Rebecca Black Reports on 2016’s Cumberland Lodge Conference, “Ethnic Inequalities at Work: Policy and Institutional Responses”

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Becky Black, Cumberland Lodge Scholar 2015 – 2017

Cumberland Lodge recently hosted a two day conference supported by the Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity, entitled Ethnic Inequalities in the Workplace. The introduction was clear and set the scene: there is no reason that in today’s world ethnic inequality can still exist in the workplace, there is a need to move beyond a room full of dusty reports and recommendations – it is time to create real change. Picking up the baton and building upon this a host of speakers from industry, academia and advocacy groups gave compelling arguments for the need to change (both at an individual and structural level).

We were shown fancy info-graphics and bar charts galore, all illustrating many depressing statistics. We were told how BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people are under-represented at every management level in the workplace and how they are systematically worse off throughout higher education – despite performing better during secondary school exams. Sadly, it got worse, racial harassment and bullying within the workplace is still prevalent, with many employers and employees still not able to talk about ‘it’ (Race at Work 2015). Instead of dwelling on the negatives, conversations throughout the two days always retained a focus on solutions.

Somewhat ironically given the data presented is the fact that there are great benefits for businesses to ensure they have a diverse workforce. Diverse boards make better decisions and diverse workforces appeal to a wider range of customers and provide more innovative solutions. It was argued persuasively that the changing world almost demands such innovation and decision-making. Despite this, the business world has remained static in its recruitment, recognition and support of diverse and inclusive talent. One of the loudest rallying cries from the conference was simple: there is an urgent need for business to change, a need for a new ethos to be embedded in business and a need to embrace a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Within this call, there was the push for employers to re-define talent and the ways in which they seek and develop it. The traditional graduate recruitment process and the internal support networks within the workplace need to adapt. Instead employers need to be innovative in their hunt for talent and in their recruitment strategies. The demand for firsts and upper second class degrees risks losing a wealth of potential talent as well as  filtering out a disproportionate amount of BAME graduates. Alternative routes in to such employment are required as well as the targeting and building of aspirations in BAME communities. Internships with undergraduates, targeting school leavers and providing bespoke mentoring and support networks for BAME employees were all proposed to a welcoming applause. Exactly how and when these changes are enacted are separate questions however.

In learning to better foster and support talent entering into the workforce the conversation turned to quotas. Quotas turned in to a dirty word as conversations and discussions progressed. Hated by some, arguing that they can become tokenistic, yet seen as the only way to prioritise diversity and inclusion of BAME people in the unrelenting world of work by others. The only mutual conclusion that could be drawn was that quotas or targets would only be successful if they were publically published and held accountable. Employers need to become dynamic and self-responsible to achieve a diverse workforce, nevertheless, there needs to be an enforcement that applies pressure on them to ensure these targets remain a top priority.

Despite the rallying and evocative conversations and presentations seeds of doubt emerged. What about the current working generations, how do we ensure they are not disregarded as employers put in place new policies and practices to improve future ethnic diversity? Additionally, the conversation only occasionally turned to different and co-existing inequalities – what about gender, sexuality or disability, all known as being discriminated in the workforce as well? How do we avoid overlooking these and instead prioritise ‘equality for all’? And, importantly, there is a need to dissect the statistics and data, BAME people are not a homogenous group: Are all failing to achieve their potential, or are only some or are the majority? What barriers can be identified by the data we already have? Even amongst the doubts the message permeates through: there is no room for more talk – it is a time for change and action on ethnic inequality in the workforce.

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