Challenging race and gender inequality

Learn how Ania Jolly is challenging the traditional careers offered to Black women.

“I’m a Parisian and growing up in France as a Black woman, I was raised to believe that I must work harder so that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve learned to push through barriers.” explains Ania Jolly, Strategic Funding Manager and Interim Operations Manager at the Christabel Pankhurst Institute, and mother of two young children.

“From a young age I was fascinated by beauty, cosmetics and science – particularly chemistry – and I wanted to create make-up for everyone as I didn’t feel Black women were being represented by the industry. But after doing my PhD in London, I realised that making cosmetics wasn’t really what I wanted to do as I was more interested in benefiting society, so I changed to pharmaceuticals and specialised in developing new nanomaterials for advanced drug delivery” she adds.

“Growing up in France as a Black woman, I was raised to believe that I must work harder so that’s what I’ve always done.”

Pushing past obstacles

Traditionally there is a higher percentage of women working in biomedical sciences and having started her career in London as a researcher working alongside Professor Kostas Kostarelos, Ania was inspired to see two women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic group backgrounds holding senior academic positions.

Ania comments: “After a number of years as a researcher, an opportunity came up to work at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) in Manchester and on securing that role, I moved into project management and business development, facilitating interactions with industry to commercialise graphene-based research.

“I always felt passionate about being a scientist, but my career changed direction not because of obstacles that came my way, but because I manoeuvred past them and turned them into opportunities.”

It is at science and engineering fairs that Ania notices these apparent obstacles working in her favour; she is still often one of the few women in the room, but as she speaks with conviction about composites and advanced materials (having lived and breathed NGI) things start to turn around.

“The automotive or aerospace sectors, for example, are still very male dominated but as a woman in that space where I’m underrepresented by race and gender, it has its advantages because when I’m speaking publicly, I stand out and I have the knowledge and experience that people want to hear about” she adds.

Ania Jolly

Ania turned to ballet during the pandemic to give her time and space to meditate, away from the pressures of work and family life

“Traditionally, women don’t put themselves forward for senior positions as often as men and we’re reluctant to ask for pay rises.”

Parental versus professional existence

Having lived away from her native country for many years, Ania says one of her biggest observations between being a woman in the UK and in France is the support offered to working women and women with children.

Ania says: “France has some way to go in terms of racial equality but there is more support, cheaper childcare and more encouragement for women with children to stay in full-time employment and develop their careers, especially if you live in a major city like Paris.

“From my own experience, the University is doing so much for working parents and it has two nurseries on campus for staff and the public, which is great. It’s definitely a family friendly place.

“I’ve also benefitted from attending the Leading@Manchester training as well as the national Stellar HE course which is specifically tailored for Black, Asian and minority ethnic group professionals and I feel that the University is moving in the right direction compared to other employers. But if you look at progression, there is still a lack of diversity in the senior management team and at executive level.

“Traditionally, women don’t put themselves forward for senior positions as often as men and as we’re reluctant to ask for pay rises, it’s important for Women in Leadership networks to exist so that we have the same opportunities. According to a 2017 McKinsey report, Women in the Workplace, just 1 in 10 women are in senior roles in companies and that’s not enough. As women we all need to be change agents because we shouldn’t wait for other people to save us.”

Altered states and the impact of the pandemic

Lockdown has been testing in every way imaginable and for parents with young children, trying to balance childcare with work commitments has unearthed extreme challenges.

Ania says: “Caring for my kids is shared equally between myself and my husband but during lockdown, especially the first time around, it made me question my ability as a parent and as a full-time professional, so that’s been stressful at times.

“Spending so much time with my children is a new experience for me so that also means I’ve learned a lot about them and about myself – I’ve become a better mum, a better worker and a much stronger person, more resilient!

“As the Black Lives Matter protests took place during this period, it’s also given me time to reflect and embrace my identity as a Black woman in a leadership position and I hope that when things go back to normal, I will try to keep hold of the positive changes I’ve made.

“This also includes returning to ballet, which I do every day. Doing ballet is my 'me' time. It’s helped me tremendously and has been a form of meditation as I don’t think of anything else when I’m practising. It’s definitely kept me sane and I strongly recommend it.”

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