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| Posted by: Alex Williams

If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you

Written by Alex Williams, Executive Search Consultant

As a 40-year-old man who is mixed-race (White and Black African) I have a complex and challenging relationship with race. I am still learning daily about the impact and legacy of racial inequalities and social disadvantage Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people like me are having to overcome to find our place in British society. 

The Black Lives Matter campaign has focused the attention and highlighted the way racial inequalities, stereotypes and discrimination are still affecting ethnic minority people. To fight against this discrimination, however, it is not enough to proclaim to be anti-racist and be valuing diversity. It needs to be about taking actions to unravel the complexity of institutional and covert racism that has riddled British society for centuries.

Social inequality, disadvantage and barriers  

I am no stranger to disadvantage and barriers having experienced social inequality as one of five siblings growing up in a low-income, working-class, single-parent household battling significant economic and social obstacles. Growing up poor and mixed-raced in a politicised British society, I have seen the ugly side of Britain, where hierarchical structures and race were significant barriers which could have limited my chances of reaching my full potential in adulthood and have certainly had a direct and long-lasting impact on me as an individual.  

In fact, it is estimated that around half of all ethnic minorities living in London today are in low-income, working-class households and that this economic disadvantage has contributed to shape behaviours and negatively impact self-perception as well as creating significant barriers.  

Ethnicity, race and discrimination.

Today there are about eight million people living in Britain who fall into the category we now define as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. However, my ethnicity, skin colour and race, which makes me one of them, has served, at the same time, to differentiate and exclude me from different parts of society. Growing up I struggled with my specific ethnic identity as other people defined me using terms including half-caste, mongrel, negro, coloured, black, brown, yellow, caramel, ethnic minority and multiracial. 

Even the popular acronym BAME which is meant to unite ethnic groups in the fight against discrimination shows the fundamental issues in not valuing diversity and leaves no room for individuality or distinction. This single heterogeneous term is used to represent and categorise 14 different ethnic groups that have little in common with each other and can have as diverse a background as African, Indian and Chinese. Or indeed mixed race! 

The fact that acts of discrimination still happen every day, means that they are so ingrained in some parts of our society that it is hard to denounce and eradicate them. As devastating as it is to admit, the reality is that as an ethnic minority in modern Britain I have become almost desensitised to these acts and more tolerant of behaviours that, at times, feel too frustrating and tiresome to fight against to make change happen. 

Subtle, ingrained and unconscious discrimination 

I am often asked to give examples of racism and when I have experienced discrimination, where I am expected to talk about the British National Party, being called the N word, followed around shops or being intimidated and bullied by the police. But most racial discrimination acts are often subtle or have roots in a past culture that have normalised them, so trying to fully unpack their collective impact and meaning is really difficult.  

As a child I was exposed to discrimination soon after moving to a new neighbourhood and entering into the education system; this was mostly due to racial bias and a general lack of cultural understanding from the local community as well as the school teachers. From an early age, I was perceived as either a troublemaker or inferior regardless of how hard I worked or how well behaved I was. It took a while for me to accept this, especially when I saw my white classmates or other kids rewarded for the same behaviours. To try and blend in and deal with the almost daily reprimands I altered my personality, cultural behaviours and even at times my speech and language.

Racism still impacts ethnic minorities’ ability to achieve educational success and social mobility. But even when we are successful in breaking through these barriers, ethnic minorities experience significantly higher levels of unemployment; for example, black workers with degrees on average earn 23.1% less than white counterparts with similar qualifications and are generally in jobs that don’t offer equal chances of career progression. 

The time for talking is over, the time for action is now.  

I believe that we have now reached a point in time that calls for the talks to be turned into tangible action to bring about long-lasting, significant change. Focusing on the job market, it is of paramount importance that we all acknowledge, and are proactive in overcoming, the significant lack of racial diversity at senior leadership level across all sectors, public, private and not for profit, as well as in Government. 

Ethnic minorities often lack role models, ‘people like me’, to act as inspiration. In fact, during a 19-year career I have seen less than a handful of people of ethnic minority backgrounds on Senior Leadership Teams, and to date never someone of a Black or Mixed-Race heritage. That must change.

Even within my own organisation, who have recently looked to reframe the diversity and inclusion debate and approach, is still significantly behind the curve when it comes to achieving real impact and change internally. We are rightly proud to say we are a diverse and inclusive organisation, who are constantly striving to reflect the communities we serve. But despite 40% of London population being from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background, Prospectus has no representation of any of those groups in the Executive Leadership team and only one representative within the Senior Management Team.  

The uncomfortable truth is that racism, discrimination and injustice within leadershipteams and across organisations are hardly ever visible in its most extreme form. To dismantle systemic racism and inequalities, creating truly inclusive workplaces require practical action. Given that it is at board and senior leadership level organisations’ culture, ethics and values are principally shaped, change needs to start here to be embedded in the core fabric and working practices. Otherwise, we will never properly achieve equity.  

Equality and diversity in Senior leadership team recruitment 

Discrimination, in a recruitment and selection specific context, is not only affecting candidates from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds but also women, people who are disabled or from disadvantaged backgrounds; as an example, in one situation I witnessed educational discrimination where a candidate’s profile was dismissed by my client (that works with young people in the UK to reduce barriers and enable them to realise their career ambitions) because they did not attend the “right” university! 

As an Executive Search Consultant within a leading not-for-profit and charity recruitment business, I recognise that I am in a position of significant power as a gatekeeper and conduit advising both clients and candidates; I face a daily challenge of trying to overcome structural inequalities, discrimination and reduce unconscious bias. Working closely with Trustee Boards, Chief Executives and Senior Leadership Teams I advise and consult, challenging preconceived notions of what makes a good appointment and identifying high-quality candidates to help build inclusive organisations, creating positive changes. 

If ethnic minorities had equal access to senior employment opportunities regardless of their background and social-economic circumstances, it is estimated the UK economy could grow by up to £24 billion a year. 

So, what are the solutions moving forward to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces? 

Well, firstly I think we need to create and develop engaged communities and networks so that we can support, challenge, be a critical friend and hold one another to account. Creating safe places to have uncomfortable conversations about race and inequality and accepting that we all need to have a greater understanding, but we will make mistakes as we collectively learn and grow.

Secondly, I believe organisations and governments should be required to be fully transparent and publish internal Diversity and Inclusion targets and be held to account and supported if targets are not met. 

Finally, I believe we need to remove barriers and change recruitment criteria to recognise the value of diversity in all its forms at all levels, including at Board level. We should be enabling increased diversity within all senior leadership teams and actively be supporting applications from suitably qualified people regardless of sex, gender, race, age, sexuality, belief or disability.

I would welcome any constructive feedback on this article, especially if you have experience either as a candidate trying to breakdown the barriers and obstacles to transiting into senior leadership, Chief Executive or Trustee positions or as an employer who is trying to increase diversity and inclusion within your organisation. 

As the great man Nelson Mandela once said:

"What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others."

If you would like to contact Alex and carry on the conversation you can email him here.