Northern Irish businesses should recognise that diversity is good for business and encourage each other in this space. That was the message to over 100 guests at a breakfast event organised by the Danske Women’s Network to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Guests heard the inspirational stories of Paralympic skier Dr Kelly Gallagher MBE and Nisha Tandon OBE founder of ArtsEkta, the organisation behind Belfast Mela - the largest celebration of cultural diversity on the island of Ireland.
As well as backing calls to improve gender equality, both women said they represented minority communities in Northern Ireland and called for greater recognition of diversity in order to ensure that people of all capabilities and backgrounds have equal opportunities.
Nisha Tandon came to Northern Ireland from India in 1977 for an arranged marriage. She began working in a flower shop as her arts degree was not recognised in the UK. Although she arrived in Northern Ireland at turbulent time, she told the audience her time spent educating young primary school children in west Belfast was a positive experience.
She said: “When I arrived in Northern Ireland there were maybe only 50 people of Indian community in Belfast. People were excited about different cultures and wanted to learn about other countries from around the world that were now on their doorstep. That was my inspiration for launching ArtsEkta and the Belfast Mela, creating a shared space to celebrate our differences.
“Now we face a bigger challenge, there are approximately 100,000 people from ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland who are not being properly recognised and represented. Our workplaces need to reflect a definition of diversity that represents all minorities, whether that is women, ethnic minorities, disabilities, LGBT+ or refugees.”
Dr Kelly Gallagher was the first athlete from Northern Ireland to compete in the Winter Paralympics and went onto compete at Sochi 2014 where she brought home Britain’s first ever gold medal in skiing.
“From a young age I was encouraged to believe that you can pursue your passions no matter what other people's perceptions of your capabilities,” she said.
“My career did not go in a straight trajectory, there were times when I thought I would give up but it was the people that surrounded me that helped me get to the top of my game. As a team, we constantly challenged ourselves to do better. But most of all, as a woman, you have to trust in yourself and your own abilities.”
Nicola McCleery, Chair of the Danske Women’s Network, said: “It was great to hear the stories of Nisha and Kelly and to be reminded on International Women’s Day that there is still a long way to go to achieving equality across many aspects of life in Northern Ireland.
Diversity is good for business and for society, so this event was an important reminder that we must keep giving women a platform to share their experiences in order to move our society forward, particularly women who represent communities in our society that so often get overlooked.”