A disabled woman on her mission to achieve workplace equality for the 'unhealthy'

Diversity in the workplace has helped a lot of marginalized communities, but only 'healthy' ones, says Maria Alexandrou

A black and white photo of Maria against a colorful abstract background
(Image credit: Future)

In this mini-series, writer Laurie O'Garro talks to inspiring, marginalized women about the everyday hurdles they face. She reveals how they overcome them, and their aspirations for a more inclusive future.

Maria Alexandrou was diagnosed early in life with kidney disease. She was born in South Africa to Greek Cypriot parents and moved to England when she was five with her mother and older brother.

Maria is a woman on a mission to change the perception of disabled people so that others like her will get the chance to prove that disability is no barrier to excellence. I met Maria this summer in a Facebook group for writers. She’d just submitted an article about her experiences as an ambitious disabled woman and shared how, at an online event on flexibility with PricewaterhouseCoopers, she’d challenged the interview panel on their record when it came to recruiting and retaining disabled people. It’s rare for me to meet people brave enough to challenge discrimination, and I wanted to connect with this woman.

Maria on what made her an ambitious disabled woman...

“I kept my disability quiet as a child, but I had a transplant when I was eight and suffered a lot of bullying as a result. But I always thought of myself as better than others, and I never felt bad when I was picked on. I laughed and told the bullies they were stupid.”

At the age of twelve, Maria moved to Cyprus where she matriculated with the equivalent of fifteen GCSEs. On her return to London at fifteen, she joined The Compton School where she told that she would have to repeat Year 10 and 11. Most of us would hate the idea of doing more exams, but Maria’s main fear was that she, “might not live long enough to graduate. I didn’t want to waste time repeating two years of my life!”

After her GCSEs, she set her heart on studying A Level English, Maths, Drama and DT, but her mother had other ideas:

“My mum wanted me to go into Business Management, but she hadn’t prepared herself for the possibility that as a disabled woman I would not be accepted in the workplace.” On her mum’s advice, she secured a place at City University. Studying close to home meant she could easily do her peritoneal dialysis. “I was on course for a 2:1, but I got flu followed by pneumonia, which made sitting exams and finishing my dissertation difficult.”

After graduating, Maria completed an MSc Management degree at the prestigious Cass Business School, a top ranking university in the UK recognised globally for its business and finance programmes. “Because of my working-class background, I felt intimidated by my fellow students who came from affluent families. What I did have in common with them were shared aspirations and ambitions, and I used my time at City and Cass to cultivate contacts.”

[Diversity] initiatives have ended up sidelining other minorities. There are many initiatives for women, but employers are looking for healthy women

Maria Alexandrou

Maria on the trouble with diversity...

Graduating with a Masters in Management was one thing, but I wanted to know how Maria felt about diversity in the workplace: “It helped BAME and LGBTQ communities. Industries are open to healthy minority communities. Over the last 15 years, there’s been a lot of ‘attention on intention’, but these initiatives have ended up sidelining other minorities. There are many initiatives for women, but employers are looking for healthy women. 

Maria recalls asking the female diversity champion for JP Morgan who’d just given a presentation at Cass Business School about taking on disabled candidates. Her response was: ‘I wouldn’t employ a person with a disability. They’re too much of a risk.’

Since graduating in 2006, Maria has worked for the likes of Coutts, Cass Business School and Williams De Broe, “The problem is that all of the jobs in the financial industry were temporary or voluntary.  None of them wanted to take on someone with a disability permanently. I started a pensions admin job in 2017. My intention was to work my way up, however, I decided to leave in September, and I am looking for more roles that offer part-time flexible working.” Fortunately, this was the first role Maria had a part-time opportunity.

I had an interview with a Head of Diversity who said I was more qualified than she was and asked me why I didn’t have a better position. I explained I needed dialysis. The interviewer ghosted me

Maria Alexandrou

Maria on the commitment of companies...

“The ‘Two Ticks Scheme’, introduced in 2013, was designed to create greater equity in the workplace by encouraging employers to meet five criteria relating to disabled employees, but a Cass Business School study found that only 15% of firms applied the five criteria. I can’t commit to working full-time. I had an interview with a Head of Diversity who said I was more qualified than she was and asked me why I didn’t have a better position. I explained I needed dialysis. The interviewer ghosted me. I’ve been told I wouldn’t survive in the industry.”

I asked Maria how she coped as a disabled woman. “I’m fighting an industry that’s not inclusive. I’m constantly being told to look for jobs in charities, but I refuse on principle. The banking and finance sectors need to change, and I’m committed to changing this disability bias.” 

I ask Maria if the new trend of working from home could be a turning point. “I believe the pandemic and the drive for flexibility will mean more people will be open to listening when it comes to employing disabled people," she told me. "The Black Lives Matter movement has resulted in people listening and supporting. Current conversations about being flexible will lead to firms being open to thinking about offering opportunities to ambitious women like me."

“I came across five firms that specialize in part-time work, including 2 To 3 Days. They had a flexibility program with PWC, but employees had to be able to travel throughout the UK and internationally.  I followed up with an email, setting out the limitations of their mobility demands and as a result, they created a Content Manager post, and I was asked to assess the gaps in opportunities for disabled professionals.”

Maria on how companies can improve...

Maria suggested four ways in which companies could improve:

  • Promote disability awareness and target industries that aren’t doing enough around inclusion
  • Employ a team of diversity champions that better reflects the workforce
  • Enlist top firms across every industry who will be listened to
  • Introduce an Ofcom-style body that assesses the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion initiatives

Maria on where her campaign takes her next...

So, what’s next for Maria? “I’d love to do a Ted Talk about the barriers I’ve faced. I still have hope, and I refuse to give up on my search for the right position. I believe I will break into the banking and finance industry. I will be a leader one day!”

Contributing writer

Laurie O'Garro is a conscious parent, teacher, String Artist, poet, writer and would-be author. She lives in London.