Why diversity schemes fail – and how they can succeed

What the evidence says about diversity training and inclusion in the workplace.

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When Sarah Cheung was in her penultimate year at university in the 1990s, she was looking for a start in investment banking. Having applied to dozens of graduate schemes, she was accepted onto a programme for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students at Midland Bank.

In the decades since, Cheung has worked in departments of banks which have been diverse and full of potential mentors. And yet, she says, a lack of diversity has been persistent throughout her career. “The trading people were still very ‘City Boy,’” she says.

Diversity has never appeared more outwardly important to government, business and society. This year, with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd in May, many organisations made public declarations about their commitment to tackling systemic racism.

Read more: Can the tech sector fix its dangerous lack of diversity?

More diverse organisations, it is argued, better reflect the communities they serve and will be more likely to meet their needs; but recognising inequalities and working to address them is also the socially conscious and responsible thing to do in a liberal society. There is a strong incentive for organisations to avoid the negative publicity of being called out over their lack of representation or the poor experiences of staff or the public. In the age of social media, our power to share experiences of discrimination has never been greater.

A look at the record of many of the schemes intended to diversify workplaces, however, shows that little progress has been made in addressing entrenched structural discrimination. A survey of more than 100 large businesses in the UK found that under half include action on racial equality as a performance objective at board level.

Why has this happened, and what can be done about it?

In 2019, the percentage of BAME board members at FTSE 100 companies fell from 9 to 7.4 per cent. Meanwhile, the 2017 Parker Review set a target that every FTSE 100 company should appoint at least one BAME person to their board. While the proportion of board roles held by women now stands at one in four, according to recent data analysis by the New Statesman, it will take until 2050 to reach parity with men.

Read more:  Revealed: Britain's economy of men

In the film and TV industry, a study by the London School of Economics concluded that decades of policies to improve ethnic diversity had failed to create “real change”, with BAME people relegated to secondary roles in front of and behind the camera.

“Companies want to blame individual managerial bias,” Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, told Spotlight. Dobbin has researched the impact of 50 years of diversity schemes in the US. He argues that this drive to individualise the problem leads companies to put their efforts into training on bias or into more bureaucracy when hiring, promoting and addressing grievances – but this ignores the system in which schemes operate. “Ultimately, [the schemes] will backfire,” he says, because they alienate the managers whose behaviour they seek to change, and they fail to address structural problems.

Read more: Why is coronavirus hitting Britain’s ethnic minorities so hard?

These issues are not confined to the private sector. The NHS, the single largest employer in the UK, has persistent gender and ethnic inequalities. Men are three and a half times more likely to be doctors than women, and 15 per cent of BAME NHS staff have reported discrimination by a colleague at work compared to 6 per cent of their white colleagues. Disparities were also revealed starkly during the coronavirus pandemic, when black and minority ethnic healthcare staff died in high numbers. 

Roger Kline, a research fellow at Middlesex University, says that in his experience the boards of NHS Trusts are far less rigorous when they are presented with a plan to tackle discrimination compared with plans to sort out a clinical issue. “They’ll be doing all sorts of stuff that the simplest look at the literature would say, ‘why on Earth are you doing that?’” he says. In particular, unconscious bias training – one of the more expensive options in an organisation’s diversity toolkit – has failed to produce significant improvements.

Changing hiring and disciplinary panels to include one person of colour or a woman has also failed to produce clear evidence that those panels make fairer decisions, he adds. Often people placed on a panel in order to increase diversity are junior staff and are not empowered to challenge more senior colleagues. “It’s useful as part of a wider strategy, on its own it’s not much use.”

Elsewhere in the public sector, the Fire Service has been working to improve its gender and ethnic diversity for years, but progress has been slow. In the decade from 2009 to 2019, the proportion of female firefighters increased from 3.6 to 6.4 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of BAME firefighters increased from 3.5 per cent in 2011, to 4.3 per cent in 2019.

Alex Johnson is the chief fire officer for South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue. When she joined the Fire Service in 1992, women made up around 1 per cent of the workforce. “We were unique, isolated,” she recalls. Since then, Johnson has been working to recruit more women and black and minority ethnic people.

One of the challenges has been the public perception of firefighters and their role. While in the 1990s and before their work mostly involved responding to incidents that required physical strength, such as putting out fires and rescuing people from burning buildings, now their work is more about prevention. The job requires a range of communication skills to identify and help the most vulnerable before a fire breaks out. “One of our main roles now is about being able to engage with all people in our community,” Johnson explains.

The Fire Service routinely visits schools and runs community events targeted at women and black and minority ethnic people to raise awareness about the nature of a firefighter’s job and to challenge stereotypes. For Johnson, it is important to start in schools to ensure children have an open mind about their future. “By the time we get to people at an age where they’re going for a job, they’ve probably already deselected the fire service because they think it is a job for white men,” she says. 

“The most important thing is accountability,” says Kline. This was backed up by research he commissioned for the NHS’s Workforce Race Equality Standard, which showed that if staff are accountable for their decisions and there are consequences, such as having to explain their actions in a formal way to their superiors, they are much more likely to make fairer choices.

“If you know that conversation is coming, it’s going to change your behaviour,” he explains. The same was true of opportunities in the workplace for employees to “stretch” themselves through being involved in special projects and secondments.

Dobbin’s research across corporate and academic employers has found that engaging managers in solving problems, while also addressing systemic discrimination, works “very well”. Employers should be recruiting from diverse institutions, providing good workplace mentoring and establishing a team in the organisation that is specifically focused on identifying and tackling systemic discrimination.

These methods also expose senior managers to information that shifts their own biases and beliefs about meritocracy. “You’re getting people in power to look systemic racism and sexism in the face, every month,” he says. But instead of doing this, most companies tend to rely on consultants. “They fly in, suggest some stuff, they go away and they come back next year,” says Dobbin.

If organisations want to become diverse, recruiting and promoting talent, reflecting and serving the community, the evidence shows they will need to look again at what they have been doing, and learn from past mistakes.

Cheung, now decades into her banking career, is working on improving the diversity of South Cambridgeshire council, where she is an elected councillor. It is a struggle to find people in senior roles to mentor new candidates along the path into this career, too, she says. “We’re still stuck in the ‘let’s offer some unconscious bias training’ as our diversity tick box.”

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on the future of work. Click here for the full edition.

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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