Time for Change: A place for black women at the top?

Sandra Kerr OBE, National Director, Race for Opportunity, the race equality campaign from Business in the Community, the Prince’s Responsible Business Network.

Last week research was published in the US which found that whilst black women want top jobs, they’re not getting them. Instead, they are facing a double whammy of the gender glass ceiling and racial barriers preventing them achieving their career goals. Whilst 22 per cent of black women said they wanted a powerful job and 43 per cent were confident they could succeed in these roles, 44 per cent felt stalled in their careers and 55 per cent were unsatisfied with their rate of promotion.

The research echoes many of our own findings. Race for Opportunity’s Race to Progress report found that career progression was important to Black British African’s more than any other demographic group in the UK with 94% of this ethnic minority group stating it was very/fairly important. This said they are not visible in and UK FTSE 100 boardroom.

However, in 2014, our Gender and Race Benchmark showed that BAME women were the least likely group to hold executive directorships and non-executive directorships. BAME employees are also less likely to be identified as ‘high potential’ or be selected for leadership training overall. Race for Opportunity’s Race at the Top report suggested that, due to the lack of progression opportunities, many BAME people were choosing to start their own businesses – particularly women – Race for Opportunity’s  BAME Women and Enterprise factsheet highlights that 1 in 5 of all BAME women in self-employment in the UK (2014) are from the Black African/Caribbean background – yet they were concentrated in sectors such as transport, retail, distribution and healthcare, suggesting BAME employees are not breaking into higher-paid non-traditional sectors.

So how can employers ensure they are identifying talented BAME women and ensuring they have opportunities to progress? We need more Inclusive Leaders.  They can be enormously beneficial in helping managers to provide this support and make the most of all their employees’ diverse skills and talents. Reciprocal and Reverse Mentoring can be hugely beneficial for senior leaders to gain a better understanding of some of the barriers and blockers that exist for Black Women that they may have not experienced.  Sponsorship and Advocacy from senior leaders – something I have personally experienced a number of times - is also something that has power to open doors and break down barriers. Look at wider experience and voluntary activities that demonstrate evidence of leadership capability. Monitoring stages of the promotion process and transparency on how appointments are made ensures everyone has a fair chance to apply for opportunities.

However, the most important thing is shifting race diversity from an initiative on the margins or something that the ‘employee networks do’ to being at the core of an organisation’s priorities, with objectives and a plan for action owned by leaders and managers. This would send a strong message that to have truly inclusive workplaces, employers must take all aspects of candidates’ diverse experiences into account and ensure that their organisational cultures address these issues, rather than treating BAME groups as one homogenous mass. It’s great to see some of our membership taking the lead on this overlooked issue – Bank of America Merrill Lynch, American Express and Morgan Stanley. We now need even more organisations to step up and demonstrate that they take the issue of inclusion seriously – that means Black Women too - not just for their own benefit, but for that of the clients, customers and communities they serve.