In the summer of 2020, many companies across the UK, Europe and the US entered a period of introspection about the extent and nature of racism within and around their organisation, prompted by the latest phase of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Racism is a social and a political issue but it is a business issue too – a fundamental one, not just something for HR to deal with. Yes, overt racism happens in workplaces and should be tackled, but the problem goes much deeper than that. Racism is institutional, which means that companies are discriminating on grounds of race whether they are aware of it or not.
White Caucasian people in western societies enjoy the benefits of capital, class and culture not available to people of other ethnicities. This is structural racism – society is geared to their benefit in profound ways that run much deeper than the prejudice of individual people.
Structural racism is an urgent issue for business because companies import society’s racism into their own ways of working without knowing it. You can employ not a single overt racist but still have an organisation that is discriminatory.
None of this is a surprise to Alexandra Aikman, a Pinsent Masons lawyer who experienced barriers that white peers who wanted to be lawyers probably never even knew existed.
“When I started my legal career as a trainee in Birmingham, which is the UK’s second most multicultural city, I was the only person of black heritage in the office at that time until the cleaners walked in. So every lawyer was white but every cleaner was black,” recalled Alexandra.
“As I progressed through my legal career I had comments like ‘You speak well for a black lawyer’ or ‘I have never worked with a black lawyer before but you’re actually really confident and you’re quite articulate’, as if that fact was surprising to those people.
“So when we talk about racism, we are not necessarily always talking about overt racism but institutional, structural and systemic racism. What systemic racism means is that even if where there are no racist people in the system, the system itself will still discriminate or make it more difficult for a certain group of people to work.”
So how can organisations go about tackling this problem? The first step is to recognise that it exists and find out how it is expressed within your organisation, and at Brook Graham, we are helping a wide range of companies in taking that important first step.
They are coming to us to equip them on how to have a conversation, giving them confidence and support and education around how to discuss race and ethnicity within the organisation. They are also looking at this as a longer-term plan that is going to identify where bias may be prevalent in the employee life cycle, in policies and in practices, making it possible to unpick the hardwiring that might be built in unconsciously into organisations, which is creating that inequality.
Alexandra Aikman believes that one of the most important things an organisation can do is to encourage explicit conversations about race. When we stop pretending that bias does not exist, then we move closer to minimising its effect, she said.
“The best way to challenge unconscious biases is to make them conscious, and the way that we do that is by having conversations openly and allowing ourselves to be politely curious. Challenge unconscious biases by talking about them, by being politely curious but by also educating yourself about where those unconscious biases and where they came from, and they really come from the legacy of slavery.”
Companies are increasingly acting on race because it is the right thing to do, but there is a business imperative here too – if you exclude people from a black and minority ethnic background from leadership positions, you are weakening the quality of your leadership. So racism is a business issue not just because it is experienced within organisations, but because it affects the performance of those organisations.
The BLM movement has ensured that nobody could escape the importance of this issue in the summer of 2020 – businesses should now be taking action.
Stuart Affleck is Director at Brook Graham, Pinsent Masons’ diversity and inclusion consultancy