Tue 05 Jul 2022
Nurjahan Khatun, deputy director of the UK Health Security Agency, prepares to take up a director role at the Home Office in August and shares details of her path to becoming a visible Muslim woman at a top rank in the senior civil service
By Murielle Gonzalez
A job that would allow time for caring for her mother who had suffered a stroke was the main reason Nurjahan Khatun took up a senior executive officer role at the Home Office in 2009. The move, a demotion in a decade-long career in the private sector, came with a 62% pay reduction plus challenges and discrimination along the way. However, Khatun took up her chances, and after 12-and-a-half years in the civil service, she is leaving a deputy director role at the UK Health Security Agency to take up a director position in the Home Office.
"I didn't come to the civil service as a long-term career," she told Dods Diversity & Inclusion. "But when my mum had a second stroke, I made up my mind and mapped out what I wanted to do with my career over the next years," she explained.
The interview took place before Khatun's presentation at this week's Ethnic Minorities into Leadership in Leeds. In the conversation, she revealed details of the challenges she encountered, the sources of resilience, and the drivers to become the leader she wanted to be.
A whole new world
Khatun, who had always worked in project delivery, has a technology background. She completed a master's in management and information systems following her degree in computer science.
"I was working 16 hours a day and six days a week. I was travelling around the world; it was all very intense. That kind of lifestyle is not conducive to caring responsibilities. So, I had to make a decision and change the type of job I was doing,” she said.
Dealing with challenges and adversity is a skill that Khatun has learned throughout her life, stemming from being an English woman with a Bangladeshi background. "I am Bangladeshi by ethnicity, but I was born and raised in London," she explained. Khatun is the fifth of seven siblings, and her voice takes a proud tone when she says her father's ancestors are traced back to Persia.
What does your ethnicity mean to you?
I grew up with a dual identity. My dad came to London to build himself up. It took a couple of years until he had a good job and accommodation to bring my mother over. But when we were together at home, he ensured my siblings and I spoke our mother tongue fluently. He didn't want us to lose the ability to communicate with our family back in Bangladesh – we were not allowed to speak English in the house until the age of 11.
I appreciate that I can speak Bengali, but the dual identity I felt early on in my life was a bit of a struggle. Growing up in an environment where you have two cultures to balance is difficult for an immigrant. I had to be very eastern at home but demonstrate a western culture at school.
I hadn't realised how traumatic such a dual identity was until my adult years. I had to be very careful with what I said and how I conducted myself in both environments; that can be quite taxing on the mind. If you lean on one side and are in the opposite environment, you get accused of not being British enough. On the other hand, if you lean in the opposite direction, people say you've left your culture behind. There's no win-win situation.
How did you feel in the civil service?
I spent five-and-a-half years at the Home Office, but this time was sadly negative. It was completely different from my experience in the private sector, and I didn't have anybody helping me navigate that landscape.
It was difficult to adjust to the bureaucratic processes. I was doing things I hadn't done for a decade, and that, coupled with the fact that I took a demotion in pay and grade, made my job very unsatisfactory. Also, I experienced a lot of discrimination.
How did you deal with it?
I was ready to leave the civil service by the end of year four. I had a job lined up in banking, but sadly, my mum had a second stroke and lost mobility on her left side. I was entering year five at the Home Office and realised I couldn't go back to the private sector. So, I decided to make a career in the civil service.
Even despite the discrimination…
I'm not going to pick up on the Home Office because I've worked in six different departments, but it is fair to say that the civil service has a long way to go to tackle discrimination.
Sadly, there are six areas where I've felt discrimination: because I'm a woman and a woman in the technology space; I'm a brown woman from an ethnic minority, and I'm visibly Muslim. I also suffered ageism from being younger than my line managers and a bit more experienced.
I have an invisible disability – I'm deaf in one ear – and this has been used against me as though it is detrimental to my performance.
The last angle of discrimination is my low social-economic background. I grew up in Tower Hamlets, and sometimes the east London accent comes out, which has also been used against me.
Where have you found the strength to overcome these hurdles?
I firmly believe that I belong in the SCS. But I grew up with a dual identity in a family and home that never felt like I belonged. So, I've learned to be resilient and fight against the odds.
I kept going because I did not doubt my ability. I don't say it out of arrogance, but I know the value I bring to organisations. I know how hard I work and the quality I deliver: nobody can take that away from me.
When you believe in yourself, you dare to know that you belong to that space. Even though people are not inviting me to the table, I don't need it because I will build a table and bring people in.
Why is bringing people to the table important?
I've got this constant fire in my belly: I genuinely believe that we belong, and because of the difficulties I have experienced in my life and professional career, especially around discrimination, I don't want others to go through what I've gone through.
People have sacrificed and paved the way for us, and I've got a role to play, especially while I'm in the civil service. I will do my best to do what I can to carve out spaces for people who feel marginalised.
How do you feel about your new appointment as director in the Home Office?
It took me five years of continuous interviewing for a senior civil servant position, so getting the role is a monumental moment because I am not aware of any other visible female Muslim director anywhere in government.
How did you get to apply for it in the first place?
I worked my way up by working in different departments, with roles that were up or down in grade. I joined the Home Office as an SEO and left the department to go to Treasury as a grade 7.
Then I left Treasury to join the Department for Transport as a grade 6. I left Transport for another grade 6 job in HMRC. I felt mistreated at HMRC, so I looked for promotion and moved to DWP as deputy director – the worst department I've been in regarding Islamophobia and racism. I left DWP within a year, taking a deputy director role at the UK Health Security Agency.
On 1 August, I will return to the Home Office as director. It's like completing a circle.
Did you have the ambition of a leadership position?
Ever since I left the Home Office, I've been aiming for the SCS and getting myself ready to do what I needed to apply for a deputy director role.
I had been to almost 100 deputy director interviews, and I wasn't successful until I was. Still, I always felt that I was punching below my weight.
What is your secret to success?
Extracurricular activities worked for me because doing those things outside my day job made me a better leader in the civil service.
I set up and ran an award-winning charity for eight years, supporting women fleeing domestic abuse and homelessness. I ran my own social enterprise, helping women from advantaged backgrounds to achieve and live their dreams.
I've been running a homeless soup kitchen for 15 years, inspired by the time I was homeless and lived on the streets of London for 21 months.
And I have a legacy fellowship run by the Rothschild family, which has allowed me to be part of a community that brings together social entrepreneurs.
Everything I've done outside of my day job has made me a better person and a greater leader.
What is your advice to civil servants?
To apply for an SCS position is a very draining process. There are five steps: the application itself where you have to write a statement. And if you get sifted, you will go through a two-hour interview with an occupational psychiatrist and then on to a couple of hours on psychometric tests.
You have to go through a staff engagement exercise, where you have to give a five-minute presentation while the occupation psychiatrist is in the background, assessing your interaction and emotional intelligence. The final step is the interview. So, you have to be prepared for all that.
My dad used to say: what you put in is what you get out. But if you're going to be lazy about it and not do anything to make things happen for yourself, nothing will fall into your lap.
Is this a good time to move forward in the civil service?
I am a great fan of the civil service and eternally grateful because I'm still a full-time carer for my mother. It hasn't stopped me from progressing up the ladder.
We can't ignore that the murder of George Floyd sent waves of change to all spectrums of society, and it is a great time as an ethnic minority to leverage that in a positive way and where possible use that as an opportunity to develop and grow yourself. Departments are realising the benefit of diversity, and that's good news for you. There are so many talent programmes for ethnic minorities now. It wasn't like that in the early years of my career.
A tip I always give to my mentees is this: don't take no for an answer. Allow yourself to feel down fora few days, but bring yourself up, reach out to your support networks, and keep pushing. You have to persevere. If I gave up on my dream to become a Director, I would not have this job to look forward to.
Join us for Ethnic Minorities into Leadership in London on 20 October.
► Visit the event website for more information
Get inspired by other civil servants at Unlocking the Senior Civil Service in Leeds, London or online.
Upcoming dates and locations for Unlocking the SCS:
- Leeds, 6 September
- Online, 27 September
- London, 6 October
► Visit the event website to register online
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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