way earlier. I am thinking of education here. Right now, we are trying to ‘lock the stable after the horse has bolted’. The turnaround in consciousness, empathy and understanding of the profound unity that connects all of us as humans, and all the humans with the Planet Earth, can only be achieved by systematic education from an early age.

Countries like Finland and Iceland are leading the way, so we have a lot of catching up to do. It is Generation Alpha (born between 2010 and 2024) that will be leading corporations and countries of tomorrow and education has been evolving through gamification, AI, and VR to suit their needs and learning styles. It is predicted that by 2025 they will number almost 2 billion, the largest generational group ever. As leadership styles have moved from “controlling and directing” ( Baby Boomers) through “coordinating and guiding” (Gen X and Y - Millennials) to “empowering” (Gen Z), the leadership style of Alpha Gen is predicted to be ‘inspiring’. There is hoping that workplace mistreatment and inequality of all sorts will indeed become a thing of the past.

If you could sit down with a historical figure to discuss creating a healthier workplace culture and environment for every worker, who would it be, what would you discuss, and why?

The first person that comes to mind is – Rosa Parks. She was a bold pioneer that refused to put up with what should not be tolerated, and her actions precipitated a new civil rights movement involving Dr Martin Luther King.

However, in line with what I postulated about education, I’d like to engage in a discussion with Jane Elliott, an anti-racist activist and diversity educator, currently age 86. She ran her first experimental “Blue eyes/Brown eyes” exercise more than 50 years ago, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, as a teacher of her third-grade class. She wanted to teach her all-white children class what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discrimination and segregation. Decades later, her pupils still remember what it felt like to be labelled ‘inferior’ and how it actually impacted their performance in class and at exams. How it undermined every aspect of their life, from friendships and social acceptance, to self-belief and capability to learn and achieve. They have therefore, consciously, banned prejudice, judgement and racism from their lives and learned to nip it in the bud.

Even though Jane Elliott had appeared in many shows and interviews and books and films have been made based on her experiment and her teachings, I would like to see her leave a legacy of committed followers who can continue to spread her work. She has delivered diversity training for the likes of IBM, AT&T, and General Electric and has given lectures to the US Department of Education; however, some studies have later questioned her methods and outcomes. I find it strange that her critics were concerned by the stress that training participants suffered from the exercise, whereas the true suffering continues to be experienced by many of those that are being discriminated against in real life, day to day.

While perhaps the age of the children in her class was a little precarious for this experiment, being put in ‘the shoes of another’ is a truly powerful learning experience that can shift deep rooted bias. I would discuss with Jane how she got the idea for the experiment and what sustained her despite overwhelming hostility of her immediate environment in Iowa. I would also ask her to leave a message for those who are now Gen Alpha, so that they can carry on her work whilst knowing that they stand on the shoulders of giants.