Break the silence: CMI leaders call for an open debate about race, ethnicity and management

21 July 2017 -

Margot JamesMistakes will be inevitable when leaders start to talk about race and ethnicity, but silence is worse, said speakers at the House of Commons launch of Delivering Diversity

Matthew Rock

Beatrice Butsana-Sita never saw herself as diverse. The Belgium-born business woman’s career was progressing well, and she didn’t actively promote diversity. “Perhaps I just wanted to fit in,” she admits.

But then she had a “wake-up call” and now, in her role as managing director at Capita Networking Solutions, she is an active diversity advocate and ambassador, especially around race and ethnicity issues.

Butstana-Sita’s experiences were typical of many speakers and guests at this week’s House of Commons launch of Delivering Diversity, a landmark report about BAME (black, asian minority ethnic) representation in the management pipeline, produced by CMI and the British Academy of Management.

One of the report’s key recommendations is that business must “break the silence” about the issues facing individuals from BAME backgrounds. Less than one in ten management jobs in the UK are held by members of BAME groups even though they make up 14% of the workforce, the report found. “It’s resoundingly clear that we have to reboot the conversation about race and ethnicity,” said the chair of the Delivering Diversity research advisory board, Pavita Cooper.

Several speakers acknowledged that they have struggled to “break the silence” about race and ethnicity. “It won’t be easy, leaders will stumble,” said CMI president Mike Clasper. “I’ve had experience myself of accidentally offending. But silence is worse”. He mentioned a revelatory experience of being reverse-mentored by a young Asian man and woman when he was chairman of HMRC.

Anna Saunderson from Bank of America, whose parents came to the UK from Kerala, India, in the 1960s, also said that she’d often just tried to “fit in” in the workplace. She recalled being asked to compile a diversity report at one of her first jobs. The categories were: 1) White British; 2) White Other; 3) Other. Unsurprisingly, there were gasps from the audience.

Picking up on the theme, Chuck Stephens, EMEA head of diversity at Google, said it was important to “continue the conversation”. Organisations must think in terms of “progress, not perfection.” He said “you can’t over-emphasise the importance of breaking the silence” around race and ethnicity.

But he warned that mistakes are inevitable.  He cited the example of a programme that had been designed to encourage people to share challenges and opportunities, but which overlooked one employee for whom such sharing of experiences was counter-cultural. Like other speakers, Stephens strongly recommended the benefits of reverse mentoring and mentoring circles.

British Academy of Management president Professor Sir Cary Cooper said it was “unbelievable” that FTSE companies collect data and set targets around gender, but do nothing around ethnic diversity. He referred to the example of Norway where the law had been changed to make companies appoint women to boards, and suggested that similar action might be required to effect change around race and ethnicity. “Getting people up the pipeline is the most important thing,” he said.

Keynote speaker and minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Margot James (pictured) closed the event, which was attended by 100-plus guests from business, government and many organisations dedicated to promoting diversity. “Business and society at large are missing out on huge pools of talent,” she said. “An inclusive environment helps all employees to do their best.”

This was a day when the debate around race and ethnicity broke out into the open. (Interestingly, it was also the day when the BBC released the salary levels of its top presenters, where again there was an alarming absence of BAME talent among the top earners.) As Pavita Cooper told CMI Insights, “this is an issue whose time has come.”

Read the full CMI/British Academy of Management report, Delivering Diversity

Join CMI Race, a new network for managers and leaders across all sectors, whatever their background

Powered by Professional Manager