Confessions of a BME Oxbridge Female

whites only

I’VE BEEN MENTIONED IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES!

In Simon Kuper’s article in the Financial Times October 24th 2014 “Confessions of a white Oxbridge male” he mentions me in his concluding paragraph:

“We [white Oxbridge males] have expanded our caste a little. We now recruit some non-whites (preferably Oxbridge men). We’ve even begun admitting Oxbridge women. We just sideline them professionally the moment they make the mistake of giving birth.”

OK, not quite a name-check, but I’m one of the women he is talking about. Since he has given his career confessional (which he says included an easy ride into Oxbridge and journalism); I thought I’d give a view from the other side. No one may be interested, as who wants to hear a BME (black/ minority ethnic) females’ voice when they can hear the voice of the white male, but it saves me a lot of money in therapy.

Unlike Simon’s dad, my dad was no Cambridge educated establishment figure. He was born son to a peasant farmer in 1940s Taiwan. Taiwan in the 1940s bears no resemblance to the bustling developed country it is today, and had a predominantly agricultural economy. Life for a subsistence farmer was hard and tied to the will of the weather. Growing up, we were forever regaled with my father’s hard-luck story. If we ever complained about having to go to school, we would get lectured about “You’re so lucky you can go to school. When I was young I had to plead with my mother to go to school, then I had to walk 10 miles round trip to school barefoot wearing my father’s cut off trousers, feet calloused and bleeding.” We would then mercilessly make fun of it in the manner of the Monty Python 4 Yorkshire-men skit by adding “That’s nothing, when I was a lad, I had to crawl naked on my hands and knees through dark underground tunnels to get to school”, etc. etc.

At the heart of it though, and particularly in adulthood, I truly respect the climb he made to give us, his children a better life. He was the 5th of 11 children. None of his preceding siblings had completed primary school education, and they were forced to enter child labour at a nearby factory where they were physically and verbally abused on a daily basis. On finding that he was to suffer the same fate, he cried until a neighbour took pity on him. This neighbour, having heard from her daughter that my father was the brightest child in the class, persuaded my grandmother to allow him to enrol for secondary education, just for a year at least. The pattern continued with ever more cycles of crying and pleading “Just one more year of school”, until my grandmother eventually realised that all this crying and intellectual sentimentality probably made him too soft for factory work. So they let him continue with education and work in the evenings and holidays in repayment for not shouldering the family’s load. In term time, as his school was far away, he sofa-surfed and freeloaded on classmates from richer families to get by until eventually, he made his way up to University to study civil engineering. On graduation he landed a job as a hydraulic engineer in one of Taiwan’s harbours thus having successfully climbed out of manual labour into the professional class through hard-won education.

Having worked 10 years as an engineer and saved hard, he followed his dream: he applied for a PhD in civil engineering at Swansea University in the UK. That’s how my family immigrated to the UK. I was 3 years old at the time. Compared to the life that my father had, my life has been charmed. A family of 5 was frugally but happily fed and watered on a PhD stipend. My sisters and I had no toys but made chess sets from the cardboard of a cereal packet. We avidly read Enid Blyton books and cuddled bears purchased from the second hand stall at the school fete. We begged our friends to share their penny sweets and chocolates with us. We learnt that material things did not matter, we had the most important gift of all: A LOVING FAMILY.

My father whose life experience was of class discrimination in Taiwan and racial discrimination in the UK also passed on another life lesson: you will face discrimination, but if you work twice as hard as the others, you will succeed, don’t let anyone stop you. We took his advice, and for a while, nothing stopped me.

With this work-ethic instilled, school was a breeze; we went to the local state primary schools as my parents couldn’t afford anything else. Without the seemingly now obligatory tuition, my sisters and I all waltzed into the local Grammar school which saw 1000 girls sitting for 90 places. A clean sweep of As (A* was not around at that time) in 10 GCSEs, 1 AS-level and 3 A-levels, saw me arrive at Cambridge University to study medicine. Whad’ya know? My dad was right – unstoppable.

A funny thing happened at Cambridge. As soon as I arrived, the porters and students all commented on my good English. Initially, I took great offence at this: how else did they think I got all those As at A-level to get here? Later I realised that in my college undergraduate intake of 120 that year, I was the only BME girl who was not a foreign student. Everyone just presumed that I was a foreign student and were hence surprised at my grasp of the English language. Russell Group Universities routinely bump up their atrocious record on BME admissions by admitting BME fee-paying foreign students. These same “cash cows” that aid University BME stats are also paraded in all University promotional material. One of my best friends, a mixed race foreign student who was the only black student in my college year, always made it front and centre in the college prospectus.

This memory came back to me as I read Simon Kuper’s article and I began to do some research in this area. For the period covering my time at Cambridge in the mid-90s, statistics show that of Home students (non-foreign students) 50% of admissions came from state schools, 40% were female and 5% were ethnic minority. If you do the maths, this makes me one of the 1% of the Home University students that was a BME, state school female; or to really put this in perspective, I was 1 of 30 in the entire year at the University *. If only I was lesbian, then I would have been one of three!

Thankfully in my day, there were no tuition fees. Even so, although my parents were now earning good incomes, their income was such that I was still eligible for means-tested hardship funds at Cambridge and I took these as well as student loans. Although I did not work in term time (which is forbidden at Cambridge due to the rigour of the courses), I worked every Christmas and summer holiday; initially for minimum wage at a dry cleaners, and then realising that I had more potential than this, at twice minimum wage as a medical secretary. This afforded me the extravagance of May Balls and to travel myself interesting (Eastern Europe, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town).

Despite being accused at times of “only having been accepted at Cambridge because I was a BME female” a cheap jibe from the threatened, I knew that my grades matched those of the privately educated white males, and I graduated with a 2:1, the same as the majority of the white males. I took a University academic prize with me and took up employment at the best clinical and academic centre in Europe for my medical specialty.

Interestingly, having Cambridge on my CV suddenly meant that people assumed I had a privileged upbringing. A senior colleague once told me to accept a colleague’s arrogance by saying “you can’t be too hard on him because he came from a poor background, he had to work through medical school, he didn’t come from a privileged background like us”. I didn’t think it appropriate to buy sympathy and bring up my summers and winters sorting out the shirts of Japanese business men. At a dinner party with a Professor of Economics at a leading University, he bemoaned the number of foreign Chinese PhD students at his University who came from rich families and expected to be “spoon-fed” their degrees. He asked how my family came to the UK, and I said “My Dad came to do a PhD”. He immediately gave me a scornful look that said “Oh – you are the spawn of one of them”. It didn’t seem apt to say – “but he got there through sheer hard work having worked 10 years to support himself to get a place there”. At an appraisal, I was once told that I “had a reputation for being forthright and assertive”. I meant to cry out “Do you think that people wait with baited breath to listen to what a BME female has to say?” but I didn’t. He followed it up with “We British don’t like it.” I presumed he was excluding me from being British due to some sort of apartheid era definition where “Britishness” was coded in skin colour, as my family and I have lived in Britain and held British passports for 30 years. I meant to respond, but I didn’t.

People that didn’t know I had been to Cambridge continued to mistake me for the nanny/ maid/ cleaner. I mean to correct them, but I don’t.

The reason being that this stuff is like water off a duck’s back. Over years, the BME state school woman develops a skin as thick as a rhino. From the braying “Ching Chong China Man”, “Go back to your own country” taunts from the playground to the assumptions in the workplace that the reason you have made it is because you paid your way or were promoted in an affirmative action. It may have knocked me back but it has never stopped me going where I wanted to go.

What did stop me?

Wanting to work part-time**.

Apparently, this is impossible.

Not only in medicine, but my female Oxbridge friends in law, media, finance and other competitive jobs say the same thing. As much as I hate to admit it, a white Oxbridge male is right again, and by the time we’ve had the second child, we’re well and truly side-lined. While I doubt it is beyond the wit of man to operationalise part-time/ flexible working in high income jobs, it is currently beyond the will of man: the white Oxbridge man.

So I set a challenge for my husband, a white Oxbridge male, my friends and former classmates who will inevitably inherit the mantle of white Oxbridge male power: use your power to effect change and equality for the women in your organisation – if not for your wives then for your daughters. For if your daughters become trapped in domesticity in later life; then they need only look in their white Oxbridge fathers’ eyes for culpability.

References:

Statistics from House of Commons report on “Oxbridge “elitism”” by Paul Bolton. http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn00616.pdf

*this rough calculation is based on an approximate number of 3000 home admissions a year and on the distribution of females and state school candidates being similar within the BME admissions as within the University overall which may not necessarily be assumed.

**by part-time I really mean less than 4 days a week, as everyone knows employers are happy to negotiate a 4-day week where you subsume a full-time role for part-time pay.

4 comments

  1. MCC

    Fantastic article and sadly so reflective of life for a woman today. Educated women and women who do not have the same self belief and support to ‘prove them wrong’ are desperately awaiting the change we have long been promised and so badly need.

  2. Anke

    brilliant article, very much matches my own experience, and you’re right, having a child (especially a second one) really is “the killer” that changes everything. I too hope things will be better for our daughters! I for one will raise them to be entrepreneurs so they don’t have to be stopped by privileged white males along the way.

    • Shrinkgrowskids

      It’s so good to hear that others resonate with what I felt and feel. I totally agree that it really is the second child that is the “nail” in the career coffin. I have no regrets about my choices, but agree that working for oneself a woman can feel so much more free to be herself and succeed on her own terms. Power to our daughters! But I am also raising my son to be a well rounded boy who values family life as well as career. I think that encouraging boys (as well as girls) to value family life is as important as promoting a career in our daughters and this aspect has largely been missed in our generation meaning that we have a cohort of people wondering who is to look after our children!

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