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Becky Norman


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Interview: Asif Sadiq MBE on race inequality, intersectionality and the journey to belonging


The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities was announced last year, with the aim of reviewing inequality in the UK. How much progress have we made with addressing racial inequality in the workplace in the UK? 

Over the years there’s been elements of progress, but I don’t think we’ve made it at the pace that we should have been. We need to go beyond reports and statements and get into the root challenges and causes of why we have racial inequality in the workplace.

We need to truly understand what we mean when we talk about race and ethnicity. When you look at terms like BME or BAME, they’re referring to a large group of people – Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic – and within those groups there’s numerous differences. We need to start looking at where the barriers and opportunities are for the various different groups.

We also need to consider diversity beyond one element and look at intersectionality – what’s the impact on women who are BAME? What’s the impact on someone who has a disability and is also from a different ethnic minority background? We need to start acknowledging all those nuances and then look at the systems we have in place.

I read a lot of reports about representation on boards – is it good enough to say that we’re working on it or do we need to take some real substantial actions that disrupt that? If we haven’t made the progress that we should have been making, do we need to intervene and bring in certain things that will drive that true change?

Belonging should be the end goal of D&I.

When it comes to talking about race and intersectionality, many people still find the conversation uncomfortable. What advice can you share to help HR have more meaningful discussions on these issues?

When it comes to talking about race there is a huge fear around saying the wrong thing and not knowing enough. The truth is, to make progress, we need to create psychological safety for everyone to be able to have those conversations. 

Firstly, we should always view these conversations as an opportunity to learn and grow. That’s the big thing. We then must acknowledge intent and impact. When you have conversations, it’s important to consider the impact of your conversation – what are you saying, what impact will it have on someone? What is your intent? Why are you challenging the norm? Why are you disrupting a process? Once we get into that mindset of learning, we then have a safe space where we can challenge each other.

The beauty of diversity is we don’t have to all agree.

The intersectionality piece should be an advantage because we’ve spoken about gender over the years, we’ve spoken about disability, we’ve spoken about sexual orientation. We now need to start viewing race and ethnicity with that intersectional lens to understand what the challenges are.

For example, when we talk about BAME, it’s usually men who get the coverage. But we know there’s a double-edged sword for women who are of ethnic minority background. We need to start understanding that and look more deeply into what those challenges and opportunities are for these women.

We also need to consider the disproportionate impact certain things have. For example, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting underrepresented groups. So that means when you look at things like flexible working and all other elements around D&I, you need to consider this disproportionate impact.

We can’t just take a blanket approach to D&I or racial inequality. We need to double down on what really matters.

There are many different groups with unique needs we need to consider, but is it fundamentally about making all employees feel like they belong? 

It’s 100% about belonging. We really need to get to a place where people can be their authentic self, have trust and have a voice. Belonging should be the end goal of D&I.

How can you meet the needs of every single individual? If you design processes that are more inclusive of everyone, then automatically what you’re offering is inclusive.

Let me provide a practical example. If you’re designing emergency childcare, back up care, there’s systems that the organisation will cover. Can you be more inclusive? Can you cover elderly care? Can you cover care for people’s partners?

When we design these things, we need to consider how we can make it more inclusive for everyone. The last thing you want to do is create an environment where there’s a perception that someone’s getting a slice of cake that other employees are not getting, because of D&I. 

I recently did a Ted Talk (not yet published) about the journey we need to go on to create a sense of belonging. We need to start viewing D&I in a very different way and it needs to be built into every part of the business. It’s not a thing we do when we have a bit of time. It is part and parcel of every element and it touches every part of a business, so we need to start seeing it in that way.

When it comes to ‘allyship’ with marginalised groups by organisations, we’ve seen a lot of lip service paid to this, but what sustainable action can employers take to back those stated intentions?

First, it’s important to highlight that it is about long-term sustainable efforts. Second, we need to understand diversity is not a problem we’re trying to fix – it’s an opportunity we’re trying to embrace.

It’s important for companies to stand up and to make statements. However, what’s really important is that it’s not just a statement. It then requires change and it requires actions that an organisation would implement to sustain that change, to really bring the words to life. 

We’re currently living in a very polarised world, but organisations need unity, connection, trust and transparency to thrive. What advice would you give for HR leaders and business leaders in terms of uniting clashing cultures within their workforce?

The beauty of diversity is we don’t have to all agree – we’ll have different opinions and that’s fine, that is diversity. What’s key is how we bring those differences of thought together to then create inclusion and positive results and output. 

Different people in different parts of the world will view things differently, and that’s fine but it’s about understanding and respecting those nuances and differences that exist – but still seeing how we can come together.

Of course if there’s clear-cut discrimination then that needs to be addressed. But diversity doesn’t mean we all have to necessarily align to the same thinking. We just need to respect each other’s opinions.

Diversity and inclusion needs to be weaved into the culture, and it needs to be everyone’s responsibility.

If we take racism, for example. Someone will express their personal journey or view on racism and a lot of leaders feel that we must solve it right or we must say ‘no it doesn’t exist’ or ‘no that’s not the case’. Someone’s perception is their reality, that’s the truth, and sometimes you just have to listen. 

Privilege is another element that we need to acknowledge. It’s not about saying that one culture is better than the other, or one person’s privilege means that they should apologise to the rest of the world. But acknowledging your privilege and understanding the advantages that your privilege might have given you is really important.

Where does the responsibility ultimately lie for diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace?

Diversity and inclusion needs to be weaved into the culture, and it needs to be everyone’s responsibility. Every person needs to find their own why, how and what for D&I.

As leaders we need to be more authentic and show vulnerability. What’s your reason to champion D&I? How can you make an impact? What do you specifically need to do to make that change in your business area, in your team? When each leader or each team member takes on this responsibility of understanding their personal why, how and what for D&I, then you see true change.

Interested in this topic? Read about the common HR pitfalls when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion.

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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman
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