We need to work harder than most people if we want to be heard and get hired

For the 150 minority women who make up ProWoc, the group is just what a “fantastic but very homogenous country” like Denmark needs .

By: Eva Bøgelund


On top Kiya Geneti Deressa Ebba, in the middle from the left Caroline Onyango-Dyregaard, Adilice Sanches, Phaedria Marie St. Hilaire og Nyeleti Sue-Angel Nkuna, bottom center Selim Ablo-Nielsen.

Photo: Mads Teglers 

The plan had been for the members of ProWoc (short for Professional Women of Colour in Denmark) to meet last December at Copenhagen’s Hotel d’Angleterre for a discussion with Maria Pejter, A.P. Møller Holding’s vice-president for global human resources, about what it takes to make it in business in Denmark.

The room at the Hotel d’Angleterre where the group meets is paid for by one of its sponsors (more about her later), but, because of the restrictions imposed on such gatherings in response to the pandemic, it was moved to Zoom.

ProWoc’s members are all highly educated and ambitious. Take Caroline Onyango-Dyregaard, a legal counsel with Mærsk: a Kenyan-American, she holds a law degree from The Ohio State University and was admitted to the bar in Washington, DC.

But for women of colour like herself in Denmark, according to Phaedria Marie St Hilaire, there is no guarantee of success.

“Even though there are several networks for highly educated women in Denmark – I’m a member of one myself – there was a need for a network for what in English is called ‘shared experiences’,” St Hilaire says. A native of Dominica, St Hilaire holds a PhD in Chemistry from Duke University in the US and works in Denmark as a Science Business Leader for Novo Nordisk.

“Denmark is a fantastic country – but it’s very homogenous. So there’s no need to disguise the reality: as minority women, we need to work harder than most people if we want to be heard and get hired and promoted.

But if you think ProWoc is a place where women get together to gripe, think again. It is a place where they can be themselves. A safe space. A place where women who have made it can pass on their positive energy, their support and their resources to the members who are still working at it.

“We lift each other up. We don’t just sit around and wait to be given something. We are honest and realistic about what it takes,” says Selim Ablo-Nielsen, a solicitor and one of the group’s co-founders.

Positive energy

Ablo-Nielsen is from Ghana and received her law degree from The George Washington University, in Washington, DC. She was admitted to the bar in New York and is today the senior compliance counsel for Novo Nordisk. She was working as a lawyer in Philadelphia when she met her husband, a Dane. She fell in love with Denmark during her visits here and, in 2008, they decided to relocate.

“I was certain I would get a flying start,” she says. “I was certain I would find a job in a law firm or as a corporate lawyer.”

That turned out to be an overly optimistic assessment.

“I didn’t speak Danish then, and that’s a part of the explanation. But it’s not the whole explanation,” she says.

“I needed a strong professional network that could help me develop professionally and which understood the challenges that immigrants and minority women sometimes face. I really had a need to meet other minority women in the workplace and socially.”

Eventually Ablo-Nielsen got hired by Delacour Dania, a law firm. From there she moved on to Novo Nordisk.

But when she looked around she would ask herself, “where are all the other women like me?” She knew how hard it was to be on the outside, and, even though she had made it through the door, she knew that there were other women like her who had not. And that was why she decided to start ProWoc.

She reached out to friends and LinkedIn contacts, and in March of last year the group held its inaugural meeting. Fifteen women were involved from the start, contributing their energy, their ideas and their hard work. One of them was St Hilaire, who was already a mentor for Novo Nordisk employees and for others who had relocated to Denmark.

“A lot of people have believed in me and supported me in my career. I felt it was time for me to give something back to others,” she says.

Word got around. Along the way, the group linked up with Belinda Bramsnæs, a corporate recruiter and the author of a book about how to compile a successful CV, as its coach. And, in August, ProWocs flipped the switch on a website designed by Sondra Duckert, one of its members. Today, there are 150 people signed up to its mailing list.

“I’ve lived in Denmark for 25 years,” St Hilaire says. “I had no idea there were so many professional women of colour.”

Wanted: more inclusion

Ablo-Nielsen has experienced outright discrimination based on the colour of her skin. People’s rationale for doing so, she believes, is two-fold.

“Firstly, it’s about being an outsider, and that’s something you can experience whether you are black, yellow or white. When you move to another country, you are an outsider. New language, new culture, new network.”

The second is Denmark’s homogenous labour market.

“There is a need for greater diversity. One thing ProWoc does is to point and say, ‘hey, there are some talented people out here.’ Danish firms should do more to include other people of other colours and backgrounds.”

St Hilaire agrees.

It’s sad, she says, but it’s true: discrimination is real. In one Facebook group she belongs to, there is at least one person each week who relates an experience that has made them feel like they don’t belong.

One classic example, she says, is walking into a meeting room with a white co-worker and everyone in the room thinking the co-worker is going to be in charge of the meeting. Another is being asked to fix the coffee machine because someone thinks that’s your job. Some women say they’ve been told they can’t become a lead consultant because the clients would be turned off by their skin colour.

ProWoc’s members help each other get past these types of experiences by sharing advice about how to be robust and shake things off.

In some cases, Ablo-Nielsen explains, the discrimination results from what is called unconscious patterns of exclusion. That means, for example, that we prefer people who speak the same language as we do or studied at the same school or have the same network.

“I hope that ProWoc can encourage people to step out of their comfort zone a little and talk to someone who doesn’t look like they do. Firms need to get a better understanding of what inclusion entails,” she says.

During the Zoom meeting in December, Pejter discussed how companies benefit from being more inclusive.

“Diversity and inclusion are just good business, but diversity without inclusion is just empty words,” she said. “If you hire people with the intention of diversifying your workforce but expect that everyone will behave as if they were born and educated and had lived their entire lives in Denmark it won’t work. That’s not going to result in the benefits that diversity can deliver.”

And that brings us to that hotel room. Just who was it that sponsored a room at Denmark’s most luxurious hotel? Yvonne Seier Christensen, a co-founder of Saxo Bank. She herself is Nigerian-British and believes strongly in the work of ProWoc.

This article was originally published in Danish in Djøfbladet - 'Vi skal arbejde hårdere end mange andre for at blive hørt og få job' | Djøfbladet (djoefbladet.dk)