My experiences of belonging to 5 underrepresented groups

In this blog, I will share experiences that have led to me becoming part of five underrepresented groups: the LGBTQ community, the expats, people with a health condition, Jewish families and working mothers.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to share more personal stories about being a part of underrepresented groups. You might wonder why. The simple answer is that, when talking about topics in the field of diversity and inclusion, sharing real-life experiences has always led to more meaningful conversations than when I just share theoretical knowledge. This led to the realisation that in order for me to have the biggest impact I should open up more.

<20: Family and friends

Until I was 20, I lived a pretty standard life in the Netherlands. I went to school, played field hockey and had some nice friends. In the summers, my parents, sister, brother and I went on 2-week holidays to France with our caravan.

20: LGBTQ community

But when I was 20 things changed. I had my coming out. I first told my parents I was also into women, believing that then I would still sound fairly normal… I didn’t feel comfortable having this conversation because it wasn’t a topic that was talked about openly.

I don’t want to overburden you with the number of times I’ve dealt with unconscious bias and microaggressions since then, being asked ‘Who is the man in the relationship?’ or while waiting for the train at night in Amsterdam with my girlfriend at the time, who gave me a kiss, being yelled at by some guys ‘You really think you can do that here?!’ or being told ‘Sorry we have no place left in the restaurant’ while wanting to eat there with a lesbian friend of mine who appears masculine. I have also encountered seemingly innocent remarks like ‘You can take your boyfriend to the after-work drinks’.

So yes, I’ve been really confronted with the challenges and frustration that come with not fitting into the standard box since I was 20 years old. I believe though that my sexuality has opened doors that I would not have wanted to miss! The most positive outcome of my coming out has been the diverse group of people who became my friends. My experience is that when you are ‘different’ you usually start looking for people like you and those people might come from very different backgrounds. This has absolutely opened my eyes and enriched my life. 

32: Expats

Another community I have become familiar with is expats. After backpacking in several countries I wanted to explore living abroad. Not too far away from my family though. I chose Berlin, which I left three years ago because of my partner’s job.

Honestly, when I first moved I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. When you backpack, the other backpackers are your community. When you move to another country you really have to find your way in that country, for sure if you want to work there. I realised I had to work on my cultural awareness! Some examples of living as an expat in England encompass cultural expectations. Several times people here have invited me for dinner. I’m still waiting for the dinner to happen… As you may know, Dutch people are straightforward, so when my first British line manager asked me to consider some other options for a plan I wrote, I decided not to. I only realised a few weeks later that she actually meant rewriting the plan! 

After two years of living in Berlin, I decided to set up an online group to bring Dutch speakers together online and also organize get-togethers in bars around the city. This was a great success so when I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne I did the same. Once I started missing meeting people from other countries, I also set up an expat group. PS. I always say I should have studied cultural anthropology, and not law, since cultures to me are the most interesting and best schools for life. Cultural awareness helps me look at topics from different angles.

34: People with a health condition

When I was 27 I was working for the Ministry of Social Affairs. At a certain point, I was sick at home. I was sleeping most afternoons and had heart palpitations. I vaguely remember getting a pill from my GP but can’t recall getting an explanation of what it was for.

Six years later, after being frustrated for a while about tiredness again and after changing my GP in Berlin, I finally had the answer. I was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition Hashimoto’s, which explained my tiredness and other symptoms I was having. It’s often called a ‘women’s disease’. Way more women than men suffer from it and because the symptoms, like tiredness, can also be related to our busy life nowadays it oftentimes takes years before it’s diagnosed. Friends had to get used to the new me, meaning I wouldn’t leave parties as the last woman standing anymore. Also in my professional life, I’ve had challenges when being asked to fill in a form with questions like: do you have a health condition? I mean, I do, but I can still do the job. I do have to take my energy levels more into account. So what should I fill in? I obviously don’t want to be seen as a sick person.

Since then I’ve been connecting with many people with the same condition, mainly online since you can’t see if someone has this condition, to exchange knowledge. And only recently I’ve come out with my condition to employers. This has to do with me feeling like it’s time to talk more openly about health conditions and I felt psychologically safe to do so with my most recent managers.

36: Jewish families

In my final year of living in Berlin, I met Yael with whom I moved to Newcastle. Yael was born and raised in Israel. She left when she was 23 to study in the USA and partly because of the continuous war in Israel and her political views on that. 

Yael is Jewish in a way that I used to be Catholic, meaning we celebrate the main events like Hannukah and Christmas. I unregistered from the church though because in Germany you actually have to pay church taxes (Kirchensteuer) if you declare you are part of certain religious communities. Most people have assumptions about Yael just because she is Jewish. I believe this has to do with the fact that, and this is something lots of underrepresented groups face, a certain narrative has been created of them. This narrative for example led to an acquaintance of mine saying about our son Natan ‘He is getting those Jewish curls’ relating to how Ultra-Orthodox Jews wear their hair. And colleagues assume that Yael can’t eat pork.

Being with a person of a minority religion has made me realize how strange it actually is to have set holiday days. I am grateful that thanks to Yael, I’ve had the chance to learn more about Judaism and had the pleasure to have more celebrations throughout the year with Jewish friends in Newcastle… with delicious food!

38: Working mothers 

Being with Yael led to more life changes. Two years ago we had Natan, pronounced Naatan in Dutch and Natán in Hebrew. Yes, in a multicultural family, a pronounceable name is something you consider. Having him led to figuring out my work/life balance. 

When I was in my 20s my friends and I already discussed the question ‘What if you would have a child, would you work full-time?’. Most of them used to say no and I couldn’t believe it. In case you don’t know, the Netherlands is like the world champion of part-time workers. The part-time workers are mainly women though. So when I clearly stated I wanted to work full-time when having a child I didn’t feel like I had many ally’s around me. When watching a documentary about working mothers in France, Belgium and the Netherlands I realised how unconsciously hearing about the 3-day work-week of women, with oftentimes the argument ‘Why would you otherwise have children?’, had affected me. Another experience I had as a working mother, where I didn’t feel like I had many ally’s around, was when after a meeting with the Senior Leadership team the CEO said (to all the middle-aged white British men and me) ‘Let’s go eat wings and drink beer.’ Well… 1. I don’t drink anymore since having Hashimoto’s 2. I’m a vegetarian. 3. I had to pick Natan up from nursery. None of this was unknown to them. 

Since then I decided to only look for jobs with female managers! No, I’m joking, but what I have been doing since then is discussing related challenges and opportunities with the people around me and during my job interviews I’ve started mentioning the importance of equal pay. Recently I’ve managed to move my job from business development for tech companies to business development and delivery work in the diversity and inclusion field. 

Visibility and safety

Being part of underrepresented groups oftentimes comes with challenges. Surrounding yourself with people that can understand you or are experiencing what you are going through can therefore be valuable. Especially since lots of the challenges go unnoticed because many underrepresented groups to which people belong are invisible to the eye. Also, the challenges are often not spoken about because people don’t feel safe enough to open up. I hope this will change in the years to come and we all have to play our part, because as the first-century Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder said: if not us, who? And if not now, when?

If you want to engage with me about any of the topics discussed then please send a PM.

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