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Why We need workplace quotas in the UK

REPORT: Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith has highlighted discrimination in the workplace

LAST YEAR, then business secretary Sajid Javid called for a report into racial inequalities in the UK workplace.

Authored by Conservative peer and businesswoman Ruby McGregor-Smith, that report, called Race in the Workplace, was published last week.

The headline out take is certainly eye-catching.

The government-backed review found that helping black and minority ethnic (BAME) people to progress in their careers at the same rate as their white counterparts could add £24bn to UK economy each year,
despite most FTSE 100 companies failing to compile meaningful information for the report - a damning indictment in and of itself – it found evidence of racial discrimination that manifests in opportunity, recruitment, promotion and pay.

Baroness McGregor-Smith's report highlighted the size of the challenge in creating equal opportunities for BAME workers. The employment rate for ethnic minorities workers was only 62.8 per cent compared with 75.6 per cent for white workers. People from BAME backgrounds were also more likely to work in lower paid and lower skilled jobs despite being more likely to have a degree.

FRUSTRATED: New report found that if black professionals were given the same opportunities to progress as their white counterparts the UK economy would be £24 billion better off

For black and minority ethnic (BAME) people at the sharp end of these inequalities, the report said little that was not already known. Britain’s black communities have long been aware of the racism that proliferates through the UK workplace.

The report’s author, businesswoman and Conservative peer Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith was unflinching in her criticism of UK business leaders. She called on employers to come clean about their lack of diversity by publishing a breakdown of their workforce by race and pay band and urged the government to make such reporting law if employers do not do it voluntarily.

“We don’t need to write another report in a year’s time. We just need to do it, or legislate,” she said.

Well intentioned words. But we have been here before.

Whilst the report recommends government legislation requiring companies to publish data on race and pay bands, there is little evidence that this will be enough to bring about significant change. The glass ceiling shows no sign of cracking for ethnic minorities. It is now time for more radical interventions.

Among some of these more radical solutions are moves proposed by Dr. Omar Khan, director of the race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust who argues that the pay and promotion of senior executives should be linked to how well they make progress on diversity and inclusion.

“This would provide both an incentive to do better and a stick to admonish senior managers who fail to get the most out of all their staff” he says.

QUOTAS: Campaigners say that equality in the workplace won’t happen unless organisations are forced to hire and promote diverse talent

That said, surely it is time for the introduction of ethnicity quotas that take us beyond waiting for employers to voluntarily meet targets centred around a lack of diversity. Targets can take a long period of time to be effective; as they are voluntary, not all companies will set them, or they may set targets which are ineffective to drive change. For example, they may be set too low.

Quotas work much more quickly. Companies have to comply so they do because failure to do usually involves penalties. It’s a policy that can force the issue of equality to the top of a company's agenda and have a positive impact throughout the organisation.

Khan suggests some practical ways to use the policy in the UK workplaces:

“All job interview panels should have at least one ethnic minority interviewer. This may require bringing people from outside the organisation or business given the lack of representation currently.

"And employers should aim to include an ethnic minority job applicant on every shortlist, especially for graduate positions where nearly one in four are BAME.”

Quotas can also create a ‘critical mass’ of people from BAME communities in senior roles which may start to impact on the pipeline, eventually making quotas redundant.

INCLUSIVE: Proposals which favour the introduction of quotas will redress the current racial imbalance

In the US, the use of affirmative action policies following the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s played a key role in the creation of a black middle class. Today, more than one-third of all African-Americans meet the fiscal definition of middle class: they reside in households that earn the median national income of $35,000 per year or more. In the 1960s, fewer than 10 percent of black Americans fit this description.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that these policies are outdated and lead to reverse discrimination which entails favouring one group over another based upon racial preference rather than achievement and many believe that the diversity of current American society suggests that affirmative action policies succeeded and are no longer required. That is an argument that is based upon a misguided belief that we live in a meritocratic society.

It is through racism and sexism that the higher echelons of UK workplaces have come to be so disproportionately dominated by white men. White male privilege continues to dictate employment and opportunities for career progression.

Only through quotas can we begin to redress this entrenched imbalance and move towards a more egalitarian society.

Equality across the highest levels of business won’t happen in our lifetime unless organisations are forced to retain and develop their talent, by quotas if necessary. It is only by keeping these women and ensuring they climb up the ladder with proper training that they can then assume the leadership skills needed.

Dr. Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Senior Lecturer at the Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University.

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