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Diversity in the workplace

Category: Pro-Opinion

diversity workplace

On the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Baroness Floella Benjamin shares her personal experiences of diversity in the workplace and explains what exactly is being done to tackle it

I have been dealing with the issue of diversity all my life - and professionally for over forty years.

That started when I asked a television producer why couldn’t we have a more diverse portrayal of professional black characters, such as lawyers and accountants, and he dismissively told me ‘that is not realistic.’

I knew it wasn't true. After all, my family were all high professional achievers, including a surveyor, IT expert and financier.

I have never been afraid to challenge the status quo and have always had the moral courage to speak out for fairness and equality. And at no time is that more important than today - the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Back in 1976, when I first appeared on the children’s programme Playschool, I asked why we couldn’t have illustrations on the screen of black, Chinese and Asian faces of children too?

The producer said: "oh, we hadn’t noticed".

Thankfully, she acted on it and from that day on, BBC children's programmes became the most diverse genre on television and a great example of how differences can be brilliantly represented on screen.

The fact is: we all need to make changes to have empathy with others. Sadly this is something many find difficult.

I believe it’s partly because people are afraid to step outside their comfort zone and would much rather stick to what they feel comfortable with. Having to deal with their fear of the unknown can throw up inadequacies and a loss of confidence - a feeling of not being in control.

I pride myself on being someone others can put their trust in. My 44 years in the public eye gives me a great advantage when it comes to making others feel reassured and safe.

So what I have tried to do, within every organisation I have been involved with, is to open their eyes to the world that I see. That is a world of inclusion and acceptance of others, who through adversity and resilience can bring a different perspective to the table.

This can be extremely beneficial to the success of a company - giving it a global approach and identity. Research has shown that firms with diverse workforces and executive boards perform significantly better than those with little or no diversity.

The big problem facing businesses that recognise this? How to go about finding the right people, with the relevant experience to do the job.

I remember during my time at Ofcom, as a Member of the Content Board, persuading the then CEO to invite young, up-and coming people from diverse backgrounds to the annual high-profile media reception.

At first, it was thought that they shouldn't be included. They just weren't top executives.

But my argument was this: unless people are allowed to mix, to gain confidence and get the opportunity to understand the protocol, they will always feel excluded. Also, those who are already accepted will miss out on the opportunity of getting to see potential leaders, who may have undiscovered capabilities and skills.

This type of thinking, I suppose, is called mentoring. Thankfully many organisations are now adopting it.

But we have a long way to go, because a 2014 report by Race for Opportunity called 'Race at the Top' found: ‘there has been virtually no ethnicity change in top management positions in the five years between 2007 and 2012’.

Their research found that the situation has actually got worse. Despite the fact that one in ten UK people are from a minority background, only one in 16 of all senior management positions and one in 13 management positions are held by BAME (black, asian, and minority ethnic) people.

What the whole of society has to realise, especially the older generation, is that as we move towards an age in which diversity and equality in the workplace is looked upon as the norm, not as a problem, there has to be real sustainable change.

But I am optimistic. Because, finally, after many years of tinkering round the edges, companies and employers are now taking diversity very seriously. They are taking major steps to rectify a situation, which in the past has been shameful.

I have been on the receiving end of discrimination in all its forms since arriving in Britain in 1960, aged 10. I was spat upon and told to go back to where I came from. My older sister was told to her face that the company she wanted to work for did not employ black people.

Thankfully those dark days are long gone. But there is still a considerable way to travel before discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or race in the workplace is consigned to the dustbin of history, where it belongs.

Mind you, these days I come up against a different type of bigotry.

Upon taking up a new board position, I was condescendingly told by someone that I had only been appointed to the post 'because I was black and the organisation was being politically correct'.

I replied: "you only get your jobs because you are white. Now it’s my turn – and by the way, read my CV".

Speaking of CVs, many people from BAME backgrounds are often very driven and culturally brought up to be high-achievers. It is drummed into them, by their parents, that they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves in order to be judged as equal and to be accepted as a serious contender.

My beloved mother repeated this mantra to her six children every day. Of course, it means that, when you are from a diverse background, your CV can actually work against you - it can be construed as being too good to be true.

I have often been told by people who have read my CV: ‘you can’t possibly have done all these things’. But resilience, tenacity and determination are instilled and learned by people from backgrounds like mine (and these qualities are particularly useful in my profession).

It is widely acknowledged that the lack of diversity within the television industry, where I have spent most of my life, has always been a major issue.

I, and others, have been banging on about it for decades with very little effect. But now suddenly, within the last few years, things have taken a dramatic turn for the better. All the major broadcasters are coming up with charters to sweep away the shocking practices of the past. Channel 4’s new diversity 360 Charter and theBBC’s dynamic drive to improve its diversity remit are shining examples of this.

I have been working with government, in particular Ed Vaizey at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport to address some of the diversity issues within the arts and creative industries.

At last - after forty years of campaigning, persuading and being told to 'shut up or I will never work again' - things really do look as if they are changing.

But there is still work to be done in other sectors. Not everyone gets it.

It’s up to those who select candidates for management roles to assist companies in thinking differently and developing a better understanding of the benefits of a truly diverse workforce. That means selection panels themselves must be diverse in order to fully achieve this in their decision-making process.

Companies need to be educated and informed about the benefits of having diversity in their senior management, as well as understand the aspirational and positive message it sends out to their workforce and to their customers.

One in five nursery school children in the UK is now from a diverse background.

They are the future of Britain and they desperately need role models to inspire them – to encourage them to find their place in a society where they feel valued and appreciated.

Without this feeling of aspiration? The gap of ‘the haves’ and ‘have nots’ will only widen.

Baroness Benjamin’s essay is published as part of The Recruitment and Employment Confederation’s book ‘Building the Best Jobs Market in the World: The Expert View’, available free online

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email info@vercida.com for more information.

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