We have all heard about the 'Glass Ceiling' - that is a metaphor often used to describe invisible barriers ("glass") through which women can see high-ranking positions but cannot reach them ("ceiling") regardless of their qualifications or achievements. These barriers prevent large numbers of women from obtaining and securing the most powerful, prestigious, and highest-grossing jobs in the workforce.
However, here is a new term that I have coined - 'The Shard Building' phenomenon. The Shard is an iconic skyscraper in London that is completely surrounded by glass and this metaphor better encapsulates the predicament and reality that women from ethnic minorities face. For these women to reach a high ranking position, a multitude of invisible barriers surround them that is akin to not just shattering the ceiling but indeed, the entire building!
If I had a pound for every business meeting or function that I have attended where I was the only woman of colour then I would be wealthy. If I had another pound whereby at a diversity & inclusion (D&I) event, forum and/or conference where the Director or Head of D&I is inevitably a white woman and not a woman of colour then I would be an extremely wealthy women!
Given that many organisations proclaim a shortage of talent it is extraordinary the high level of unemployment that continues to exist across all ages of people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds. Take a look at the recent global diversity list published by The Economist in October 2015 relating to the Top 50 diversity professionals in industry. How many women of colour made it unto that list? Eight out of 29 (28%) women and the majority of these eight women come from and work in countries outside of the UK/USA.
Even when companies have provided data to show that they have promoted women from ethnic backgrounds, if you dig deeper, you will see that these women are from one ethnic background. What might be the conclusion of this data be? Either it is not what you know but who you know; or, that those who are excellent at self-promotion become known by default as experts in the field; or, women of colour are routinely not recruited or promoted into senior positions.
Please do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that everyone representing ethnicity issues has to be from a BAME background. Indeed, many of my colleagues in the D&I arena who are white have given considerable effort to the cause of parity for all women. But, pray tell, how is it possible that you can begin to understand the issues and obstacles that women from ethnic minorities face until you have walked a mile in their shoes? In other words, what works for you may not work for me.
For example, let us take the topical and often emotional issue of quotas. Most white women (and some are very high-powered indeed) completely reject this proposal as they argue that quotas can amount to tokenism. But do these women ever come up against the institutional biases that women of colour consistently face (i.e. colour of skin, non European accents, not attending the 'right' universities, untraditional work experience routes etc.)? Most cannot begin to appreciate what the enormity of the emotional toll is that comes from constantly trying to 'fit in' so as to get a foothold in the door much less, climb up the rungs of the corporate ladder - 'The Shard Building' phenomenon.
Another example is how the personality of women of colour is often demonised as overtly aggressive. A tendency to be forthright, questioning and assertive normally equates to being of an aggressive and difficult nature.
Of increasing concern is the evidence that shows that the employment of ethnic minorities into senior positions has gone into reverse. Even with the target set by Lord Davies in 2011 to improve the gender balance in British Boardrooms proclaimed as being achieved, you only have to interrogate the data to see that the ethnicity of these women as well as, women promoted into senior management positions is very white.
Based on 2011-2012 graduation rates in the UK, organisations would need to have 57% of their employees being female and 40% being of ethnicity other than white to be reflective of the future talent population.
Yet high profile studies such as that by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY who looked at 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries, found a strong positive correlation between women in executive positions and the bottom line (profitability).
Similarly, The McKinsey Global Institute report, 'The Power of Parity', found that advancing women's equality could add $12 trillion to global growth, or 11%, in annual GDP. If women play an identical role in labour markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26% could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.
Additionally, an analysis of companies by McKinsey shows that organisations in the top quartile for racial or ethnic diversity were 30% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median.
So how can this unjust situation be addressed? For me, the solution is holistic, multi-faceted and integrated. The first solution is the implementation of quotas. Quotas legitimise fair selection and force the break down of biases. So, until quotas are implemented then biases that permeate at recruitment and promotion will continue to occur as people employ and promote in their own likeness.
Secondly, the area of corporate culture needs to be examined. Why? Because culture is what a group or organisation has learned during its lifetime and therefore people become embedded in their culture which determines their daily behaviour. So, from both business and behavioural perspectives, the questions that arise are: 'will our existing culture aid or hinder our agility to cope with change? What is the business problem that needs to be fixed? What are the behavioural issues that we will experience whilst going through this change?
One element of the business problem is the changing demographics of talent in our ever-increasing global world. The reality from a behavioural perspective is that employing and promoting women from ethnic backgrounds does not guarantee parity. You can put as many women of colour into senior positions but if structures, processes, negative behaviours or micro aggressions by others persist then these women will continue to be excluded from key decisions as their voices will not be heard and most importantly, their contribution not valued. As such, role modelling of responsible behaviours need to be enacted by the leadership team and importantly, accountability and associated measures for inclusion and engagement have to be implemented.
In a similar vein, the corporate culture needs to be one in which a new paradigm is honed. A paradigm where an appetite for honest conversations can be had and not one where political correctness is a way of life. Most people have a deep fear of what is perceived as sensitive and difficult conversations. Leaders need to build courage within their organisations so as to begin to facilitate radical honesty. Conversations that can achieve and sustain the employment and promotion for women of colour.
Finally, at a fundamental level, facilitating and embedding D&I in organisations is an organisational change process. A change process that will enable the phenomenon of 'The Shard Building' to crumble and we can begin to break down the multitude of barriers that women of colour experience.
More white women does not mean more diversity and therefore solely white women speaking for us as representatives of diversity should be halted. What is needed is an equal spread of women from a diverse cross-section of all ethnicities who speak on diversity issues.