Tackling structural inequalities in the UK is fundamental in enabling economic growth to benefit all. And the case for businesses to do so is clear: reducing the gender pay gap in labour market participation, STEM qualifications, and wages, could increase the UK economy by £55bn by 2030. Likewise, companies in the top 25% for gender diversity on their executive team are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than those in the bottom 25%. For ethnic diversity, top-quartile companies are 33% more likely to outperform on profitability. As CBI Director-General, Carolyn Fairbairn has noted, “the case for change is watertight: diverse companies are better companies.”
Businesses have been playing their part for some time now — implementing D&I teams and strategies, ensuring more inclusive recruitment practices, delivering CSR initiatives, and stepping into classrooms to provide both careers advice and guidance. Undoubtedly, much good work has and is being done to shift the dial toward equality. As was noted during the CBI’s Annual Conference, firms are showing, more than ever, that profit comes with purpose.
However, just as the role of business’ in society is changing, so too must its approach to tackling inequality. Consideration needs to be given to not just ‘solving’ gender inequality in the boardroom, ‘tackling’ racial disadvantage in hiring processes, or 'fixing’ the disability employment gap.
It is fundamentally important not to create a hierarchy of protected characteristics. It’s time to step up and drive systematic change for multiple, overlapping areas of inequality. To do this, businesses can take an intersectional approach.
That means recognising that the inequalities faced by women of colour are not simply those faced by white women with a racial element added on - they are fundamentally different. Too often that distinction is under-appreciated.
For example, while unemployment rates have fallen for all other groups since 2008, they remain almost two percentage points above their pre-crisis levels for disabled white men, at 10.6%, indicating that inequality in unemployment appears to have grown for disabled groups. The figures are even higher for BAME groups —– with unemployment figures for disabled BAME men and disabled BAME women at 14.5% and 14% respectively.
The current response to inequalities promotes a hierarchy. Whilst great work has been done in advancing gender equality, it’s time to enhance this. It is time to consider how strategies across a business can examine and address (multiple, overlapping) intersecting disadvantage. By taking an intersectional approach, a firm does not have to ‘pick and choose’ actions to tackle one social inequality over another. Furthermore, ensuring true diversity of thought requires a joined-up, holistic, approach to equality.
Key questions for businesses to consider can include:
- How can a joined-up approach to addressing inequality be achieved right across a firm?
- How might those in positions of power give up power ‘well’ or ‘effectively’ to bring about equality?
- How can businesses communicate the great work being done that does more than highlight individual stories or achievements?
- Aside from statistics, what are our measures of success in tackling inequality in the business community?
- What does the business community consider the levers individual employers have to tackle structural inequalities in society more broadly?
Every business is on a journey to tackle inequality, and the great efforts so far have laid the groundwork for nuancing the debate, implementing change at all levels of business, and developing a shared picture of what progress in coming decades could look like. With the business case for tackling inequality won, it’s now time to focus work on intersectionality.
Siobhan Morris, (UCL Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality) and Dr Olivia Stevenson (Head of UCL Public Policy). They lead Exploring Inequalities: Igniting research to better inform UK policy, a cross-sector project examining structural inequalities in UK society. Read more about the project’s Action Note for Employers, here.