Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Harry and Meghan not only renewed huge interest in the role of the monarchy, it also raised questions about racism, and what it is to be Black or from an ethnic minority in the UK and USA in 2021.
The interview was about the Duke and Duchess’ experiences within the Royal Family, but it highlighted the challenges on race faced in everyday workplaces and classrooms. A conversation about a baby’s skin colour will to some be innocuous and misspoken. But what it also might suggest is that being ‘other’ is a concern. Continuously being the ‘other’ in any setting, and for any reason, has a devastating effect on our psyche, and this is amplified for certain groups.
Meghan and Harry revealed the impact discrimination can have on mental health, to which all of us who have experienced racism and other forms of discrimination will attest. My conversations on race with employees from a range of workplaces and sectors have showed that racism affects staff engagement – causing isolation and eventually disengagement. Hardly a surprising finding. But what is surprising is how little impact the work of D&I has done to change this if we look at current data, just on race:
Five facts on the current state diversity in the UK
- 31.5% of White graduates got a first class degree, compared with 14.5% of Black graduates – the highest and lowest percentages out of all ethnic groups (gov.uk, Dec 2020).
- 15 months after graduating from university, UK-domiciled graduates from BAME backgrounds are 8% less likely to be in full-time graduate employment than their White peers (54% versus 62%) and BAME graduates were also more likely to be unemployed than White graduates (HESA, 2020).
- There are no Black chairs, chief executive officers or chief financial officers in any of Britain’s 100 largest companies, as represented by the FTSE-100 index (Forbes, 2021).
- Family background characteristics are still influencing who gets the UK’s top jobs. (ESRC, 2020).
- Only 1% of UK university professors are Black (BBC News, 2021).
Disparity will grow if left unchecked
These facts show a gloomy story of prejudice in UK work and education. But what this data does not show is that discriminated people feel exhaustion, depletion and disappointment as a result of continuous inequality. We can also infer from this data that there must be some socialised bias inherent in systems and people.
Unless we act, disparity may increase. Analysis on workers and workplaces from the impact of the global pandemic in 2020 showed people most economically impacted by the COVID-19 virus have by far been from disadvantaged groups. Overwhelmingly these were from lower socio-economic groups, disabled, women and ethnic minorities – and especially when these intersected.
We need to acknowledge that despite all our D&I effort, progression has been small. The focus needs to shift. For example, training on unconscious bias, while well-meaning, may have detracted us from deeper issues. We end up with much debate on what is a bias, and less on changing systems. The emphasis has to not just create diverse and inclusive places, but really push harder on attainment through equity-based practice. Bias can change if we work on the core issues; just look how far attitudes have changed in the last 20 years with adoption of equality legislation.
We can start the change
The data looks dismal, but many D&I leaders are feeling positive; they say that there is a new appetite to work more proactively. Organisations do appear to want to reduce discrimination through application of diversity, inclusion and equity practices, where we see:
- Diversity as about recognising difference – which means organisations do better by having diversity of thought, experience, ideas, and knowledge. Diversity in the boardroom, in big data management and AI, in class projects – well everywhere – makes better outcomes.
- Inclusion as how we make everyone feel included, valued and respected. It means that while we can all adhere to a corporate brand and mission, we should equally feel good and accepted for our racial and ethnic heritage, class, gender, orientation, age, disabilities (amongst all the other things that make us, ‘us’) in our place of work and study.
- Equity, where we work at creating systems and structures to drive behaviours and practices so that all people have equal access to opportunities. There should also be an expectation that reward, recognition and progression will be made on merit – to all equally.
Mobility for collective change
Mobility could be the key driver for organisations as it focuses more on the end result of fair attainment and progression – which is good for everyone in the organisation. It starts with being able to have open conversations on diversity without fear of saying the wrong thing or upsetting others.
A ‘Mobility for Collective Change’ strategy means a shared plan specifically to improve results. It means responsibility is undertaken by everyone in the organisation, rather than siloed into HR or D&I zones – which if anything separates it. It also acknowledges intersectionality and addresses specific areas of high levels of prejudice, namely: age, class, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation.
A mobility focus also means not getting drawn into D&I rabbit holes, but to stay on track in addressing core intentional and unintentional systems of oppression and division that hold key groups back.
Finally, one critical approach to a Mobility for Collective Change agenda is not about reducing power and privilege for any group. It also acknowledges that individuals who are not from a discriminated category will at times feel dis-empowered. Rather, this is to enable movement, development and growth of all groups.
In Henley we have already made D&I inroads with Pathways to Property, interview clothing bank, reducing unpaid internships, and all our recent work on race such as our Courageous Conversations events series. Our Apprenticeship Levy programmes will further push us into addressing all aspects of diversity too – including socio-economic mobility.
There is a lot to do. But once we acknowledge the facts, and then understand the experience of discrimination, we can feel positive. Because the experience in many workplaces – especially from the impact of Black Lives Matter and this pandemic – has shown us one thing: we need to change, and now is a good as time as any to be the change.