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Women making a mark

ACHIEVERS: (Left to right) Dr Uchenna Okoye, Michelle Gayle, Samantha Tross, Margaret Casely-Hayford and Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin

ONE OF the most cringe-worthy moments in Margaret Casely-Hayford’s career as a city lawyer came courtesy of a white male client who presented her in the boardroom as: “Margaret – who is as bright as a button!”

“It was definitely coded language for ‘she might look like the tea lady but, actually, she is a lawyer’”, said the Oxford graduate who was the first black woman to make partner at a City firm.

“You can’t take it personally. I just thought he was a silly old man and got on with the job at hand. Otherwise, it will eat you up and life is simply too short.”

Her experience struck a chord at a recently held event celebrating some of Britain’s most accomplished black women.

Panellists included ex-EastEnders actress Michelle Gayle, Dr Uchenna Okoye, clinical director of the London Smiling Company and the official dentist for Channel Four show Ten Years Younger, and Samantha Tross, the UK’s first black female orthopaedic surgeon, and one of only a few women in the field.

Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a Hackney vicar and chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, was also on hand to share her pearls of wisdom.

It was organised by public relations professional Simone Bresi-Ando who founded I’mPossible, a social enterprise designed to celebrate and highlight the achievements of women of colour in Britain.

The Casely-Hayford surname may ring a bell for some. Margaret’s grandfather was pan-African nationalist Joseph Eprahim Casely-Hayford, and her brothers Gus and Joe have made their names as a historian and Savile Row tailor, respectively.

Casely-Hayford, however, applied herself to law and is now company secretary and head of legal services for leading retailer John Lewis.

She said: “My mother always said the most important thing is, whatever you want to do, do it well. When my brother wanted to become a fashion designer he wasn’t told to get a proper job. He was told to do it to the best of his ability.

“We have all strove to do the best we possibly can. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been prejudices, because there has.”

Many of the women on the panel spoke of feeling pressured to achieve perfection because anything less would be seized upon.

Rev Hudson-Wilkin said: “When I was being appointed the newspapers were writing articles. There’s this notion that when you are a woman, particularly if you are black, you’re only getting the job because of political correctness, and that gets under my skin.

“I remember once having had knee surgery but was still determined to go into work. I was afraid they were going to say, ‘See? She can’t hack it.”

She added: “I have had people say ‘we don’t want you to do our mother’s funeral’. It hurts like hell. Do I cry? Yes, I do – but I don’t let them see my tears. I tell myself: ‘Rose, you do a damned good funeral’ so it’s their loss.”

More than 50 women, and a small group of men, attended the second I’mPossible Conversation at publishing company Pearson’s London headquarters.

Bresi-Ando said: “The panel were an amazing source of inspiration, experience and knowledge giving great tools for success to the audience.

“I felt honoured to be in their presence and for them to give their time in such a way.”
The previous event featured writer Bonnie Greer and comedian/actress Angie Le Mar.

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