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How can businesses eliminate workplace ethnicity inequity in 2021?

Sophie Chandauka, co-founder - Black British Business Awards

The moral argument for equality of opportunity is beyond question. Why, then, are businesses still failing to reach a consensus on how to shift the dial in a meaningful way for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups in the workplace? Co-founder of the Black British Business Awards, Sophie Chandauka, reflects on the major events of the year gone by and suggests what actions are needed to make 2021 a year of change for ethnic minority communities.

How the disadvantaged are marginalised and underrepresented
2020 was a blunt reminder that racial and ethnic inequalities are still rife in our societies and public institutions. Historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, such as people of African and Caribbean heritage, continue to be marginalised, notwithstanding their notable contributions to the British workforce and economy.

The global coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately taken the lives of ethnic minority individuals; data shows that this is due to the over-representation of this group in low paid, precarious, frontline work and persistent racial biases in the healthcare system. In the United States, the brutal murder of George Floyd sparked the revival of the #BlackLivesMatter movement around the world.

Undoubtedly, the battle we see ‘out there’ is mirrored ‘in here’ in our organisations too. It is distinctly apparent in the form of slower promotion and progression rates, lower inclusion and belonging scores, and indeed, under-representation from middle management to senior leadership of ethnic minority professionals.

Lloyds Banking Group ended 2020 by releasing a race action plan, which included data revealing its black staff are paid nearly 20% less than their colleagues. Despite the long delay, the fact that they became the first major UK bank to disclose its black pay gap brings hope, and renewed calls for the government to step up by introducing mandatory ethnic pay gap reporting.

The double-edged sword of the diversity agenda
There is evidence to suggest that gender and LGBTQ initiatives, such as increasing female representation, are undertaken at the cost of a focus on the representation of ethnic minorities. Stakeholders in business claim to find gender and sexual orientation agendas ‘easier’ to manage than the BAME agenda, which is perceived to be more convoluted. There are many issues with this notion, not least that social agendas are being cast as competitors, potentially by departments looking to present results to leadership that please, rather than expose.

We know that it is entirely possible for businesses across the UK to reach a consensus and shift the dial meaningfully, not least because of the excellent work that has been undertaken over the years to change the perception around women in the boardroom. Similar government initiatives to increase female representation in the boardroom have done well, though there is of course always more to do. But with race, what we have seen over the past seven years is an articulation of good intentions, businesses pledging support, followed by government-backed targets, only to end up with statistics that barely make a noticeable difference— or worse still, slide back. It appears businesses are paying lip-service to the discussion and in some cases overstating the scope of what they are doing on racial diversity.

Abolishing ethnicity pay discrimination in 2021
Acknowledgment must be given to those kickstarting the year by pushing for change. For instance, campaigner Dianne Greyson, the founder of the ethnicity pay gap campaign, has penned an open letter to senior officials and politicians in a bid to fight the pay gap that ethnic minorities face in their working lives. But as we know, one voice is not enough to trigger sustainable change.

As we journey through a new year, here are my seven predictions on race in the workplace in 2021. My hope – that businesses use this year to take serious action to eliminate the ethnicity pay gap:

  1. Shareholder scrutiny and activism with regards to race equity will increase;
  2. Regulators and systemically important public institutions will set clear expectations on Boards and C-suite;
  3. Companies who fail to deliver on commitments made in May 2020 will face reputational damage;
  4. The British Government will push for ethnicity pay gap reporting measures;
  5. The Biden-Harris administration will lead from the front and drive global conversations about intersectionality and people of colour;
  6. Appointments of visible minorities at Board and C-Suite in FTSE 100 will increase;
  7. The life science, health sciences and biotech sectors will focus on the ethnic minority agenda in a more systematic way.

Unfortunately, corporate diversity programmes have historically failed. Big business has not reached consensus on what action is needed to deal with the structural issues that create barriers to the progression and promotion of minority businesspeople. To respond effectively to global and contextual inequalities, organisations must be prepared to use 2021 to hold up the mirror and tackle the systemic and cultural barriers that still obscure the everyday experiences of, and impede the progression of, ethnic minority talent.

Targeted action to address mid-level BAME advancement can release a significant burst of talent and energy into the UK economy. Increased diversity offers a boost to team effectiveness and innovation. And, finally, optimising the talent and opportunities of ethnic minority groups, as with all historically and systemically disadvantaged groups, is the ethical thing to do.

Organisations are grappling with the need to deliver an effective and impactful response to the renewed call for racial and ethnic equality and inclusion. A new year often brings newfound optimism but let us hope it brings far more than that: let us hope it brings powerful action too.

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