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Diversity and inclusion: the actions needed in 2021 to shift the dial on race at work


If last year was our time for waking up to racial injustice, we should use this coming year as an opportunity to take decisive action to remove systemic bias in society, starting with our own organisations.

29th Jan 2021
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When the moral argument for equal opportunity is, quite frankly, beyond question, why 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?

To respond effectively to global and contextual inequalities, organisations must be prepared to use 2021 to hold up the mirror to themselves.

In this piece, I will reflect on some of the landmark moments in 2020 and cover off a number of the key actions required as we move through 2021 to once and for all tackle the systemic and cultural barriers obscuring the everyday experiences of black and ethnic minority talent.

A year of awakening

What a year 2020 turned out to be. Global crises provided a stark reminder that racial and ethnic inequalities are still rife in our societies and public institutions. The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately taken the lives of black and ethnic minority individuals. Data showed that this is due to the over-representation of this group in low paid, precarious, frontline work and to persistent racial biases in the healthcare system.

It comes as little surprise that police powers have been unreasonably and unfairly used to target black and Asian communities during the Covid-19 lockdown*. Finally, the murder of George Floyd in the US on 25 May 2020 sparked the revival of the #BlackLivesMatter movement across the globe, including here in the UK where protesters of multi-racial backgrounds marched in solidarity against racism affecting black people.

In addition, a 2020 YouGov survey reported that 84% of Britain’s BAME citizens think the UK is ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ racist, a 2019 TUC study found that over 70% of ethnic minority workers have experienced racial harassment at work, and an Oxford analysis in the same year discovered that job applicants with ethnic minority-sounding names needed to make 60% more applications to get the same number of callbacks as applications with white British ones.

diversity and inclusion

The struggle ‘out there’ is mirrored ‘in here’

This dynamic is also present within our organisations. We see it in the form of slower promotion and progression rates, lower inclusion and belonging scores, and under-representation of black and ethnic minority professionals across the business, from middle management to senior leadership. When it comes to race in the workplace, 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 move the needle — 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.

Appointing individuals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds does not guarantee cultural change within their institutions. While Boris Johnson has been lauded for the ‘most ethnically diverse cabinet ever’, a closer look at the government’s policies, particularly around immigration and public health, reflect a very different story to the rhetoric. In September 2020, 40 Conservative MPs publicly refused to participate in unconscious bias training sessions.

Looking ahead

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. Finally, optimising the talent and opportunities of black and ethnic minority groups, as with all historically and systemically disadvantaged groups, is the moral thing to do.

Here are some key actions that are needed this year to shift the dial on race in the workplace:

  • Increased shareholder scrutiny and activism with regards to race equity.
  • Clear expectations from regulators and systemically important public institutions on boards and C-suite.
  • Reputational damage for companies who fail to deliver on commitments made in May 2020.
  • Increased pressure from the British government on ethnicity pay gap reporting measures.
  • The Biden/Harris administration leading from the front and driving global conversations about intersectionality and people of colour.
  • Increased appointments of visible minorities at board and C-suite in FTSE 100.
  • Systematic focus from the life science, health sciences and biotech sectors on the ethnic minority agenda.

Ultimately, big business has just not yet 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 to themselves. Only then can they begin to tackle the systemic and cultural barriers that still obscure the everyday experiences of, and impede the progression of, black and ethnic minority talent.

* Recent research has shown that ethnic minority individuals were 54% more likely than white people to receive penalty fines during the enforced lockdown in the UK.

Interested in this topic? Read Equality, diversity and inclusion: why HR needs to take centre stage.

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