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Inside the corporate world’s great diversity and inclusion project

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.