Last week I attended a meeting of Brent Council Directors. The room was completely full. Everyone in that room was white. Everyone except for two people – one of whom was the minute-taker.
This has to change.
62% of Brent Council employees are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups.
But only 14% of the most senior Council employees are BAME.
Within that 14%, 10% are Asian.
So BAME communities are drastically underrepresented in senior management – and there is an even more acute problem of underrepresentation of our Black Communities.
This is a national problem, not just a Brent problem.
In fact Brent is the 5th best in London for BAME representation in management.
14% makes us the 5th best – a staggering indictment of the other 28.
But even though this is a national problem, it is a national problem that Brent has a unique obligation to challenge.
As a Council, we constantly trumpet the diversity of our community. 63% of our residents are from BAME groups. We have residents from every continent on the planet – including Antarctica.
But we can’t celebrate the diversity of our community and our workforce, without also feeling acute disappointment at our non-diverse management.
62% of employees are BAME, but only 14% of senior managers are BAME.
The moral case against this is crystal clear. But nationally, the situation is actually getting worse. Shockingly, the percentage of public appointments made to BAME people has virtually halved in the last five years.
So the moral case alone is insufficient.
Fortunately, there is an equally strong business case for change.
Analysis of private sector boardrooms by McKinsey found that diverse boards generate 66% better returns that narrowly comprised boards.
This is hugely relevant to Brent.
We face immense challenges, with horrific cuts and escalating costs.
We simply cannot afford to waste talent: we need the very best people in management.
For me, it’s a no-brainer. Greater diversity in senior management would broaden our perspectives, maximise the potential for creative ideas and increase our understanding of the communities we serve.
“The best person must get the job” is a standard refrain.
But this is a false dichotomy.
Brent is a community where 63% of residents and 62% of Council employees are BAME. Surely the best person for the job can’t be white in 86% of cases?
But how do we smash a glass ceiling which is growing thicker?
There have been decades of well-meaning attempts to improve diversity at the top.
They have largely failed and we need to learn from this.
Leadership programmes, mentoring initiatives and management fast-streams are all very worthwhile. But not enough.
The problem is that this kind of initiative implicitly assumes that the problem rests with BAME people. The reason that senior management in Brent is overwhelmingly white must be because BAME people lack sufficient confidence, ambition – or even talent. Set up a programme to address this and everything will be ok.
This is nonsense. A disparity so extreme as 62% of employees, but only 14% of senior managers, being BAME can only exist because the system is stacked against BAME people.
We have to candidly recognise that greater diversity in senior management will only happen if attitudes at the top change. These attitudes are rarely conscious. But unconscious bias is just as dangerous and far more prevalent.
Unconscious bias is the unthinking preconceptions we all have. Society relentlessly bombards us with stereotypical images. It is inevitable that these slowly worm their way into our subconscious.
This is the insidious source of low-expectations.
Society bombards us with images of young black men in hip-hop videos, and young Asian men carrying Kalashnikovs. If these images make you consciously think that young black men are only fit to be rappers, and young Middle Eastern men are only fit to be terrorists, this makes you a racist. But if these images make you completely subconsciously find it easier to imagine a young white man as a lawyer, accountant or doctor, than his black or Middle Eastern friend – well, that just makes you human.
Liberally-minded white people may vehemently deny it, but this unconscious bias worms its way into all of us. It’s a horrible truth – and we shouldn’t deny it. So long as it’s unconscious, we should admit it – and challenge it.
Unconscious bias training must be a requirement for everyone undertaking recruitment and selection.
But training alone is not enough.
Mandatory training alone will not end unconscious bias. Only conscious realisation can achieve that. Only by recognising these biases and their inherent injustices can we end them.
The best way to achieve this is through person-to-person contact.
Senior leaders should be twinned with junior staff from underrepresented groups. Leaders must start to see, and so to understand, the challenges and barriers faced by others.
Ideally this kind of interaction would just happen. But it doesn’t. So interventions must be put in place to make it happen.
Lasting change will only come through a two-pronged approach: future leaders should be nurtured through bespoke development initiatives; but at the same time current leaders must be robustly challenged.
Brent should be a trailblazer for these changes. In years to come we should be as proud of our diverse management as we are of our diverse workforce and our diverse community
But this is a national problem and ultimately it requires national action. I have met so many inspirationally talented young BAME people. Rest assured that they will make some serious cracks in the glass ceiling. But that ceiling is growing thicker and we need national leaders to smash it from above.