April 07 2021

Working backwards with No. 10

Roger Kline is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School. In this blog he responds to the employment section of the controversial recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

First, the pre-determined conclusion

The Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report is part of a political project mapped out some time ago.

In 2017, Munira Mirza, the (now) head of the No 10 Policy Unit, who commissioned the Sewell Commission) dismissed the concept of institutional racism claiming “a lot of people in politics thinks it’s a good idea to exaggerate the problem of racism”.

In 2019, Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, said ”too much ground had been ceded to the Left on issues of identity […] We need to reassert the value of individual and character above the particular type of group you might happen to be a member of […] I think there’s been too much identity politics in Britain”.

Nine months ago, Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister, having claimed (falsely as the subsequent leaks confirmed) that the Fenton Review on COVID-19 did not make recommendations, then “hit back at claims ‘systemic injustice’ is the reason ethnic minorities are more likely to die from coronavirus in England.”

Their collective views individualise the challenge to inequality, undermine collective challenge and institutional interventions. The idea of institutional discrimination is denied, whatever the data may show. There is an emphasis on individual effort rather than collective challenge, underpinned by the assertion (contrary to the evidence) that we live in a meritocracy where all may equally, irrespective of identity, rise to the top.

One crucial obstacle to this view of social policy is the MacPherson Report (1988) which analysed discriminatory practices within the Metropolitan Police in a manner applicable across all public services 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 racial stereotyping.

One purpose of the 2021 Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report is to undermine that insight and instead counter pose individual effort to collective change.

In reaching its pre-determined conclusion it plays fast and loose with both data and research.

…Now, the evidence

Take the section on public sector (especially NHS) employment; there is no sense that the conclusions either flow from the assembled evidence or are a coherent whole.

Firstly

Whilst the Commission attributes evidence of race discrimination to individual cases not to a pattern of structural discrimination, several of the Commission’s proposals (some of which are helpful) appear to acknowledge that there are indeed patterns of discrimination not just the individual instances the report argues are the norm.

Secondly

The authors appear to have neither interrogated the very large NHS database on workforce and staff survey metrics, nor discussed their proposals with those leading the NHS work on workforce race equality including the Workforce Race Equality Standard.

The NHS database conclusively demonstrates that patterns of race discrimination do exist in NHS recruitment, promotion, development, discipline and bullying, and that they are so systematic and sustained that it is difficult not to conclude that Macpherson’s definition applies to the NHS.

Indeed the Commission itself appears to come close to accepting that institutional race discrimination as defined by MacPherson exists when it accepts that “Human beings tend to discriminate, even when unintended” (p.122) and that “it is possible to have racial disadvantage without racists”.

Thirdly

The authors suggests that the lived experience of racial bias is a matter of “perception”. The Occupational Preferences report (p.120) they commissioned found that respondents felt:

  • Being a manager is a risky choice
  • Feedback to become a manager is poor.

It is hard to know why this section is included at all. The sample is small (n=116), not representative (“an uneven distribution for gender, White and ethnic minority groups, and full and part-time employees”), and the conclusions are hardly new.

The refusal to accept that bias is a real and dynamic factor is repeated (p.123) where, discussing recruitment, the report states, “there is a perception that people at the top tend to have affinity bias, appointing people in their own image.”  

The Commission’s conclusion is that, “there are simple HR activities which can address these perceptions”. There is not even a hint in the report as to what the “simple HR activities” are that can address these “perceptions”.

That may be because these are not “perceptions” but are grounded in the widespread lived experience of BME managers across the NHS. In fact, the bias experienced is not ethereal but grounded in systematic discrimination at work.

There is a body of research showing how Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) managers are held to a higher standard and that feedback to BME staff (including appraisals) is systematically poor. Those systematic and sustained processes are what needs to change but “simple HR activities” that deny those processes exist won’t achieve that.

Fourthly

The report (p.121) unwisely launches an assault on the gold standard social audit research conducted in both the UK and the USA. Their results, replicated on several occasions by different researchers in different contexts, demonstrate that when identical job applications are submitted with one ‘English’ sounding name and one ‘foreign’ sounding name, this results in much greater likelihood of applicants being shortlisted if their name sounds ‘English’.

Such findings strongly suggest systematic racial bias, not the odd example of racism.

Fifthly

The report (p.125) states

“Most researchers remain sceptical about the impact of unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity specialists. Research by Kalev and Dobbin, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that mandatory diversity and inclusion measures have not always been successful.

Quotas have been slipped in to this sentence but it is not clear why, as they are not advocated by the NHS and are unlawful in the UK.

Targets are not unlawful, but are quite different. They are used across many aspects of employment (including by the UK Government) and there is a body of evidence demonstrating that whether they are called targets or goals, they can be effective, depending on how they are used.

The report is rightly sceptical of the impact of unconscious bias training (UBT) on decision making and it is true that too often employers have treated UBT as a silver bullet to tackle discrimination. However, as the report rightly accepts such training can play a role in improving the cognitive understanding of bias:

“[…] the Commission recognises the place of such practices (diversity and unconscious bias training) in the journey to promote diverse and inclusive work environments.”

The Commission rightly then states:

“[…] that diversity and eliminating disparities requires impactful organisational redesign and training that leads to truly inclusive environments.”

And on p.125:

“Organisations can be (re)designed to change behaviour, and therefore outcomes.”

It then muddies the argument by providing a rather random list of such measures which are of varying effectiveness and completely fails to include those measures that research highlights are essential such as debiasing processes and inserting effective accountability.

It states:

“This indicates ‘nudge’-style procedures (such as name-blind CVs, transparent performance metrics, family friendly policies, proactive mentoring and networking procedures) are more useful than methods that overtly discriminate against some groups, for example quotas.”

It raises again the straw argument of quotas. Its statement that, “research by Kalev and Dobbin, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that mandatory diversity and inclusion measures have not always been successful” is, of course, true. There is no magic wand.

However, Kalev and Dobbin are strongly in favour of accountability (both internally and externally) and provide evidence as to why, not just nudges. Indeed the Commission’s recommendation on the CQC role seems to suggest the Commission agrees.

Sixth

The report notes (p.116) that ethnicity pay gaps are relatively small at NHS senior manager level and very between different BME groups and white staff and concludes:

“Such a picture is not consistent with a pattern one might expect of systemic discrimination, although undoubtedly, there will be cases of discrimination and bias in what is the largest employer in the country.”

This appears to be the only evidence in the entire report produced in support of the claim that there is no “systematic discrimination” in the NHS.

This conclusion ignores the rather obvious question about why the proportion of senior managers from BME backgrounds has been (and still is) so much lower than the proportion of senior managers from White backgrounds. It ignores the detailed data showing that currently across all grades it is 1.61 times more likely that White staff will be appointed once shortlisted compared to BME staff, and that there is a steep ethnicity gradient in which the proportion of BME staff declines as the grade gets higher.

For example, 27.5% of Band 5 Agenda for Change staff are from BME heritage but this drops at senior manager level to 10.5% (Band 8C) and 8.0% (Band 8D), something not mentioned in the report.

Finally

The Report counter-poses cognitive bias to demographic bias. It states:

“Greater emphasis should be placed on diversity of thought and perspective around a board table which is not associated with anyone’s race or ethnicity.”

This feels like a polite version of Dominic Cummings’ claim that people “talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity.’ They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity’ […] What [we need] is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity”.

In fact we need both cognitive and demographic diversity since, as Scott Page (2017) and others demonstrate, they are not alternatives but very significantly overlap.

Conclusion

The employment section of the Commission report demonstrates the danger of reaching conclusions and then looking for evidence to support them.

It will not assist the work to reduce racism in public sector employment and risks doing the exact opposite unless rebuffed.

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Comments:

Ralph (08/04/2021 23:13:40)

The gold standard research is interesting. It would have been better if they had applied for each job multiple times with different ethnicities, using the same material in each application, but reworded , That would have provided a much higher level of evidence, plus it could have been fed back to the companies concerned afterwards who hopefully would have learned from it.

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Algar (08/04/2021 17:57:24)

Thank you Roger - an insightful and very helpful dissection of what is so wrong and dangerous about the Sewell Report

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