Workplace equality will only be achieved when career prospects are defined by aptitude and ability alone. Yet black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals face barriers that unjustly prevent career ambitions from being fulfilled. Decisive action is needed to deliver change.
The underrepresentation of the BAME community in the workplace is not just an ethical issue, but an economic one. Were these barriers to fall, the impact would be transformative. It is estimated that full BAME representation across the labour market would generate £24bn per year, a figure that constitutes 1.3 per cent of GDP.
One key factor in the continued underrepresentation is the absence of BAME employees in senior positions who can act as role models to new and younger members of staff. 12.5 per cent of the UK population is BAME – a figure expected to rise to 20 per cent by 2030 – yet only six per cent of senior management roles are occupied by members of BAME communities. The lack of visible success stories has a detrimental impact on the self-confidence of young BAME people. If there is no one from a similar background to look to for aspiration, people can often feel defeated before the ball has been kicked.
But increased levels of diversity within senior management positions will not single-handedly solve the problem. Instead, role models must be found at all levels of an organisation; this will motivate BAME individuals at varying stages of their career journey. The notion of ‘next-up’ role models has been championed by Sainsbury’s, whose career-mapping tools depict a diverse range of role models in order to instil a belief that progression is possible. This diverse range is absolutely pivotal. It ensures that employees from all rungs of the ladder have an inspirational figure within their immediate ‘line of sight’. To quote a diversity leader from Lloyd’s Banking Group, it is the ‘immediacy and relatability’ of role models that makes a major difference.
Unconscious bias is also major factor in the continued underrepresentation of the BAME community. Too often recruiters hire candidates in their own image. The mono-ethnic make-up of senior positions can lead to adequately qualified BAME candidates being discarded in favour of less-qualified white candidates. This is unjust and needs to change. However, unlike incidents of overt discrimination, the subtle and insidious nature of unconscious bias makes it difficult to tackle. A recruiter may award a role based on a subliminal belief that they are similar to the candidate, but the unknowing nature of the act makes it difficult to both prove and condemn.
For this reason, it is massively important for employers to provide unconscious bias training, highlighting not only its impact on decision-making, but how it can be eradicated. Creating diverse interview panels is a simple and effective way forward. The link between mono-ethnic workplaces and unconscious bias is often attributed to a dominant ‘white, male discourse in organisational culture’. An ethnically varied panel dramatically reduces the chances of candidates being hired in line with this discourse. Name-blind recruitment is also thought to remove bias. If candidates’ names are not displayed on the application, decision-makers cannot make a preconceived judgement on the applicant. There are flaws though, as this may merely postpone the impact of unconscious bias until the interview stage.
And we must ensure that unconscious bias does not become conflated with actual bias. The recent McGregor-Smith Race in the Workplace review showed that two thirds of BAME employees had experienced ‘racial harassment or bullying’ in the last five years. There is a danger of the term ‘unconscious bias’ being used to obfuscate incidents of actual racism. In the words of a BAME senior leader: “There’s an immediate assumption when people see me, and that’s the kind of thing that gets to me.” Overtly judging a person based on their ethnicity should be called out for what it is – racism.
Accountability and inclusivity
The barriers that prevent BAME individuals from fulfilling their potential will not fall until data becomes publicly available. Employers have a duty to ensure that information pertaining to race and pay band is disclosed. It is only then that those responsible for unfair treatment can be held accountable. In her review, Baroness McGregor-Smith points out that the availability of data will enable clear targets to be set by organisations. This will increase the chances of real progress on tackling the ethnic pay-gap and shattering the glass ceiling.
Changing workplace culture can play an instrumental role in bringing about equal opportunities for all. The silence surrounding race and feelings of alienation amongst BAME staff are significant causes of underrepresentation in the workplace. It is therefore vital that leaders seize the initiative in terms to change the discourse. Developing a guide to talking about race will help to deliver change. Additionally, outdated norms should be challenged. Many BAME staff – particularly women – feel isolated from out-of-work social activities, which frequently revolve around the interests of their white, male colleagues.
Being honest about the causes of injustice is the first step towards remedying it. Members of BAME communities have been unfairly obstructed in employment for too long. Decisive action is now needed for parity to be established.