Why we need to see actions that match the initial enthusiasm for BLM

New research shows that the Black Lives Matter movement has been a catalyst for organisational goals, but there are still questions about what’s actually being done, says Deirdre Anderson

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Black Lives Matter (BLM) has made a difference to boardroom conversations. The murder of George Floyd by US police led to a response in UK business: reviews of existing diversity policies and initiatives, focus groups for minority ethnic staff, inclusion task forces, more mentoring schemes; and as a result, greater success in recruiting senior candidates from minority ethnic backgrounds. Boards have felt under pressure to make a visible response – and be more self-critical about shallow ‘virtue signalling’ around diversity.

Our new research among board executives and aspiring executives from a range of backgrounds at FTSE 350 organisations confirms that the BLM movement has been a catalyst for new goals and statements of principle, but there are still questions over what’s happening in terms of action and accountability.

Senior minority ethnic executives talked about the challenges they’d overcome in their careers to date, how they felt they were being overlooked for promotion and the complexities involved, what they sometimes saw as the ‘shadow processes’ used for filtering people in and out. They pointed to examples of both overt and covert racism, feelings of having to deal with cultural ‘otherness’ in business settings, and both being invisible and ‘hypervisible’: how being the only senior person of colour makes them always stand out, subject to constant scrutiny.

While BLM has led to more debate and initiatives, there are serious questions over how the initial momentum will be maintained, and whether the commitment to measuring progress and accountability will continue to be matched by action. A study of annual reports showed a tendency to group diversity initiatives together, meaning initiatives are often not clearly linked to specific diversity objectives. Information on targeted programmes often wasn’t related to actual outcomes. Few companies presented their race action plans in any depth within the annual reports. Better quality reporting stated both the broad objectives and the specific action within the plan and parameters for implementing change. Many companies publicly report on their targets, pay gaps or performance metrics and could go further and report the initiatives that would help them to meet those objectives.

There is the need for business leaders to continue to dismantle the structural barriers facing individuals from under-represented groups in order to drive through sustained change. For that to happen, first of all, there has to be transparency. Both internal and external stakeholders should maintain a policy of transparency and openness across the talent management pipeline for non-successful candidates/applicants to senior-level positions. Secondly, there has to be a focus on a data-driven approach as the platform for equity goals across all stages of the employment cycle. FTSE 350 companies need to routinely analyse data on diversity and the demographic makeup of their boards. The analysis should then be used for planning intentional, positive action on recruitment, succession planning and talent mapping initiatives — a way to make sure boards have the right technical skills coupled with required levels of diversity. Thirdly, there needs to be an emphasis on understanding and support from organisations, rather than questioning the drive of minority ethnic candidates.

Hard data will be critical for moving forward; as will greater attention to nuance, with better understanding of the differences in experiences across minority ethnic groups. Our research highlighted particular differences in the experiences of managers from south Asia, who were more likely to reach senior positions than their African and Afro-Caribbean counterparts. We’re also still in a chicken and egg situation when it comes to accessing the data needed — minority ethnic executives won’t be volunteering data until there’s trust in their organisation, not just in the stated principles but a rooted commitment to monitoring and delivering change.

Deirdre Anderson is director of the Gender, Leadership and Inclusion Research Centre (GLIC) at Cranfield University