In the midst of arguments for a reasonable living wage, or the assured protection of workers’ rights in any potential Brexit deal, the UK’s workforce must deal not only with a difficult present, but also an uncertain future. This is a harsh truth facing many in the UK from all walks of life, though the consequences of such ardour and uncertainty are particularly problematic for BAME workers.
In the UK today, BAME individuals account for roughly 14% of the working-age population. However, they account for just 10% of the UK’s workforce, and for only 6% of senior management positions. Why is it that BAME individuals are underrepresented in the UK’s workforce? There are many answers to this question – just as there are many hardships facing BAME individuals looking to find their feet in the job market.
At present, there is a severe shortage of BAME role models for the next generation of workers to look up to. Role models are not only important for younger workers as a source of confidence or in setting an example; most of all, they are living, breathing proof that career progression is indeed a reality for young minorities in Britain today. Career progression is indeed a fundamental issue, with BAME employees significantly more likely to list it as an important factor in their working lives; simultaneously, though, they are also more likely to be dissatisfied with their current career progression.
In response to these issues, Sainsbury’s has recognised the negative impact that a lack of relatable role models can have on the career progression of its BAME employees and is working to make a positive difference. By highlighting and sharing the stories of its more senior minority workers (such as Irvinder Goodhew, Director of Transformation) through careers events, booklets, mentoring programmes and other means, Sainsbury’s hopes to make career progression seem much more accessible than at present. With certain programmes, such as mentoring and leadership development, reported as being 100% very/fairly effective in helping participants progress in their careers, such measures are certainly a step in the right direction.
There is, however, a much larger elephant in the room. Whether intentionally or not, BAME workers suffer significantly in their careers due to racial bias and prejudice in the workplace.
Much of the bias which prevents minority workers – including not only BAME individuals, but also women and those with disabilities – from climbing their career ladders is unconscious, and firmly institutionalised. For instance, in order to hire non-EEA workers, UK employers must obtain a sponsor licence. Measures such as this help to fuel an environment of prejudice and bias against cultural diversity not only throughout employment, but also during the application process. In response to a call for evidence of such discrimination, two thirds of BAME respondents reported having experienced racial harassment or bullying in the previous five years.
In theory, unconscious bias can be relatively easily eradicated in the workplace. One way that this can be done in recruitment, for instance, is by adopting name-blind applications. Measures such as this have been proven to increase the chances of minority applicants securing an interview and have also helped to decrease discrimination throughout the application process.
Although name-blind applications are not the only solution – and are far from preventing all unconscious bias – such measures appear to be relatively straightforward in their aim and in their implementation. However, the distinction between unconscious and conscious bias is often too easily blended to avoid accusations of outright and targeted racism and discrimination. Moving forward, it is imperative that this ceases to happen in the UK.
The best way to begin tackling racism – conscious or unconscious – is to talk about it. For many managers, race is a difficult subject to discuss. Not only can the issues up for discussion be uncomfortable, but as they are also highly sensitive there is a well-meaning desire not to offend one’s employees or employers. However, if there are no discussions then no progress will be made, and BAME workers will continue to feel isolated and hopeless in their careers.
As part of these conversations, it is also important to question the “norms” which are biased against BAME individuals and typically favour white, middle-class men. Dispelling such antiquated “norms” is beneficial not just for the potential career progression of BAME workers, but also for allowing them to feel more welcome in their roles.
BAME workers have faced discrimination and selection bias for far too long, and it is more than about time that employers made a more concerted effort to create a more inclusive and welcoming workplace for those who are in desperate need of one. Although certain role model and mentorship programmes have moved the conversation in the right direction, much is still yet to be done to demonstrate and provide the agency available to BAME workers, and to afford them the same opportunities as their white colleagues. While the appalling uncertainty surrounding the state of racism and worker’s rights in a post-Brexit Britain have the potential to cause even further misery and inequality for the UK’s BAME employees, it is of the utmost importance that we first tackle the issues which so many have already been facing for so many years.
Harry Sanders is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors.