A New Yorker transplanted to Cumbria 20 years ago, Marcia Reid Fotheringham found herself in many situations where she was the only black person. She tells how she’s strived to bring about inclusivity in her business and leadership roles.
When Marcia Reid Fotheringham moved to the UK in 1997, she was often the only black person in a room, at a social gathering or in a professional setting.
It was a new experience for the psychologist, who had moved from the USA to be with her now husband, Jim Fotheringham.
“I had the power to silence a room just by being there,” she says.
When she arrived in Cumbria, Jim, who is a dentist, was running two busy practices. Marcia was tasked with taking on their management and putting them on a more business-like footing.
The practice teams, who she says are like a family, accepted her straightaway and because she and Jim owned the business, she didn’t encounter prejudice in her professional life.
She was also accepted in the NHS, during the 10 years she spent working as a psychologist, helping adults and children with mental health problems.
It was outside work that Marcia encountered racism.
“My difficulties were never in work; my difficulties were in my everyday life. By my everyday life I mean social events, walking down the road, somebody knocking at my door. For me, it’s very normal. Upsetting or not, it’s part of the package of being black.”
More than once, a caller at the house would ask to speak to the homeowner. When Marcia introduced herself, they’d reply they meant the person who owned the house, not believing that it was her own home.
HOW TO BE HEARD
When she first arrived in the UK, Marcia said she had to work out the intention behind unkind comments.
“I had to spend a lot of time in my early years here trying to not be upset at what I interpreted as hostility, when in all honesty it may have been ignored. The reality is, you shouldn’t have to figure that out when you’re at a social event and somebody makes a lot of inappropriate comments.”
If she did raise the issue, she was told the comments were jokes and she would be seen as having a chip on her shoulder.
Because she wants to make a difference, she’s learned how to handle such situations: “I want people to hear my message, I don’t want people to turn off. It took me quite a while to figure out. I’ve learned to not respond all the time and I definitely never respond with the full force I want to respond with.”
BEING BETTER THAN THE REST
Before she became High Sheriff – a non-political and ceremonial royal appointment designed to support the Crown and the judiciary – Marcia sat as a magistrate and took on senior roles that took her to London several times a year.
She’s now retired from the bench and says a lot changed during her years of service.
“I know as a black woman applying for any position, I have to be better than the criteria when applying for that position. I wanted to be a magistrate, I did get in and I’ve got to be honest, 10 years on from that I had successfully changed numerous minds and they appointed me in different leadership positions.”
ADVICE FOR INTERVIEWS AND MEETINGS
Being prepared is one of Marcia’s key tips for getting ahead.
“I’m always over-prepared. If I’m going to meet with somebody, I want them to understand they may have done some homework on me but I’ve done homework on them. “
She says it’s important for women in business to be direct.
“I’m also clear; I try my best to be as clear as I can be about what I want.”
HOW LEADERS CAN MAKE INCLUSIVITY HAPPEN
Whenever she’s had a leadership role, Marcia has worked to bring about change.
“When you become the leader, you have the ability to create the tone,” she says.
She makes an effort to find out who is currently in charge and gets to know them, making sure they know what she expects: “I need you to know that change is here and if you’re not going to embrace that change, you’re going to leave.”
WHY WOMEN SHOULD JOIN A BOARD
Since serving as High Sheriff, Marcia has been invited to sit on numerous charitable boards for causes in which she believes.
“I would tell every woman who can to sit on a board. You learn things that sometimes have nothing to do with your everyday life.”
She says it’s a good time to approach organisations, rather than waiting for posts to be advertised, because the lack of women on boards and in leadership roles is such a hot topic.
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