thinkers

Britain needs more diversity to get ahead

Changing the colour of power in Britain is not just a moral imperative: opening up top jobs to black and minority ethnic talent is about national self-interest

By Simon Woolley
17:00 September 28, 2017

By Simon Woolley

An uncomfortable truth can, in time, become a great potential asset. But first we have to be brave enough to acknowledge it, and then bold enough to deal with it.

That’s been the hope throughout, as Operation Black Vote, the Guardian and Green Park recruitment have worked on the groundbreaking research project, The Colour of Power.

We expected, on looking at who has the most powerful jobs, to find a worrying picture. Even then, what emerges is shocking. We looked at more than a thousand top jobs. Black and ethnic minorities held just 3 per cent of them. Scan wider and you find the figures aren’t great for women either. Their representation in our snapshot came in at a paltry 23 per cent. Given that BME population is close to 14 per cent, and women are around 50 per cent, the data tells us at the top level the white male stranglehold is vice-like. Top jobs such as high court judges and senior police officers, and in the top consultancy, accountancy and advertising agencies, are held as if by right by this perennially dominant group.

Perhaps the issue is class not race, you say. But it’s not. Look at other professions that should be more accessible, trade union leaders and Premier League football managers: the disparity, the scale of the problem is much the same.

Does this matter? Very much so, and for a number of reasons. It is morally unarguable that pathways to the top jobs in our country should be open to anyone. Some will fight against what they deride as “identity politics”. What they fail to understand is that these disparities are themselves the result of identity politics, protecting the advantages of an already favoured group.

But surely, beyond the moral imperative, perhaps the biggest driver for change should be self-interest. Britain hasn’t known such deep-rooted economic uncertainty since the 1970s. Already we’ve seen 10,000 finance-sector jobs disappear, their multimillion-pound earnings vanishing with them. The NHS is at crisis point. In the years to come we will need the best talent in the jobs that matter.

But right now, the path to power for minorities is strewn with rocks and hurdles. A BBC study last year — accompanying David Harewood’s documentary Will There Ever Be a Black Prime Minister? — highlighted the fact that 50 per cent of the 2014 intake for Oxford and Cambridge University was taken from five private schools.

Earlier in the crucial process that is education, we see minority children held back at school, victims of low expectation by too many teachers. Tests show that when minority children have their work marked blind — with no name or identifying material attached — lo and behold, their marks dramatically increase.

Colour-blind marking — and, indeed, colour-blind recruitment — have their place, but only to a point. At some point people have to reveal themselves in a classroom or interview for who they really are. Then what? We need to change practices, but we also need to reassess the mindset that determines how we pre-judge people and assess their potential, particularly women and BME individuals.

But there is another piece to this jigsaw and that lies within minority communities ourselves. We must confront our lack of self-worth. Like too many women, BME individuals are simply not applying for top roles in sufficient numbers to force the issue on to the agenda. Applying for the chief executive post seems a mountain too high to climb. We need to reset our goals to include the highest echelons of sport and business and the judiciary and government. Daunting as it may seem, we need to take that leap of faith.

Ultimately, the goal of The Colour of Power is not to knock brilliant white men, but to say the talent pool and therefore our communal success could be so much bigger if we seriously open up opportunities to all who do, or could, exhibit brilliance. We have the evidence and a way ahead. Do we have the will?

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Simon Woolley is the director of Operation Black Vote.

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