Employment is at the center of most adults’ lives: our jobs enable us to be financially independent and to sustain our needs, as well as to feel part of the society by making an effective contribution to it. This is why it can be stressful and difficult for us to overcome obstacles regarding our professional lives. Not being hired for a job because of a lack of skills or experience is one thing. But when you feel that this rejection might have been caused not because of your unsuitability for the role, but because of your personal “characteristics”/who you are: social or cultural background, ethnicity, gender or even age or sexual orientation, the main feeling that occurs is one of injustice and unfairness.
We are all more or less aware of the inequalities we are likely to face in this field. As a woman, I know that I am relatively less favoured than my male counterparts: I have fewer chances to get hired, to be in a management position, and I am probably going to be paid less than a man for doing exactly the same job. Even if progress is being made, equality between men and women has still not been achieved. But being white, I consider that these difficulties I will face might perhaps be easier and in any case different, than the ones faced by people from BME communities.
It struck me when I read this very personal blog (https://blackonwhitetv.blogspot.com/2019/03/rejection-diversity-and-why-we-need-to.html?m=1), from a man working in the media field in which he expressed himself on the discrimination he, and basically every BME, disabled or woman friend of his had to face on a daily basis in their work life. He talked about the mental health issues it can cause, when people are tired of “going through the process” knowing the usual outcome, which is rejection, “9 out of 10 times”. This has been the case for a while now, with studies showing that BAME workers have been suffering from discrimination in the labour market at levels unchanged since the late 1960’s; even after the Equality Act 2010 had made it unlawful for employers to discriminate against job applicants because of their protected characteristics. This discrimination touches a large number of characteristics: age, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, disability, gender and sexual orientation.
It has been proven than ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their non-diverse counterparts, so companies that discriminate in their hiring are “shooting themselves in the foot”. The main question is “why?” Why does this keep happening and how do we get around these issues? Why do we still refuse to evolve with people from different backgrounds and prefer to work with people coming from our same culture and social group?
Even ex-PM David Cameron admitted it: “in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names.”
And these inequalities occur at every stage of the professional life of people with protected characteristics, from their chances to get a call for an interview, to being hired after that interview, and afterwards with their chances to get a promotion or a pay rise; they are constantly fighting and struggling way more than their counterparts. This starts from the very beginning of their carrier; for example, ethnic minority graduates are less likely (between 5 and 15%) to be employed than white graduates 6 months after their graduation, and will probably earn less for years afterwards (20-25% less). While the unemployment rate for BME people (8%) is nearly double that of White British adults (4.6%), even those who are in work face discrimination in their workplace. Nearly half of ethnic minority workers have witnessed or experienced racism in their workplace; 20% of women have been sexually harassed at work (and 7% of men). Three quarters of working mothers have faced discrimination for having children and 28% of LGBT+ respondents experienced offensive or inappropriate comments related to their gender or sexuality. And finally, according to a survey published in 2014 by the law firm Leigh Day, 20% of disabled people felt that they had been discriminated against at work.
These “ethnic penalties” have been here for quite a long time and nothing seems to change; they affect everyone, at every stage of our career, and it has stated over and over that it needs to stop. So what are the actual solutions to counter these issues?
Measures have been taken to try to overcome these inequalities: in October 2018, Theresa May proposed a law that would enforce employers to reveal the race pay gap in their companies (mirroring new rules on reporting gender pay disparity), in order to establish a better representation of BAME workers.
Before that, David Cameron had announced in 2015 that organizations should set up a “name-blind recruitment” in order to counter discrimination in hiring: universities, public services employers such as the NHS had to delete the names off the resumes and applications they were receiving. As much as it seemed like a good idea, this measure only revealed itself to be delaying the discrimination until the face-to-face interviews.
Training and awareness campaigns also appear as a good way to educate people against discrimination, particularly regarding their unconscious bias. However, these trainings contain limits: Laura Mather, CEO and founder of Unitive, a company selling software for making recruitment, hiring and promotions more efficient and blind to bias admitted: “Studies have shown that unconscious bias training does not change behaviors.” This way, even if we can find voluntary training relatively more efficient than compulsory training for instance (people who feel that it is their choice to attend these trainings are more likely to put what they have learnt into practice), they still do not appear as a highly efficient solution against discrimination.
Regarding discriminative incidents at work, Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary explains: “Employers must take a zero-tolerance attitude to racism and treat every complaint seriously.”
To me, maybe the most efficient solution could be the one evoked at the end of the blog I mentioned earlier: it is crucial to allow the discussion, by setting up support groups at work, in order to listen to people who have suffered discrimination, validate their experience and make them know that talking and raising these issues to their employers is necessary to end this cycle. We also need to acknowledge our own bias and confront them, try to stop only mixing with people from the same cultural, ethnic and social background as ours, and embrace all the things we could learn by reaching out to others with different cultures.