BRITAIN’S economy would receive a staggering £24 billion boost if Asian and black workers were able to progress in their careers at the same rate as their white counterparts, a hard-hitting review into race in the workplace has revealed.
The government-backed study by Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith found that those from BME (black and minority ethnic) backgrounds were still being held back in employment because of the colour of their skin.
They are less likely to apply for and be given promotions and are more likely to be disciplined or judged harshly, the report stated.
McGregor-Smith, a Conservative peer and former chief executive of the facilities management company Mitie, found that managers were more likely to promote people from similar backgrounds to themselves.
She urged companies with more than 50 employees to publish a breakdown of their workforce by race and pay-band, and also recommended drawing up five-year aspirational diversity targets.
Speaking at the launch of the review on Tuesday (28), at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, McGregor Smith said: “We calculated a £24 billion a year boost to the economy if BME workers in the workplace managed to work at the same rate as their counterparts. The review recognises very much that there is an economic case that helps everybody, not just employees.”
The businesswoman, who arrived in the UK at the age of two when her family migrated from north India, noted that there were deep-seated problems which needed to be overcome.
“When you come from a Muslim family like I do, it’s not always easy growing up in the UK and learning how to integrate in the UK workplace. Sadly, I’m still considered the exception rather than the norm,” she said.
“That shouldn’t surprise me, but it still does. Having done this review, some of the prejudices and the unconscious bias I have seen as I’ve talked to different groups of people have really shocked me and are much worse than I feared. I thought that we were in a better place in business than we are.”
Her report stated overt racism associated with the 1970s did still occur, but unconscious bias was much more pervasive and potentially more insidious because of the difficulty in identifying it or calling it out.
The high-flying peer called upon the recruiters to draw up diverse shortlists and ensure job descriptions were drafted in a more inclusive way, while cautioning that the issue was not going to go away.
McGregor-Smith became the first Asian woman to run a FTSE 250 company when she took over Mitie ten years ago. She is a previous winner of the GG2 Leadership Awards, hosted by Eastern Eye’s sister title, GG2.
Speaking about the prejudice she had encountered, the mother-of-two told Eastern Eye at the launch on Tuesday (28) that she found it difficult at primary school in north London because she was the only Asian girl.
She said: “It taught me how to integrate more into the UK workplace as I got older. (I had) very uncomfortable experiences that I wanted to forget about, and found myself almost reliving them as I talked to people.
Unfortunately, I’ve always stood out because of my gender and the fact that I’m Asian.
“At the end of the day, so be it. I’ve done well and I’m not looking for any sympathy, but without a doubt, there were challenges along the way.
“I came here when I was two from northern India, my family came with nothing, growing up with very little. My parents worked very hard. I had to get some professional qualifications because I knew I wouldn’t do very well if I didn’t try and break some barriers.
“Your family upbringing and the way your family support you are very influential as a child. The barriers are broken down with more education.”
The study revealed the employment rate for ethnic minorities was only 62.8 per cent, compared with 75.6 per cent for white workers.
A total of 35 per cent of Pakistani workers reported that they had been overlooked for promotion, compared to just over 30 per cent of Indians and about 23 per cent of white employees.
In addition, 14 per cent of the working age population are from a BME background, but make up just ten per cent of the workforce, and hold only six per cent of top management positions.
Black and Asian workers are also more likely to work in lower paid and lower-skilled jobs despite being more likely to have a degree, according to the findings.
McGregor-Smith revealed she was surprised about the level of prejudice which still “disgracefully” exists in businesses.
“I thought the UK had moved on a little in terms of attitudes and I think it has in many cases, but unfortunately the stats bear out. There are very few people from a BME background in senior management positions in the UK, and that can change.”
Her advice to young BME workers was to be braver and apply for roles without being afraid of rejection. Having a mentor or being sponsored were also other avenues to explore
when looking to progress up the career ladder, as well as carrying out extra training to learn new skills.
Her review also called on the government to provide free online training to help people recognise and change any biased attitudes they might have – often without realising it.
McGregor-Smith has recommended that the interview and selection process in large firms should be carried out by more than one person and include people from diverse backgrounds.
She also called for a list of the top 100 BME employers to be published by the charity, Business in the Community. Business minister Margot James, who was also at the
launch, said the government would not legislate on the reporting of racial diversity immediately, but added it may be an option in the future if sufficient progress was not delivered.