After more than 12 months in the making, the UK government’s Race Disparity Audit was launched to much fanfare in October. It revealed that there are substantial differences in employment rates between minority ethnic groups; that ethnic minority employees in public sector organisations are concentrated in the lower grades and ranks; and that white people are less likely to be employed in the three lowest-skilled occupations.
In essence, then, the research told us nothing new. It was the latest in a long list of reports and surveys highlighting the extent and institutionalisation of racism in the UK. It feels as if there is little willingness – from the government or employers in general – to address the systemic issues causing continued racial discrimination. Surely it’s time we did something about it?
I’ve been a confidant to several accounts of workplace racism throughout my career. Many BAME professionals in UK organisations, including universities, are among the most qualified, most experienced staff in their teams (holding multiple degrees, for example). Yet time and again, they have found it difficult to achieve the career progression they are qualified for.
The problem is particularly acute in education, where the prospects for promotion, instead of being based on qualifications or potential, depend on the relationship with the line manager. From both an ethical and professional perspective, this is untenable. And the facts bear out personal experiences. Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in 2017 showed there were no black academics in the ‘manager, director and senior official’ category in 2015-16. The data also revealed that UK universities employed more black staff as cleaners, receptionists and porters than lecturers or professors.
This is doing a disservice both to qualified, experienced BAME staff and BAME students. Ethnic minority student numbers are rising; the Higher Education Funding Council for England reports that the number of UK-domiciled BAME students starting full-time first degrees in 2015-16 was up 9.1 per cent on the previous year, and 34 per cent since 2010-11. Just as commercial businesses are increasingly feeling the pressure to represent the customers they serve, so too must universities.
Change won’t be immediate, but there are steps universities can take to improve the prospects of BAME academics. Proper internal audits of race and promotion data need to be undertaken and made publicly available. I’d advocate for the introduction of independent promotion review panels and minimum criteria for reader or professor posts, to eliminate the influence of bias and the ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ factor.
HR can do more to include BAME employees, too. Leadership training for black staff isn’t helpful in my view; it makes you feel like you aren’t up to scratch, and need special support. It’s better for HR to create spaces for BAME employees to share ideas and advocate for themselves, and to pay attention when they raise genuine concerns. Job adverts should make it clear that the organisation is an equal opportunities employer, and that people can be promoted regardless of their ethnic origins. Genuine testimonies and representation are important here, to show that words translate into actions.
I don’t want to find in five years’ time that I’m reading another government report that says the same thing. It’s time to concentrate our time, effort and funds into creating effective, sustainable action plans that will bring about real change.
Dr Dieu Hack-Polay is a senior lecturer in the department of people and organisation at Lincoln International Business School, University of Lincoln