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It’s the 30th anniversary of Black History month in the UK so why are organisations still struggling to make real progress on this agenda?

25 October, 2017
Fleur Bothwick

I recently visited Bristol University with one of my sons as part of the pre university assessment process.  It’s a lovely area of the UK, a friendly campus and small enough to feel like a community, but my son didn’t feel at home.  He noted that the other students visiting, on the whole, looked white and didn’t reflect the inner London state secondary school he has been attending for the last six years.

So even though we know that the Russell Group universities are making great strides to improve the diversity of their intake and some are making progress, some are still too elite.  When David Cameron was in office he said that ‘If you’re black, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university. And if you’re black, it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white’

Since this statement there have been numerous insightful reviews and studies which include one led by MP David Lammy, the Parker Review looking at boardroom equality and most recently the Racial Disparity Audit published last month.

However we still seem to be at the reporting out stage with some hand wringing and commitments to do better, but why hasn’t the BAME agenda progressed as fast at the women’s agenda?  Personally I think it’s because the topic is a lot harder for many, particularly our leaders to articulate and it’s much easier to think/say the wrong thing in this space.  I’ve been a hardened D&I campaigner for over fifteen years, but even I was shocked to be pulled up last month at a BAME workshop by a black professional who really didn’t like being described as BAME.  “I’m black – please call me black – don’t dump me in a pot of everyone that isn’t white”.

It’s a challenging space to get the right balance.  Look at Dove who after all of their fabulous gender adverts have managed to run an advert that had to be taken down with an apology on Facebook from them saying that they had ‘missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence it caused’.

A topic being challenging though is no excuse for a lack of progress.   One brilliant panellist I heard speaking a couple of weeks ago suggested that we had the evidence; we are just not taking real action.  ‘There are too many groups of white people sitting in a room trying to solve the problem (which is offensive) and it’s totally misleading to bulk every non-white person in to one group – we have to start paying closer attention to the nuances of difference.  We need to stop making decisions on what we see and the assumptions we make with no real data or facts.’

An academic I really respect – Doyin Atemoloyun, has done a fair bit of research in this area and she suggests that we shouldn’t be leaving the development challenge to the BAME community – we, the organisation, need to make a shift in our investment and be much more explicit.  We need to work with individuals to:

  • Reinforce the ‘how’ – give better filtered and forthright feedback
  • Reinforce the ‘whom’ – things such as sponsorship – who can teach you the unwritten rules
  • Reinforce the ‘why’ – what do we really need to focus on from mid to late career

In addition, I would suggest

  • Know your data and what you need to address
  • Set targets based on fair representation
  • Set the tone at the top – spell out the business case for diversity, inclusion and engagement
  • Invest in mentoring at the more junior level and sponsorship for your more senior high potentials, and
  • Celebrate inclusive leaders and role models

Also, borrow from the research that has been done in the gender space – I think much of it will apply to other minority groups.  For example we know that for women they often suffer from receiving ‘vague’ feedback.  Too often men get feedback based on their development needs, whereas women may get good feedback – ‘you’ve had a good year’ but it doesn’t bring with it enough detail.  When they do get feedback, it is more often based on their style rather than what they have done.

In fact it’s probably time that we stopped focusing on specific silos of individuals and thought more about their intersectionality.  It’s definitely time to take action and execute change, rather than stick at researching and discussing our findings………