Suddenly you can’t open a newspaper without reading about racial inequality. The publication of the government’s Ethnicity Facts and Figures website has hit the headlines and as Theresa May promised, many of its findings make ‘uncomfortable’ reading. Among these is the stark statistic that ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people.
Of course, this won’t surprise the many BME graduates who have become resigned to opening rejection letters during the course of a long, fruitless and increasingly dispiriting search for work. Nor will it shock those of us who have read report after report on race inequality from select committees, all-party parliamentary groups and government-backed reviews with increasing frustration.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission had already pointed out the disparity in unemployment rates between white people and the rest of the population in its Healing A Divided Britain report way back in August 2016. The Casey Review of December 2016 went even further. It showed that black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people are three times more likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. And the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee revealed that faith, as well as ethnicity, blights the prospects of millions of people in its Employment Opportunities for Muslims in the UK report.
What is different is that, as the prime minister has said, ‘now there isn’t anywhere to hide’. It’s no longer possible to avoid the issues when the statistics are there for all to see on a government website.
But what hasn’t changed is that there’s no guidance about how everyone can, and should, play a part in making Britain work for all and making sure that Britons of all ethnicities can work at all.
With my colleague Adeeba Malik CBE, I have helped 800 directors and senior managers of large private- and public-sector organisations to develop ways of recruiting, retaining and rewarding BME staff. We’ve also supported 350 small and medium-sized companies in England and Wales to draw up action plans and practical solutions to address the underrepresentation of ethnic groups.
As you would expect, we advised some of those organisations’ most senior figures – those who would have greatest influence in rolling out new methods of working. So of course we suggested ways of encouraging diversity by making changes to practices at corporate level such as being open about how career pathways operate and making sure job experience opportunities are available to all.
It’s relatively easy to see how an organisation is performing in these areas or evaluate the success of any new initiatives. But sometimes the obstacles that prevent ethnic minority staff from progressing, or joining a company at all, are much more difficult to pin down.
I’m talking about the expectation that a good team player will join his or her colleagues in the pub after work – and the relationships that are so often forged with more senior managers over a pint and a packet of crisps; or the assumption that essential professional skills involve the ability to navigate a golf course; or the belief that an ability to follow unspoken dress rules is more important than skill, talent and experience.
And if this sort of environment is challenging for many ethnic minorities, it’s just as awkward for women, people from lower-income backgrounds and anyone else whose face doesn’t fit. Maybe the best way of opening up opportunities for all is simply to ask ourselves whether we’re creating a home from home for the chosen few or an alienating experience for the silent majority.
Dr Mohammed Ali OBE is the Chief Executive of QED Foundation, a Bradford-based national charity that supports the social and economic progress of disadvantaged ethnic minority communities.