Analysis: Are Scottish firms doing enough to help BAME career progression?

In the wake of the outcry over the death of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, many firms have been outlining their own commitment to help foster a more inclusive workforce.

Dr Ollie Folayan said many more companies have contacted AFBE-UK for advice on addressing racism since the death of George Floyd. Picture: Rory Raitt.

Just this week, for example, Edinburgh-based AAI EmployAbility announced it has secured Scottish Government funding to help minority ethnic women get back into the workplace.

And NatWest Group said in October that it had introduced a new target for 3 per cent of senior UK roles to be held by black executives by 2025.

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But despite such progress, a new study has found that many people believe the momentum of diversity has fizzled out in their workplace since it was in the public eye last year.

AAI EmployAbility is working to help minority ethnic women get back into the workplace following career breaks. Picture: Stewart Attwood.

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Networking group People Like Us said more than a third of workers agreed with that statement, rising to 57 per cent of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers – and those outside London were more likely to say their workplace has done nothing in response to the BLM movement.

However, looking at Scotland specifically, what are organisations doing to tackle the issue – and is it enough?

Several firms with a major presence in Scotland – such as Diageo, William Grant & Sons, and Virgin Money – have signed up to the Race at Work Charter, which comprises five calls to action to ensure ethnic minority employees are represented at all levels in an organisation. Those behind the initiative say achieving race equality in the UK could boost the UK economy by £24 billion a year.

Also among signatories to the charter is Edinburgh-based financial services firm Aegon UK.

Chief executive Mike Holliday-Williams said when the firm announced its participation that it was important for it to make such a public pledge “to improve outcomes of our colleagues from ethnic minorities in the workplace by addressing existing barriers to recruitment and career progression”.

The move follows The Parker Review on ethnic diversity enriching business leadership, noting that as of the end of 2019 69 per cent of FTSE 250 companies did not have a single BAME director.

Yet there is optimism among KPMG’s African & Caribbean Network in Scotland, which at the end of last year held its second annual Make History event, aiming to inspire Scotland’s future business leaders.

Darbie Onugha, the moderator on the night and a tax manager at the accountancy firm, said: “In recent months, the challenges and barriers facing people of black heritage throughout the world has finally gained the attention it deserves, with the rise of the BLM movement.

"We’re hoping to build on the success of our new networks and create a platform that really makes a positive difference in Scotland’s black heritage community.”

Also keen to foster a pipeline of new talent is Dr Ollie Folayan, who co-founded the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE)-UK in London to address the underrepresentation of people of black and minority ethnic origin in engineering.

He also set up AFBE-UK Scotland to help inspire more BAME people to make enhanced contributions in their chosen field.

Dr Folayan said: “We work to support university students and graduates seeking the next step into industry and we want to encourage experienced professionals to aspire to leadership roles.

"Many more companies have reached out to AFBE-UK for advice on addressing racism since the death of George Floyd and we now have increased company membership.”

As for role models, he said: “We used to carry out surveys in schools where we would ask the young people often in poorer areas to give us an example of an engineer they knew. Many of the young people pointed to the AFBE-UK member as the only example of an engineer they knew. AFBE-UK has a mentoring programme and we have seen over the years the difference it makes.”

Call to action

Also citing real-life experiences is Charandeep Singh, deputy chief executive at Scottish Chambers of Commerce, who said he has seen how some organisations are better than others at supporting and developing black and minority ethnic talent.

“Scotland should and can do better to encourage and support more ethnic minority business leaders, both in the public and private sectors,” he said.

“This is not just about equality, although this is important. There is also plenty of evidence that diversity in the workforce and in leadership delivers improved outcomes as well as an improved bottom line.”

Indeed, those behind the Race at Work Charter say organisations with more diverse teams have 36 per cent higher financial returns than those that don’t.

Mr Singh said: “Too many people are uncomfortable talking about race. This has to change.

"In order to have a truly inclusive environment where everybody can bring their whole self to work, the public and private sector must take practical action to improve participation of ethnic minority employees and leaders. This should include formal and informal programmes focused on mentoring, role models, leadership programmes, and targets where it’s right for the business.”

Noreen Biddle Shah is the founder of recently launched Reboot – a group of communications and marketing professionals looking to “ensure that a positive dialogue around race in the workplace and society is maintained” – and she is also head of corporate communications at State Street for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

She noted Scotland being a flourishing business hub, but increasing the number of senior executives from ethnic minority backgrounds remains a challenge not unique to London.

“Quotas and policies are certainly important, but companies need to understand that the winning approach must prioritise an inclusive culture at the centre of things for consistent and sustainable results to be achieved,” she added, also pointing out the aim to eventually extend Reboot’s reach to all industries.

Sheeraz Gulsher, co-founder of People Like Us, also said: “We must continue to hold companies accountable, and celebrate the talent we do have, to attract others.”

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