Corporate diversity programmes are rising—and have become a flashpoint in the culture wars. But are they working?
by Rebecca Liu
In September, 40 Conservative MPs publicly refused to participate in such training sessions; a few days later, Donald Trump issued an executive order that forbade US government vendors from “divisive” diversity training. Illustration: Craig Robinson.
In 2017, the Parker Review, an independent government-backed report, laid down a simple challenge to Britain’s FTSE 100 companies: to appoint at least one—“just one”—director from an ethnic minority background by the end of 2021, with a slightly more distant deadline of 2024 for smaller FTSE 250 boards.
The report had discovered that over 50 per cent of FTSE 100 companies had no ethnic minority directors. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) board members made up just 8 per cent of the UK’s total, while the UK BAME population is 14 per cent. But even worse, if you only consider British BAME citizens, thereby excluding investors and high-flyers jetted in from elsewhere, the number plummeted to 2 per cent. What’s more, minority directors are clustered in a few firms, often with specific Asian and African connections: just seven companies in the UK contained 40 per cent of the nation’s BAME directors. “The boardrooms of Britain’s leading public companies do not reflect the ethnic diversity of either the UK or the stakeholders that they seek to engage and represent,” the Review concluded.
Progress was tracked in an updated 2020 Parker Review earlier this year, and it appeared wanting. Out of the 256 companies with meaningful data, 150—or 59 per cent—had yet to appoint a BAME board member. A similar report by the recruitment consultancy Green Park in 2019 found that the number of BAME board members decreased to 7.4 per cent from 2018’s 9 per cent.
It is fashionable in some corners to dismiss campaigners on these issues as irritatingly “woke,” but before doing so we should look at the bald statistics—and listen to the experiences of those in Britain’s workplaces. A 2019 study by the TUC found that over 70 per cent of ethnic minority workers have experienced racial harassment at work; a 2020 YouGov survey found that 84 per cent of Britain’s BAME citizens think the UK is “very” or “somewhat” racist; while a 2019 Oxford analysis that involved sending identical CVs and covering letters to 3,200 employers discovered that applicants with ethnic minority-sounding names needed to make 60 per cent more applications to get the same number of call backs as applicants with white British ones.
The Parker Review’s recommendations follow similar government initiatives to improve female board representation, which have borne more fruit: women now hold a historic third of positions across the UK’s major companies, meeting targets a year ahead of schedule. But with race we have seen an articulation of good intentions, followed by government-backed targets, only to end up with statistics that barely move—or slide back. Worries about ethnic minority representation in top positions have broad repercussions: a lack of diversity in Britain’s top firms will mean fewer personal connections with Asia, Africa and beyond, which could hamper attempts to build the non-European trade links that Boris Johnson’s government insists are essential to post-Brexit prosperity. Over the summer, with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many companies were prompted to reconsider the state of racial equality in their own workplaces. Some institutions are trying to take the initiative for the first time, but—with grim inevitability—programmes like “unconscious bias” training have become a flashpoint in the culture wars. In September, 40 Conservative MPs publicly refused to participate in such training sessions; a few days later, Donald Trump issued an executive order that forbade US government vendors from “divisive” diversity training.
Trump is on his way out, and the fury could settle down, but the deeper concern is whether diversity training is worth it. Beyond the landmark reports, static statistics, and big PR splashes, the UK’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) business is flowering, with more D&I officers being appointed, more unconscious bias sessions and other initiatives growing by the day. But are such programmes really doing any good?
In the TV show Succession, a white graduate attends his first day of work at an American media empire (an internship he got through nepotism: he’s the grandnephew of the CEO). He scarfs down a sandwich at his desk while watching an introductory video. “The company is committed to making employment decisions without regard to race, religion, creed, gender,” a robotic woman’s voice announces, set against footage of ethnically diverse professional-looking women and men smiling and laughing. The camera pans away from the video and across to the real office, where a group of employees are leaving a meeting room. They are all middle-aged white men.
Corporate diversity efforts have often aroused suspicions that they are nothing but a cynical box-ticking exercise. Ben (not his real name) is a consultant at an international firm with projects across Asia and Africa, and one of the few BAME senior staffers at his majority white office. For him, diversity was often addressed through annual training featuring “clunky videos about workplace behaviour, harassment and racism.” Much like Succession’s intern, Ben and his colleagues would skip through the exercises unenthusiastically: “You’d click through some of them and the ones you couldn’t skip, you’d do. After a while everyone just clicks through.”
The roots of the modern diversity programme go back to the rejection of biological racism after the Second World War. In the subsequent decades, new thinking about industrial relations came to regard the workplace as host to important social and psychological dynamics, as business historian Kira Lussier told me. She pointed me to the pioneering role of black American psychiatrist Price Cobbs. Cobbs, the author of Black Rage (1968), an influential study of the anger and trauma caused by racism and the legacy of slavery, used his expertise in what he called “ethnotherapy” to consult for companies on racial integration in the workplace.
But the real boom in corporate diversity training came as a result of anti-discrimination laws, and the threat of expensive lawsuits and bad press. In Diversity Inc: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business, Pamela Newkirk observes the landmark $192.5m racial discrimination case settled by Coca Cola and its 2,200 black employees in 2000. Citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, plaintiffs argued that the company had discriminated against them in regard to promotions, pay, and performance evaluations. The settlement, “the largest for racial discrimination in legal history,” sparked a hiring drive in D&I officers within a newly wary corporate America. Earlier rulings, such as the class action suit at Xerox in the 1970s, also mandated companies to offer diversity training. The birth of D&I in the multinational corporate world was tied to legal compliance, with the aim of preserving reputations and the bottom line, rather than any high-flown ideals about racial justice.
In the UK, similar protections have been enshrined over many decades, starting with the extension, in 1968, of the first Race Relations Act to cover employment. The framework was toughened up in the 1970s, and then more recently through the 2010 Equality Act. When Jennie O’Reilly—director at consultancy Steps Drama, whose clients include BAE Systems, IBM and Tesco—first began working in diversity training in 2008, the focus was predominantly around legal compliance. Sessions were about “what was OK, not OK, and far more aligned to what the law said,” O’Reilly tells me. Now, she observes, companies are increasingly concerned about culture and belonging. “It’s less about misconduct and more about what are the biases and behaviours that we hold,” she said. Her firm uses actors to perform scenes that touch on issues within company culture: a woman returning from maternity leave being talked down to by her boss, for example. Attendees watch, discuss and debate the scenarios. In the past, O’Reilly said, sessions were about “teaching that the law says it isn’t OK for you to do this; now we were saying ‘what does it feel like to you, if you were that person up there, experiencing that?’”
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon this autumn, I logged onto a Steps taster course in “allyship,” focusing on how members of advantaged groups can support those who find themselves on the wrong side of prejudice or discrimination. The course was a free 90-minute session open to the public and capped at 30 attendees. My screen soon filled with 25 others, predominantly from the US and UK. The group contained a mix of genders and races; what it did not appear to include were many younger people. Four Steps facilitators had also logged in, as well as a number of silent observing staff. We were put into three smaller discussion “groups,” assisted by Zoom’s “breakout room” function, to meet and chat with other participants for five minutes.
Once we returned, a brief overview of key concepts was provided by Joe (not his real name) a cheery lead facilitator. Definitions of “institutional racism” and “white privilege” were shown on PowerPoint slides. Discussions of these complex concepts were held at a quick pace: Joe explained privilege was about what you don’t have to experience, and thus can easily miss. No one intervened with any objections, suggesting that people who volunteer to spend an afternoon in allyship training might not be the ones most in need of it. Then came Steps’ drama offering: a scenario involving a heated debate between two senior employees and their manager at a law firm. The scene was acted out with verve across three Zoom windows.
Joe played Andy, the manager. Andy was talking to two members of staff—Nate, who was white, and Kareem, who was black. The trio were putting together a team for a new client. Kareem advocated for a young black lawyer in their firm to be given a chance; Andy cut in and said that the company was “in crisis mode” and not in a position to take risks. He went for their usual go-to legal team. Andy declared the meeting over and asked Kareem to assemble the team. When Andy left, Nate, previously quiet in the discussion, turned to Kareem and said: “by the way, I agreed with you.”
We were divided back into our smaller “rooms” to discuss, before finally coming together in an all-team appraisal. In the ensuing debate, participants were quick to support Kareem, suggesting that he find other allies in the office. Nate was advised to stand with Kareem in a more productive way—by saying he agreed after the event, people observed, he was rubbing salt in the wound. Many white participants focused on how Nate might develop the courage to stand up to Andy next time. But hang on, a black participant asked: are you actually interested in helping Kareem or do you merely want to look like you’re helping? A spirited discussion about the line between being a self-indulgent saviour and a genuine ally followed. Most of the energy in the room, however, was reserved for Andy. Listen to your employees Andy, exclaimed the participants, often older white men. One edged towards disagreement, contending that sometimes the boss has to make the final call. Others pointed to how the scenario restaged a common problem faced by BAME employees in elite spaces: they are likely to be in junior positions, and thereby unable to do much to reset the balance, a vicious cycle
I left the session invigorated, though it is clear that a 90-minute discussion can hardly transform someone with longstanding prejudices into a committed anti-racist—let alone equip them with the skills to push through organisational change. (Steps’ usual offering is more long term, O’Reilly told me, involving a research phase, and a post-course monitoring phase lasting up to a year.) The value of that session was not so much in the transmission of the kind of “critical race theory” that Conservative equalities minister Kemi Badenoch rails against in parliament, but rather in giving people from different walks of life an opportunity to speak, disagree and learn from one another. Ideally, it would not only be in earmarked training sessions where such discussions could be possible. A healthy workplace should be facilitating them as a matter of course.
Such training sessions can vary greatly in form. Others I spoke to have attended sessions with quick-fire “check your privilege” rounds in which participants list the number of BAME friends they have; sessions that involve “identify the stereotype” exercises (which could, without care, merely reinforce biases); and PowerPoints that lay out the meaning, causes and effects of racial stereotyping. Reactions to these sessions range from appreciation and greater edification to bafflement, anger and further entrenchment of biases.
Diversity Inc’s Pamela Newkirk told me that some anti-bias training can fuel resentment among white men—we shouldn’t forget that Trump still got over 73m votes in November’s election. There is a job to do here, but it requires professional skill. The D&I industry, Raj Tulsiani, CEO of Green Park, told me, is full of people with no formal qualifications. The industry’s lack of rigour and resources is aggravated by the fact that D&I is still seen by many as “nice to have” rather than essential. “If it were any other business problem, it would be something that people were really serious about,” he said. But the sheer fact that it isn’t a priority means that companies cut corners, relying on crude “cut-and-paste” models. More important than any course, Newkirk added, is for a company to take responsibility for how its own practices have caused “racially unequal pay, opportunity, promotions.”
The 2017 landmark McGregor-Smith Review on race in the workplace recommends a six-phase roadmap that includes data gathering, setting and chasing targets, asking senior leadership to be accountable, raising awareness among employees—that’s where training comes in—examining recruitment policies and installing transparency around reward and recognition. For Sue (not her real name), a mid-level analyst at a global investment bank, seeing other east Asian women in senior leadership positions gives her faith that D&I is taken seriously daily—and offers her a model to advance her own career. Change, she affirms, starts from the top: “if people higher up push for it, then you strive for it.” Additionally, though filling in questionnaires about your racial identity is alienating for some, Mary Agbesanwa, management consultant at PwC and winner of the 2020 EMpower Ethnic Minority Future Leader award, finds that data on team composition and attrition rates can reveal “how big of an issue it is… otherwise you don’t really know”; to discover crucial data is to “convince leadership of the issue.” Tracking progress, or lack thereof, in racial representation in the corporate sector is often hampered by the lack of such data: the first Parker Review found that only half of the FTSE 100 companies asked for figures were able to share “any meaningful information.”
Disagreement about solutions abounds. Some firms have touted that they hire using name-blind CVs. But, Tulsiani counters, “why should I have to hide my identity to come work for you?,” pointing out that if someone’s name makes them less likely to be hired, then the same issue might arise come “promotion and bonus time.” Then there is the issue of diversity work “trapping” ethnic minorities in their career progression: minority staff are sometimes almost automatically saddled with overseeing D&I efforts. Following the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, many black professionals have attested to being asked to lead diversity projects in their firms, but this is work that they may not be cut out for as individuals, and even if they are interested, they may not be given the resources to make such projects effective or the appropriate support for a task which is, by its nature, challenging to the established hierarchy. The assumption that they will be “diversity champions” pigeonholes how they are seen. It is still a reality, Hashi Mohamed, barrister and author of People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain told me, that many BAME employees in elite professions “will be seen as diversity hires, and not future leaders.”
Thickening the plot are renewed questions about the very term BAME. Mohamed’s story is instructive in this respect. He arrived in Britain as a child refugee from Somalia, grew up in a working-class household, got into Oxford University and now works as a barrister, a singularly hard institution to break into. How much can “BAME,” essentially a shorthand for anyone not white, capture the large gulfs of experience between different types of minorities? The official figures suggest that 53 per cent of families with a Bangladeshi head of household are living in poverty, followed by 46 per cent for Pakistani heads; that figure drops to 34 per cent where there is a Chinese head of household, and 24 per cent for Indians, which is still higher than the 19 per cent poverty rate for whites, but far closer to that than it is to the less-prosperous minorities. The term “BAME” looks away from problems that pertain specifically to Britain’s black communities. Class differences can also be elided. “Class doesn’t crop up enough” Mohamed said, preferring to look at the issue through the lens of both “class and race”—it is not enough for firms to hire middle-class ethnic minorities and announce job done.
Perhaps the deepest question concerns how, exactly, obsessing about the make-up of FTSE 100 leadership helps working-class communities who are a long way from the boardroom. Britain’s ethnic minority workers are, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found a few years ago, less likely to receive the living wage compared to white employees. During the pandemic they have been disproportionately required to soldier on in all sorts of essential “front-line” jobs—from hospitals to supermarkets and public transport—and duly suffered disproportionately from illness and death. In this context, some will see basic enforcement and protection as more urgent than aspiration and symbolic breakthroughs.
“Ninety-five per cent of the population will never interact with what’s happening at the very top,” said Adam Almeida, research analyst at race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust. While it is important to ensure every workplace is discrimination-free, it is also useful to address the limits of what D&I can do. The installation of individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds in positions of power is no guarantee of ushering in inclusive policies, as Britain’s recent politics underlines. Boris Johnson has been lauded for the “most ethnically diverse Cabinet ever,” but most BAME Britons are probably more interested in how immigration, public health and other policies actually bear on their communities. Refugees reading recent reports that Home Secretary Priti Patel asked “officials to explore the construction of an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island” may not be much interested in her ethnicity. Back in the world of business, a lot hinges on whether organisations that have signed up to the rhetoric of diversity will show willingness to overhaul their own practices: for example, by enrolling BAME casuals and subcontractors as permanent staff.
It is easy for companies to overstate the scope of what they are doing on diversity. Corporate D&I initiatives are, and can only ever be, a limited attempt to support interpersonal relationships and stamp out discrimination in the workplace. It is a worthy goal—but not a proxy for equality writ large.
D&I is exactly the sort of discretionary expenditure that gets pared back in a recession. A survey of American D&I leaders this May found that 27 per cent of organisations had put their diversity initiatives on hold due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, new home working practices could aggravate old problems. Agbesanwa of PwC, who also runs a networking group for millennial woman in the private sector, said that “speaking up in meetings is hard enough” where race, class or sex is a barrier to confidence, but that Zoom etiquette can also create obstacles—and that working quietly from home can leave effort going unrecognised, particularly by thos