How can we get BAME workers to climb the leadership ladder? - RSA

How can we get BAME workers to climb the leadership ladder?

Blog 3 Comments

  • Leadership
  • Social justice
  • Social mobility

It’s fashionable to associate politics with poor leadership now.

A recent RSA public event, UK Politics: Making sense of the mayhem, painted a picture of Westminster as high on spectacle and theatre but low on effective leadership.

But the lack of Westminster leadership is part of a much broader problem in British society. In our economy, it is holding back productivity and failing to capitalise on the talents of Britain’s increasingly diverse workforce.

Strong management of businesses is critical for the UK’s competitiveness and productivity (and therefore ordinary people’s living standards). However, ‘ineffective management is estimated to be costing UK businesses over £19billion per year in lost working hours’.

There could be several reasons for this growing problem, from a lack of leadership development opportunities for those in work to an education system that perhaps builds the skills and behaviours necessary for promoting such leadership.

However, I would argue that one of the major issues – and one that has barely been addressed – is the lack of diversity in management roles. There is a huge underrepresentation of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) leaders in our country. It is shocking that only 6% of the total top management positions in the UK are from BAME groups (2017).

Why is this the case? What is creating a large underrepresentation of BAME leaders? And what can be done about it?

Barriers faced by BAME people in accessing leadership roles

There are three main – and mutually reinforcing – reasons why BAME groups are underrepresented in management positions: a lack of opportunities, discrimination and the absence of role models.

A clear lack of opportunities

Research shows that many budding employees from a BAME background do not have access to the contacts, networks or prospects required to successfully climb the career ladder.

According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), “BAME employees are significantly more likely to say that your identity or background can influence the opportunities you are given than white employees”.

The same research found that “employees from Indian/ Pakistani/Bangladeshi and mixed-race backgrounds are more likely than white British employees to say having a mentor would help kick-start their career”.

Guidance and advice from a senior figure like a mentor could be the difference between an employee progressing in their career and not. Simple initiatives such as mentoring programmes, training and development courses and stronger employee networks are ways that workers from BAME backgrounds can better progress and further their careers.

The existence of discrimination

Despite genuine and hard-fought social progress in recent decades, there is still much for us to do to conquer the toxins of racism and discrimination, which continue to pervade society and its institutions.

While the rise of right-wing populism – or racist chanting at football stands – tends to grab the headlines, racism runs far deeper, and worryingly affects society’s major institutions. It is highly unlikely that such behaviour doesn’t find its way into business boards, recruitment processes (whether through overt or unconscious bias) and employment practices.

Indeed, recent research found that job seekers from minority ethnic groups had to send an average of 60% more applications to receive the same level of interest as those from majority groups.

Absence of BAME role models

A significant lack of BAME role models in high ranked management positions is another factor in limiting the advances of BAME employees.

According to the CIPD, “Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi employees said a lack of role models and ‘people like me’ is a progression barrier”.

With only 2% of FTSE 100 CFOs being non-white, how do we expect these employees to want to progress in their careers? More inspiring role models are part of the picture.

What can we do about it?

Raising awareness and showing the benefits of diversity

I believe one of the first things is to raise awareness of the problem with company boards. This is where change needs to happen – UK businesses need to make more people from BAME backgrounds with the skill set to perform in management positions the opportunity to do so. Greater information needs to be transferred to UK boards and government on the significant advantages of a diverse board of capable people.

For example, research has shown that increasing BAME participation in the top management roles can add £24billion to the economy annually. Variations in ideas, thoughts, personalities and styles on a company’s board of directors can also lead to a better work culture.

Specialist recruitment agencies

It may also be worth exploring the creation of recruitment consultancies that specialise in giving ethnic minorities superior chances at senior roles.

The need to address the unconscious bias that is preventing certain employee progression must be at the foundations of these new agencies. They will not only give BAME workers a chance but provide advice and support.

Diversity consultancy Rare Recruitment specialise in placing highly educated ethnic minority graduates into high-quality positions. Although not necessarily limited to management roles, platforms like these challenge negative social norms and is successfully impacting the job market to create greater inclusion.

Mentoring and sponsorship programmes

BAME mentoring and sponsorship programmes are another answer to this problem. Advancements in such initiatives could better translate diligent, talented BAME workers into senior partners, managers, directors and CEOs.

EY’s Career Watch Sponsorship Programme helps open the door to women and black minority ethnic talents, by pairing them with the firm’s senior partners. One candidate that took part in this programme said that her sponsor opened her eyes to a world of opportunities and encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. She, Jane Musyoki, is now a director at the firm. More enterprising programmes in all areas of the labour market need to be introduced, in both the private, public and charity sectors, if we are to get more success stories like Jane’s.

Why the charity sector needs to do more

Action is perhaps even more desperately needed in the charity sector. Fewer than 1 in 10 voluntary sector employees are BAME (9%), and in terms of leadership roles, between 5-8% of executive and non-executive leaders in the sector are from BAME backgrounds.

Furthermore, a third of the largest charities have all-white senior leadership teams and boards. In a sector that is trying to promote better outcomes for communities, how can this level of under-representation be tolerable?

Thankfully, a range of initiatives are already taking place to start discussion and heighten awareness of these issues, such as the #charitysowhite movement, which has given a voice to BAME people working in the charity sector and empowered them to highlight their experiences of discrimination.

On the action front, partnership projects between ACEVO and Voice4Change England have developed greater communication on inclusivity, with greater training provisions and workshops created to remove the toxic unconscious bias from the sector.

It is also helpful that some charitable funders are now asking charities to include details of diversity on their boards as part of funding applications. It is crucial that we take these pockets of good practice and systematise them across the third sector.

As part of the new social change degree apprenticeship with Queen Mary and the RSA, a programme dedicated to ‘forging a new generations of charity leaders’, I want to be able to advocate for social change in wider society, but also modify the flaws in the charity sector.

With 80% of students on the programme being from BAME backgrounds, we feel that we have a big responsibility to inspire the next generation of young leaders and create greater inclusion for the BAME citizens (who make up 14% of our population) in the work place and in society.

Progressing them to management positions could be a great place to start.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestions to support more BME background into senior positions across the spectrum of professions.  We have work to do. 

  • In relation to BAME leadership, the only BAME leaders that I have met over my work in the UK, have pretty much all been involved in some sort of equality work: diversity leads, equality organisation managers, community engagement officers...that sort of thing. Where are the bank managers, business sector leads, decision makers? This is the problem. 

  • Still such shame that we haven't got this right as a society. I concur with your views about specialist recruitment agencies. I also advocate the designed in use of BAME / external support on promotion and selection processes. If we understand there is a risk that we may select in our own likeness (even if it's just unconsciously) then there can be systems and processes devised to mitigate against that risk and help an organisation get the right people and get people that reflect the community around it at all levels. 

Related articles

  • Technology plus loss of belonging equals Trump

    Anthony Painter

    Anthony Painter argues that the roots of the new populism are explicable but instead of reacting to it reflexively, there needs to be greater collective effort to create a convincing alternative worldview.