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First Women Interview with Baroness Usha Prashar

Baroness Prashar‘Equality, justice and human rights,’ are what motivate Baroness Usha Prashar in her work. One look at her CV and these themes are writ large: Chief Executive of the Runnymede Trust, Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, executive chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales, First Civil Service Commissioner and chairwoman of the Judicial Appointments commission

(to name but a few of her positions.)
1st Women UK talked with Baroness Prashar about how now more than ever, we needed to cultivate equality, justice and human rights in the face a global pandemic that has changed society forever.

We must strive for equality

I grew up in Kenya. What I witnessed as a child was the way my father and my mother treated people. For them, people were equal whether they were black or white. Kenyan society was organised on colour lines. Although there was no official apartheid, different races did not mix and in certain places Africans and Asians were not allowed. There were separate schools for whites, Asians and Africans. My father was very keen to ensure that everyone was treated well and equally. We were probably the only Asian household where African colleagues were invited to dinner and sat with us at the same dining table. This was in early 1960s. I was very young, but these experiences leave an impression. I suppose unconsciously these values get inculcated. Also, coming to the UK in the mid-1960s I saw, very vividly, how the process of migration and discrimination was affecting many people.

Since Covid-19 we have seen first-hand how inequality manifests itself

Nothing could have highlighted more poignantly how this pandemic has impacted those who were already disadvantaged. Injustice also continues to be a huge issue in the context of the relationships between minority communities and the police. And human rights are fundamental. Human rights are about human dignity and how people are treated. It is about wellbeing, about living a self-sufficient life, a life in which you are not below the poverty line. It also encompasses self-esteem. It’s about not treating people as inferior. Affording dignity is about treating people equally, having empathy: respect and understanding. A society cannot be classified as a caring, equal society if it does not uphold dignity of its citizens.As a society we have to ensure that the vulnerable, those in need of care or support have the necessary infrastructure to look after them. The guiding principle of any society should be how to make sure that all citizens can lead a dignified life.

If we have a caring, helpful society it in turn helps you

What Covid-19 has made us realise is that how interdependent we are, and we need to value those who provide services we take for granted. We must care about each other and that has been one of the most significant things that has been highlighted by this pandemic.

The way to deal with conflict is create a safe space for dialogue

Conflict normally arises due to lack of understanding, fear of the unknown, prejudices and apprehensions about what other people are like. However, when you talk, listen and try to understand different perspectives barriers, real or imagined, begin to disappear and real conversations begin. Good mediators are not just very good listeners but also hear what is being said. It is critical that they understand and appreciate different perspectives and have empathy They must be impartial and keep an eye on the outcome.
Of course, nobody can be completely neutral in a situation, but a good mediator needs to remember what both parties are trying to achieve and seek to reach that outcome.

Long held cultural views have impact on outcomes

Cultural perceptions, how women have been brought up to think about themselves and how institutions think about women, have been contributory factors to lack of gender and race equality. It starts from the home, how women are treated and what opportunities they are given to develop. It takes time to change perceptions, behaviour and long held prejudices and this is fundamental. For example, women tend to underestimate their abilities. Often women say, ‘oh I don’t know… if I am ready for this job’, whereas the men would say, ‘oh yes, I can do the job.’

Networks are important

Perseverance is the name of the game. Equally important are patience and supportive networks. Networks sustain one and help one to think things through.

I do not think I have ever been refused a job due to my gender or race

But there are situations when one felt an outsider or not part of the ‘club’. For example, if you are the only female on a board and men gather and talk about football for example, you’re standing there and there is no effort at all to involve you in the conversation.
Behaviors which can make one feel like an outsider are very subtle and more complex to deal with because they are not so overt. How much effort is made to include you affects everything; if you feel left out then you don’t give your best and your self-esteem can suffer.
How to respond to situations like these? Humour is important; serious points can often be made with humour. Also, a case should be made for more women to be appointed in the first instance.

Mainstream establishes change

When I was appointed the Chief Executive of NCVO in 1984 I was both the first woman and the first minority Chief Executive. What was wonderful was the signal it sent. It showed to women and minorities that change can be achieved. What really made the difference was that I had transitioned from race specific job to a mainstream job.
When you are a migrant into a country and a woman, you know that you must constantly prove yourself to make a mark. It wasn’t so much a personal achievement as a statement about what was now possible.

Regardless of being female or a minority, if you have a responsible job you have a responsibility to do it well

You owe it to the people – you are in public service. And if you are driven by issues that matter to you, you must always strive to do your best. Whatever I do has to be done for the right reasons. I am very self- critical. I tend to analyse whatever I have done to see what I could have done better. This is a good habit to cultivate as it leads to self-improvement.

You must be authentic

It’s no good presenting a face that isn’t really who you are. Whoever you are dealing with, be your authentic self. Know who you are and be honest about your strengths and your weaknesses.

I don’t celebrate I just crack on

I am a very practical, get-on-with-it sort of person. Should one celebrate successes? I think it is good to, in that it builds self-esteem and inspires others. To be honest, I am not very good at talking about myself. It doesn’t come naturally. I am talking a little more now because if it inspires others, that makes me happy.

Mentoring is a two-way process

I enjoy mentoring young people and it is actually a two-way process. While I am imparting my experience to them, I learn about their world. The scale of change is so fast, and the realities of young people are so different. It is, therefore, important that we understand their world as well as give them the benefit of our experience.

See Baroness Prashar’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery archive HERE

INTERVIEW BY DEBORAH WILLIMOTT

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