Workforce race equality: more of the same simply won’t do

Roger Kline Middlesex UniversityResearch Fellow Roger Kline welcomes the new Equality and Human Rights Commission report on race equality in Britain, but fears that soundbites may take precedence over evidence-based action in the workplace.

Seventeen-and-a-half years ago the MacPherson report identified institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

This week the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a report suggesting little has changed. The EHRC said the report reveals a “very worrying combination of a post-Brexit rise in hate crime and long-term systemic unfairness and race inequality”. It added that “the new Prime Minister’s statements are very encouraging but previous efforts to address race inequality have been piecemeal and stuttering with more one nation platitudes than policies”.

Patient and doctor

The data on NHS disciplinary proceedings shows it is twice as likely that BME staff will enter the disciplinary process as white staff.

Token measures

If ministers are to respond seriously then they need evidence-based strategy not soundbites or token measures. One challenge the government could certainly do better on is public sector employment – both in terms of access and how black and minority ethnic (BME) staff get fair treatment and opportunities once employed.

The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS‘ highlighted the scale of racial inequality within the NHS. A National Audit Office report last year was critical of the civil service arguing that “the Cabinet Office is not using the data it holds on staff demographics and perceptions to manage workforce changes and hold departments to account.”

There is a real risk that plans to tackle race equality will flounder unless the influence of class on educational opportunity is reduced.

Across the public sector – including local government, the police and fire and rescue services, schools, higher education – racial inequality is striking. Five years ago the Department for Education revealed that there were just 30 male black headteachers in England’s schools and that that just one in every 125 heads is a black man or woman. In the same year there were 50 black British professors out of more than 14,000. Five years on the numbers remain tiny.

The EHRC calls for “a comprehensive, coordinated and long-term UK Government strategy with clear and measurable outcomes to achieve race equality”. Part of that strategy must be, as the EHRC states, to tackle the gap in educational access and attainment of BME pupils which in part is also driven by class and family wealth. There is a real risk that plans to tackle race equality will flounder unless the influence of class on educational opportunity is reduced.

Evidence-based

So what is to be done, specifically in employment? Without a serious discussion about what sort of initiatives work, we will see a repeat of previous initiatives which were unlikely to make a significant impact, such as the previous Prime Minister’s announcement that organisations will pledge to recruit on a ‘name blind’ basis to address discrimination.

It is early days for our work around the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard but it is driven by the international evidence on what works in challenging discrimination at work and by practical examples, such as the impact on women in science of the 2011 UK National Institute for Health Research announcement that it would not shortlist any NHS or university partnership for grants unless the academic department held at least a silver Athena Swan award (recognising policies to promote sex equality).

The NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard is:
• Mandatory– it is a condition of providing healthcare services to the NHS and applies to private healthcare providers to the NHS;
• Has measureable outcomes – progress is tracked against nine published metrics;
• Is externally inspected against;
• Has an evidenced narrative, setting out why race discrimination impacts adversely not just on BME staff but on organisational effectiveness and patient care;
• Has metrics which are difficult to game and require root cause analysis to understand the causes of the inequality the metrics will reveal and then change them.

Accountability

Perhaps most importantly, those NHS organisations which are starting to make progress have adopted approaches in line with the evidence about how workplace culture can change on equality. That in turn requires a departure from the traditional HR reliance on policies, procedures and training (including unconscious bias training) since the evidence is that in isolation these simply don’t work either for discrimination or for or for other aspects of culture change such as on bullying.

Instead these organisations have placed accountability at the heart of their approach, insisting employers must be proactive in using data to identify and tackle problems, not rely on brave individuals to raise concerns.

The evidence suggests that simply doing more of the same won’t work.

The EHRC do not say what they believe the government should do. But if ministers are to go beyond fine words, they’ll need to address issues of class and race in ways that their predecessors have failed to. The evidence does exist as to what sort of approaches might really impact on employment. The government already has underway a consultation on ‘The Issues Faced by Businesses in Developing Black and Minority Ethnic Talent‘.

Only time will tell if the government wants to move beyond fine words. Seventeen years on from MacPherson, change on race equality in many parts of the public sector has been glacial. Ministers could start with public sector employment and those who provide services to the public sector. If they do so, the evidence suggests that simply doing more of the same won’t work.

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