Malika, a business unit manager in the health domain, recently faced challenges at work despite her stellar performance and recent promotion. As the only Muslim woman in a senior position and a practising Muslim who wears a hijab, she felt targeted due to her religion.

During our first coaching session, Malika shared her frustrations. “Do you know what it is like to be treated as the token Muslim member of your team?” she asked. She expressed feeling like a spokesperson for the entire Islamic world, often asked to comment on incidents related to Islamic states during meetings—topics unrelated to the meeting agendas.

Despite feeling unqualified to speak on behalf of all Muslims, Malika had been managing these situations with politeness and tact. However, she felt denigrated and unable to push back without making things uncomfortable for herself and others. This was something I could relate to from my own experiences.

In a session, I shared a personal anecdote from a diversity and inclusion workshop I delivered. After observing a strong gender bias, I admitted to the attendees that I had not spoken up at the time, which made me realise the hypocrisy in encouraging others to do so when I had failed myself. This revelation was something Malika could connect with—the understanding that avoiding confrontation doesn’t make the problem go away.

I advised Malika that managing her emotional state and addressing the behaviour directly yet respectfully when confronting bias was crucial. The key was to respond swiftly, express how the remarks made her feel, and maintain respect for the person making the remarks.

Malika took this advice to heart. After confronting a colleague, she reported feeling nervous but was met with appreciation from her team, who became more mindful of their words. For Malika, this marked the beginning of a new behaviour pattern—addressing issues directly as they arise, a strategy she describes as “nipping it in the bud.”

Through Malika’s story, we are reminded of the importance of standing up against bias and discrimination—not just for ourselves, but to foster a more inclusive and respectful working environment for everyone.

How to Get Out of Your Own Way To further explore the themes of self-empowerment and confronting biases, consider these reflective questions about your own experiences with gender and leadership messages throughout your life:

  1. What messages did you receive about women when you were growing up?
  2. What messages did you receive about leadership growing up?
  3. What messages did you receive about women at school and later?
  4. Were you encouraged to speak up and share your ideas and opinions with your family?
  5. Were you encouraged to speak up and share your ideas and opinions at school and later on?
  6. What impact do these messages have on you today in your family, friends, and work?

Reflecting on these questions can provide insights into how early experiences shape our behaviours and attitudes in the workplace and beyond.


  • Sunita Sehmi

    Organisational Dev I Exec Leadership Coach I Author I Mentor I

    Walk The Talk

    Org Dev Consultant I Exec Leadership Performance Coach I DEI Warrior I Author I Mentor I Work smarter I Live better I Think deeper. With over three decades of expertise in multicultural environments, Sunita brings a unique blend of Indian, British, and Swiss heritage to her consultancy, fostering a deep understanding of organisational contexts and her clients. Sunita’s insights and expertise are tailored to elevate your leadership.