An interview with Jennifer Thomas
Throughout the year we are returning to the themes of equity and equality that were raised on International Women’s Day 2023.
We spoke to Jennifer Thomas, Head of Communications, Data & Analytics at London Stock Exchange Group about what they mean to her and how, as a Black woman, she has navigated her career to become a senior leader.
She also discusses how her ethnicity has impacted on her opportunities and steps that can be taken to improve workplace diversity and career progression for underrepresented groups.
Access the full interview by reading the transcriptions below or by listening to the audio clips underneath each question.
Head of Communications, Data & Analytics – London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG)
Speaking as a Black woman and business leader, how do you see the difference between equity and equality?
“For me, when I think about equality, I really think about how do you get equal access and how are the opportunities open for all and when I’m thinking in a business context, how do you get your foot in the door and can you get your foot in the door as easily as somebody else can get their foot in the door? And making sure the infrastructure and everything built around that enables that process and obviously there’s a whole legal argument that goes with that, but legal argument aside, government policy aside, all of that, it’s that for me, it’s sort of the crux of equality.
When you then start thinking about equity it gets a bit more to the how and if we assume the infrastructure has been set up right, the environment’s set up right for that equality process to take place, when you get your foot through the door, how do you make sure it’s equitable? And so for me, that is much more about the how.”
In the initiatives and policies in your workplace, would you say that equity or equality is more prevalent?
“I think we talk a lot about equality and I actually think we use the terms interchangeably and like, I just defer to my previous answer, I don’t think they’re interchangeable. So, I think equality is definitely prevalent, but I think we look at it through a policy lens, quite a lot of the time. So the short answer is yes, equality is prevalent. I’m not sure we really challenge ourselves around the equity piece and I think equity starts to filter into the culture and the behaviours of the organisation.”
You talked in terms of a ‘Policy Lens’ can you expand on that?
“Well, in any working environment, I’m making massive assumptions here, but in any sort of employer environment, when you think about equality, you go straight to the law and then the law drives you to your policies of said organisation and then whatever infrastructure or environment or activity that you do to ensure you have equality. It’s all making sure you’re on the right side of governance, so it’s with a very tight governance lens. So, is LSEG doing that? Are a lot of organisations doing that? Yes, 100%. What’s the secret sauce that we’re missing? Equity.
And that I think shows up much more in culture and behaviour, which the law doesn’t talk to right? And I go back to the how. I think when people are sharing their experiences, I think they’re really talking about how equitable is it to work here, to get on here, to progress here.”
Do you think that you personally have missed opportunities or been overlooked because of your ethnicity?
“I think I’ve definitely been overlooked and I think being female plays a factor. I think being a black female plays a factor. But as we know, again I go back to the law. Could I concretely say I didn’t get that job or that promotion solely because of those two attributes? No, I can’t say that, but can I say that I’ve witnessed an unequitable pattern of how other people get promoted and how they get on versus what I’ve had to do to get to the same place or higher?
That’s definitely happened over my career and you hear people talk a lot about well, you know, you have to be ten times as good or whatever the multiplying factor is, you have to work X amount harder, you have to fight, you know all of those things are true, and I’ve experienced them all the way through my career from sort of entry into the workplace and then kind of working my way through up to the senior roles.
So, I kind of say that I am where I am today despite the system, not because of the system, so I don’t think the system is equitable and so the challenge is trying to navigate around a system that isn’t equitable and trying to find your way through regardless.”
Is it important to you that you see other women who look like you in Senior Roles so that you have someone to aspire to?
“I think it’s massively important and it was very important to me. I think there are different things that resonate with you at different phases of your life, right? So was I always thinking about that sort of straight from school? No, not really. But I think when I reflect and even when I think about my own children, it’s the subliminal messaging that you’re getting. So, you’re receiving that data, that information, and you don’t even know that you are until it becomes really obvious that you need it.
So I think it’s very important from childhood age all the way through, because again, you pick up on those signals and I can see my children picking up on those signals. And I can reflect back and think about how I picked up on those signals and, you know, role models could be a really big term and it comes with a lot of things and accountability and responsibility. But in essence, you want to believe that you can aspire to whatever it is you want to aspire to. So when you’re looking up and around, if you generally don’t see anybody that looks like you, which is going to sound really cliché, but it almost becomes like an urban myth.
I actually think most of the time, we talk about it a lot now, but I think it’s deeply subconscious actually. I think it’s conscious now because we talk about it openly now, but I think it’s a deeply subconscious thing and ‘seeing people that look like you’ is in every sphere of your life, right? So it’s not just in the workplace, it’s not just in school, it’s the media, it’s, you know, it’s everywhere where we consume information. You need to see signals of what’s possible and children do that all the time. That is what they’re doing all the time. And then they’re self selecting where they see themselves without having a clue that that’s what they’re doing.
So by the time you kind of reach adulthood, you’ve already made some choices, and a lot of the time you don’t even realise you’ve made those choices, and then you spend quite a lot of your adult life either trying to change that dynamic or somebody’s trying to help you change that dynamic, or you’re fighting against some sort of tide that’s been created.
So I think it’s massively important and I think for me, when it became consciously important was when I was trying to think about how do I make that leap to the more senior roles for when I’m looking for new roles within other organisations. Who do I need in my, you know I work in PR, work in comms and talk about networking all the time. And I spend my day job kind of thinking about that for other people. But I suddenly had to start thinking about it for myself.
And I realised when I looked around I didn’t have anyone in my immediate sphere. Not that I could just see, but I could trust and that would understand almost without even probably having to exchange many words, would completely understand my frame of reference and what I’m experiencing and going through and what I need.”
Are you now that role model that you spoke about?
“I realise what I didn’t have, but also who I did have that has played, you know, a massive part in me being able to be as successful as I am today. So I actually take my responsibility in doing that for others very seriously. And I do think I have a responsibility and an accountability to kind of pay it forward, if you will, and pass it on and share experience, like, you know, generally share experiences so that other people, anything I can do to make that journey easier, but more important, help them, like a shortcut rather than having to go through a lot of the painful steps I or others have had to go through then I would love to do that.
I would do that for people I’m super close to as much as people who I don’t necessarily have a close relationship with, but they’re seeing me and witnessing me every day.”
There seems to be a focus on diversity in hiring. Is that maybe at the expense of creating workplaces that are inclusive and where people can progress equally?
“The short answer is yes. And look you have to start somewhere, right? But all the time I see talent that gets overlooked and I go back to some of my own challenges I’ve had through my career and it’s really easy to go oh, but come on, Jennifer, you know, you’re a senior leader now. And look where you are. So you haven’t really had any problems, right? You got there. Firstly my journey is not done, so I’m not there yet, but the fight to get each of those steps I can categorically say my peers haven’t gone through.
So again, I go back to the equity piece. So it is not equitable when you’re looking at the opportunities and how you get the ability to get noticed, heard, be part of specific projects, whatever it is that ultimately helps you get that promotion. And I think, look, I think organisations are very slowly waking up to that fact, but very slowly. Again, they’re so focused on the diversity metrics through the recruitment lens that it’s kind of like, OK, if we manage to get the right diversity mix through the doors, then what?”
Many senior leadership teams remain largely unchanged and not very diverse, what do you think the factors are that are blocking change in this area?
“It isn’t a single factor, it’s a combination of factors. So to access an opportunity, if you don’t have the access and opportunity, you can’t get the experience. If you don’t have the experience, you can’t get considered, and if you don’t get considered, you’ll never get the role. You know, that’s a huge summarisation and then if you were to unpick all of those steps, you’d realise actually the infrastructure isn’t geared, it isn’t geared to help, right? And that’s the tide I’m talking about.
So if you think then as an individual, you see all of those blockers, so you’re constantly trying to navigate your way through all of those barriers. To still get there, some of us make it, and some of us don’t. And I think when we’re trying to think about diversity through the life cycle of an employee journey and through an organisation from entry level roles, all the way through to senior leadership and executive and then board roles, we haven’t created a strong enough infrastructure for pipeline.
What we’re doing is we’re definitely trying to attract, which is great, get people in, which is great, but we kind of move them around. We don’t move them through.”
What piece of advice would you give to someone starting on their career journey that you wish you could have received?
“I always say, you know, and I generally do say this to my mentees. There are a lot of things that are broken in the system that we don’t have solely, we being those of us that are in the minority. We don’t have the power to fix it on our own and so we can get caught up on actually how helpless that can feel to not be able to change it or you can focus on the things where you can have a heavy influence and hopefully navigate through some of those barriers.
So what I say to people is take the time to really understand yourself as an individual, know your self worth and understand the ecosystem with which you’re operating in, which might sound really cynical and anybody who knows me, I talk about this all the time, where the frustration comes in is because we’re trying to change our ecosystem. And as a collective, there’s not enough of us to do it, so I try and use my energy and I learnt this the hard way so that’s why it would be the advice.
I’m happy to play a role, whatever role I can to help drive that change through as quickly as I can. But actually my focus is how do I navigate the current system I’m in because I haven’t got time to waste. And that might sound really cynical, but it is how you get on currently anyway, I would love for that to be different in the next number of years, but understanding yourself, having belief in yourself and then know where you’re operating and find other routes in. That you can control.”
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