Watch the webinar
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations protesting against the murder of George Floyd by police in the United States have had a profound impact across the USA, the UK and many other countries worldwide. We need to take action across society to ensure that the protests lead to genuine change. Today’s webinar focused on how businesses can take steps to tackle racial injustice. We were joined for the discussion by John Amaechi OBE, Chief Executive and Founder of Amaechi Performance Systems, Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE, President of the CBI, and Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the CBI.
Here's what they discussed:
- Black Lives Matter, business and policy
- The language business uses can mask the problem
- Progress narratives can be on obfuscation
- What can businesses do to make meaningful change?
Black Lives Matter, business and policy
Introducing the session, Carolyn spoke about how the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have sent a “shockwave” through our country and globally and described how the past few weeks have impacted her as a business leader and the CBI as an organisation. Carolyn admitted that initially she had thought that Floyd’s murder was a “US atrocity” but came to see from the “strength of emotion, hurt and pain” triggered by his killing that the problem of racial injustice is just as serious here in the UK too.
“I made mistakes initially in my own organisation in understanding what this actually meant for black colleagues,” she said. Carolyn and the CBI have since raised the issue of racial injustice with colleagues, with senior policy committees, at their own AGM and with the Labour front bench. “It’s a conversation, there aren't easy answers. We know there are policy steps we can take.”
For business, race seems like a difficult issue to discuss, said Carolyn. “Race is very hard to talk about. Firms don’t know how to do it. Business leaders don’t know how to do it.” This was challenged by John Amaechi who said that “the idea that it’s hard to talk to black people or about black people,” especially when we work in very diverse cities like London, is something that “feels a bit insulting, but I understand it.”
The language business uses can mask the problem
One of the things that is often spoken about in a business context regarding race is the notion of “unconscious bias.” “Unconscious bias isn’t a thing,” said John. His firm has done studies with 10,000 white collar workers asking them “what do you associate with blackness?” Most people give answers like “strong, beautiful, athletic, sports, minority, proud, African.” These descriptors are generally positive, if a little stereotypical. When asked what they think “other people” associate with blackness they say “criminal, poor, uneducated, inferior, lazy, violent, trouble, gangs, scary.” “That’s what they come up with in 90 seconds that’s how quick it is, so it’s not that deep in the unconscious.”
“People don’t want to admit that they are saturated in identity pollution,” said John. “We are contributing to this because we are unwilling to acknowledge these things that live in the environment around us, steeped in us through education, steeped in us through television and media.”
We have made some progress but a focus on progress can be on obfuscation
Lord Bilimoria described his experience as someone who comes from one of the smallest ethnic minorities in the world: he is from a Zororastrian Parsi family from India. He moved to England for his university education but was warned by his family that if he wished to make a career in the UK he would never make it to the top because of his background.
When he joined a large accounting firm in the 1980s, there was only one Indian partner and colleagues said he had only reached that level because his wife was English. We have come a long way since then but Lord Bilimoria pointed out that we have not come far enough: as we saw in the news this morning, still only 11 out of 3,000 partners at the big four accounting firms are black.
Our society has “become far more aspirational” said Bilimoria. “Theoretically, there is nothing to stop you getting to the top regardless of race and background,” he said. He is a member of the House of Lords and pointed to the growth in the number of BAME parliamentarians as an example of progress. In 1987 there were five non-white parliamentarians, now there are more than 100.
However John warned that a focus on how far we have come can be a distraction. “Part of the reason we do not make progress is because we laud progress. The reason we don’t make actual change is because we look at progress.” By pointing out the incremental changes we have made we can create a convenient excuse not to make more change: “progress is a tool of the status quo,” he said.
Carolyn countered this by saying that she thinks it is “possible to hold both views in your head simultaneously." You can see we have made progress and realise that it isn't enough. The past few weeks have demonstrated that there is a lot of work to do. “We have a mountain to climb even if we have progress we can point to.”
What can businesses do to make meaningful change?
John spoke about the need for allyship in the workplace. Individuals need to be allies “not just in an optical ally way”: speaking up on social media, or in rooms full of people who think the same thing, but in the workplace too. If there are peers making veiled, coded judgements about people based on their race, call them out on it. “Use your privilege and your power to make sure that your systems and processes aren’t corrupted,” he said. Most workplaces won’t be aware of the “individually benign” policies that “combine to create bias.” But there are steps businesses can take: “the first thing that workplaces have to do is a cultural audit to understand what is causing this problem,” he said.
Carolyn and Lord Bilimoria pointed to some of the measures that businesses have taken to ensure greater representation of women such as quotas for boards and targets as possible ways forward to ensure greater representation of black people in business. “I’m a believer in targets,” said Carolyn, “I have seen how targets have been really effective in the world of gender.”
Lord Bilimoria noted that there has been a review looking at BAME representation in the FTSE 100 and the FTSE 350. The Parker review of 2017 said we should aim to have at least one BAME board member at each of the FTSE 100. Still, 40% of the FTSE 100 have no BAME board members and 60% of FTSE 350 have none. There has not been enough progress. “Let’s make it happen,” said Lord Bilimoria.
While having conversations about race is important, John says that it is “not enough.” And it is not for black colleagues and black employees to tell us what we should do. This is “a learning job for white people” and not something which should take up the “emotional labour” of black people, he said. Bias rears its head “inside the companies of well meaning people everywhere.” We have to make real organisational change to address it.
Key questions we answered:
- Carolyn, following the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, what do you see as the role of the CBI in helping to tackle these issues?
- This is an essential and long overdue discussion that we need to have. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen protests grow in the US, the UK and across the world. This has been a very personal and deeply painful time for many. In the US, we have witnessed acts of unspeakable police brutality – including just last weekend.
- But this isn’t just an issue for the US – and these events are shining a harsh light again on racism and racial injustice globally, and here in the UK.
- In response, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life come together and speak out. But words alone aren’t enough. The discussions we’re having now must lead to substantive action if we’re to deliver real and authentic change, and create a fair, just society for everyone.
- This means there are questions for all employers, including the CBI. As business leaders, we have a collective responsibility to recognise and condemn racism in all its forms, and to stamp it out wherever we can.
- Progress been made over the years, but not enough. There have been countless examples of prejudice affecting black and ethnic minority people in their daily lives inside and outside of work – from microaggressions through to overt discrimination.
- People who are talented must have the same opportunities to rise to the top of their careers – regardless of race. And the lack of black and ethnic minority representation at the highest levels of UK enterprise must change.
- We believe the CBI has a duty to use our voice, our platform, and our ability to convene the business community, influence government and make real change.
- Alongside colleagues, I am 100% committed to standing up and tackling this issue in business. Now more than ever, we will speak out against racial inequality at work and support meaningful action by firms to prevent it.
- Carolyn, what has the initial response of businesses been like?
- Across the board, businesses have been incredibly supportive – with business leaders voicing their support either in direct discussions with us or reaching out independently. We all agree that business must be part of the solution on this.
- We recognise that some organisations may need more support, and we believe this is a key area where the CBI could help – with practical advice and toolkits.
- As part of our statement we also identified the core actions the CBI itself will be taking, including:
- Holding open, honest conversations within our business about race, to ensure everyone understands and feels comfortable talking about it
- Reviewing our own internal policies to ensure equality of opportunity
- Strengthening our use of the Rooney Rule for externally hired management roles
- Ensuring black and ethnic minority voices are represented at every level of our organisation – including our senior leadership team.
- We’ve repeated our call to government to require firms above 250 employees to report their ethnicity pay gap. We’re also working with others to establish a business-led movement to increase black and ethnic minority representation in the boardroom.
- Karan, what’s your view on these issues, and the changes needed in business?
- I was born and brought up in India. So, as I grew up, I heard stories of colonial oppression throughout my childhood. At the same time, I received an English education, so I was also taught the other side of that history.
- When I left at 19 to study in England, my family warned me that – if I decided to stay and work there – that I’d never get to the top, being a foreigner. And in my early career, I did experience that. In one of my first jobs, only one (of hundreds) of the senior leadership was Indian. And people told me that was because he had an English wife.
- In the time since, I’ve seen this country progress, and the glass ceiling begin to shatter. But by no means are we where we need to be, as these protests demonstrate. There’s still a huge amount of work to do to increase opportunity for all – regardless of race.
- But I’m proud of the progress I’ve witnessed. I remember the 1987 General Election, where Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, and Diane Abbott were elected as the first Black British MPs – alongside Keith Vaz, the first South Asian British MP.
- 25 years later, in 2012, I posed for a picture as a Peer on the steps of the House of Parliament with other BAME MPs and House of Lord colleagues. There were 69 of us in the picture. Fast forward another eight years, to now – there are over 100.
- There are still a lot of ‘firsts’ happening – for example, when I became the seventh Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, I was the first Indian-born Chancellor of a Russell Group University.
- Finally, my wife is South African. When I went to South Africa to meet her family, I was told that had I come two years earlier (prior to the ending of Apartheid) I would have been sent to jail, as an Indian, for trying to enter a white community.
- So, we know progress is possible, but it’s taking a long time to get there.
- Karan, you’ve highlighted increasing diversity in UK boardrooms as a key priority for you as President – why is that important and what is the CBI going to do about it?
- I want to start by highlighting two stats that I think show us the scale of the challenge.
- In January 2020, only 178 of the 2,625 FTSE 350 directors were from a BAME background.
- Across the FTSE 350 companies that supplied sufficient data to the Parker Review, 59% did not meet the target of having at least one person from an ethnic minority background on their board.
- All of the evidence shows that diversity drives better decision-making. Building a diverse organisation is also – of course – the right thing to do. So, increasing equality of opportunity is a must. We need greater black and ethnic minority representation at the highest levels of UK enterprise.
- Working together, we need to ensure that everyone, with the ambition and talent – whatever their background and circumstances – get the opportunities they need to rise and progress throughout their careers.
- The CBI’s ‘Bridging the gap’ report provides practical advice, examples of good practice across business, and recommendations for action.
- Finally, one of my ambitions as CBI President is to use the model developed in the wake of the Davies Report to address gender diversity. And I’m discussing the possibility with my CBI colleagues of creating a 15% club – ensuring our country’s boardrooms better reflect the talent and diversity of our population.
- John, what is your view on how businesses can be susceptible to unconscious or conscious bias against BAME employees or candidates?
- There is a lot of talk about unconscious bias. This is not a thing. The two words jammed together, particularly in the context of business, is a convenient way to say it is nobody’s fault.
- In my experience, the application of that term leads to crass stereotypes.
- When I walked down the street, people would cross the street away from me. They do this because everything they have been programmed with tells them I am a threat as a 6 ft 9 black man. They believe I am stupid, have bad impulse control and can be aggressive.
- When we conducted studies on this – trying to find the kind of associations people make with different kinds of racial labels – we found that people are hesitant to talk about what they actually think.
- Our study asked people globally about what they associate blackness with. The initial key words they use are things like “strong”, “athletic”, and “sports. But when we dig deeper, the next crop of most commonly used words are revealing. They include words like “criminal”, “violent”, and “trouble.”
- This is part of the reason we cannot effectively tackle racism. People do not want to admit that these are the views they hold. We will not effectively tackle racism until we acknowledge that these attitudes live in the environment around us. These prejudices are steeped in us through the media, music, and mythology.
- John, how do we change that?
- Education is key, also individuals deciding to be allies – not just with hashtags on Twitter
- Be an ally in ways that are meaningful in your workplace. This means when you hear someone expressing themselves in a problematic or even overtly racist way, use your privilege and power to make sure that you don’t allow racism to thrive in your workplace.
- Workplaces need a cultural audit. We saw that out of the big four accounting firms in the UK, only 0.4% of their partners are black. It means they are part of the problem and while they are not racist, they cannot sit on the fence on this one.
- People think racism is a biological construct. It isn’t – it’s learned.
- John, how have we made progress as a society?
- Part of the reason we do not make meaningful progress is because we laud progress. Briana Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Rodney King – after each of these events I sat on panels like this and talked about how everything was going to change. Everything hasn’t changed.
- Progress is a tool of the status quo. It is a way to give a nod to iterative change so that people who want change will shut up. And it is a way to not offend people who like the status quo as the change is so incremental to not be consequential.
- In terms of business, there are organisations who don’t want the best brains, they want the best brains who look a particular way. What I am arguing against is the stupidity of that mindset. From a purely business perspective, it is stupid. At this time, regardless of personal comfort, surely businesses should want the brightest people who can be most prescient.
- Karan and Carolyn, where is there progress and where is there not enough?
- Karan – Progress has been made, but nowhere near enough. For VE day last month, how much prominence was given to the 5m volunteers from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean during the first and second world wars?
- Carolyn – I think it is possible to hold both views, that progress has been made but it is nowhere near enough. What we have seen over the past few weeks demonstrated we have a mountain to climb. I know the importance of allies in the workplace is absolutely fundamental. And I’ve had more conversations on this in the last two weeks than I have over the last three years. There are many people who would like to make this a turning point but aren’t sure how to do it.
- Carolyn, what does the CBI need to do to change the situation?
- I am very struck how many differences there are between how different races experience life. The killing of George Floyd affected our black colleagues particularly deeply.
- I am a believer in targets. I have seen how they have been effective in the world of gender, particularly raising female representation at a board level.
- I think the gender and BAME pay gap are useful tools.
- The Parker review stated that by 2021 there should be at least one BAME board member on every FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 company. However, as of today, almost 40% of FTSE 100 companies don’t have one, and 60% of the FTSE 250 don’t.
- John, any final words?
- There is a disconnect between rhetoric and action. It is not enough to talk about race. It will not make change. Having frequent discussions on strategy is important but just talking is not enough.
- Targets are a blunt instrument. They have been shown to work where nothing else does.
- BAME is a statistical convenience. It is not a description of a person. No one individual is BAME. Think of the vanity of the breadth of people are captured under the very description “Asian”, and “black”. That kind of label only exists because people think Africa is a country.
- Multiple identities are common across many people. Many of us have multiple identities and we should have pride in them.
- I am a psychologist and I understand I am more likely to be murdered by the police because of one of my identities. My name isn’t even John – my mother changed my name when I was 11 years old to give my future CV a better chance of passing through application processes.
- I get stopped and searched at least three times a year, and the people in my own building tried to stop me getting in three months ago. It is because I am black. Those people don’t care if I am black African or Caribbean, they do it because I am dark.