Intersectionality and the UK Ethnicity Pay Gap

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How are hiring, promotion and pay rise decisions made? What metrics, and more importantly, what people are assessing the qualifications we have and the work we do? These are, of course, important decisions that will shape our careers and the paths our lives take. So why are these decision-making processes so murky and how do the biases that decision-makers have affect them? It’s well-documented that these biases affect healthcare, justice systems, and even safely buying a cup of coffee. Individuals face the effects of a range of biases, not limited to those based on gender, race, ability, sexuality, or care responsibilities. An intersectional understanding of biases in the workplace is needed to formulate intersectional solutions.

BAME careers are stalling

Missing out on better career opportunities and higher incomes is the norm for the UK’s Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, as shown by the UK Ethnicity Pay Gap.

According to last year’s Race at Work in the UK report, career progression is important to 70% of BAME respondents. Yet more than half of BAME employees (52%), believe they need to leave their current employer to progress their careers. In 2015, this figure was only 49% for BAME employees showing that the situation is worsening. In contrast, only 38% of white employees have this perception.

That the government and non-governmental organisations are prioritising this research is positive, however both sectors must use this data to inform policies that will move the dial on racial inequities in the workplace.

Intersectionality views barriers through multiple lenses

One overlooked area for companies seeking to do better is intersectionality. Coined by leading legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is a theory describing the interlocking oppressions individuals face based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion and ability identities.

An intersectional approach to understanding and addressing bias matters because BAME employees not only experience discrimination due to their ethnicity, but also for coinciding gender, sexuality, caregiving, ability and age identities. These unique experiences are interconnected and cannot be separated from one another. Intersectionality gives us a language to talk about employee experience in a much more holistic way.

All of us navigate the workplace through multiple identities. We are at once our ethnic background, our gender, our sexuality, our age and our educational background.

What if the road to inclusion were really an intersection?     By W. Sean Kelly, PhD, Christie Smith, PhD

What if the road to inclusion were really an intersection? By W. Sean Kelly, PhD, Christie Smith, PhD

Barriers by disadvantage

Managers must become aware of the ways in which various identities affect each team member and  the unique challenges they face, to understand how best to support them.

Although policy advances in many countries, including the UK, over the last few decades have made it illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality and ability, these identities still face less overt forms of bias. Workplaces are struggling to tackle hidden cognitive biases, those micro-assessments we all make instantly that we are often not aware of, yet which underpin our decisions.

Intersectionality takes this thinking about the individual as a unique person one step further, to understand an individual as part of a system of identities. Leaders need to learn how to support the multidimensional employee by understanding the intersections of their various, simultaneous experiences.

Common BAME workplace discriminations include:

Exclusion: BAME staff can miss out on critical development and networking opportunities due to unconscious bias. Managers can assist by facilitating opportunities.

BAME team members can also be:

  • Caregivers: concerned about balancing work and family commitments. For example, pressuring parents to work on days they look after children can elevate stress. Flexibility is appreciated by all team members but for caregivers, work and life boundaries need to be respected by managers.

  • Women: can experience the incompetence bias, even when they are highly qualified. Patients, clients and team members can discount women’s professional opinion simply because they are women.

    Women also report more instances of being interrupted and not being listened to by senior managers. These are all opportunities to affect change.Women also encounter difficulties being accepted as a leader. The likeability vs competence penalty means female leaders can be perceived as unlikeable when they exhibit traditional male leadership traits such as assertiveness and authority. Senior leaders can help by being alert to this phenomenon. If you notice a female member of your team losing traction with male employees simply by doing her job, back her up and assert her capability and competence.

  • LGBT: According to LGBT in Britain – Work Report 2018 more than a third of LGBT staff (35%) have hidden they are LGBT at work for fear of discrimination.

    One in ten BAME LGBT employees (10 per cent) in the UK were physically attacked by customers or colleagues in the last year.

“My employer is generally very supportive but doesn’t have a specific LGBT discrimination section in their policies and procedures should discrimination occur. So, if discrimination or harassment does occur – and it does – then they don’t effectively handle things and the LGBT person is blamed for causing problems and being over sensitive.”

Mollie, 51

To state the obvious, all employees, regardless of their gender, sexuality, religious orientation or ethnic background deserve to be treated with respect at work. Managers need to develop awareness of the multiple strands of discrimination that can affect each of their employees daily and guide and support them through each stage.

Intersectional invisibility

Studies of intersectional oppression show that people facing multiple discriminations will be subjected to more prejudice and discrimination than those with a single subordinate identity. This thesis is supported by wages, job authority, and occupational status findings for people with intersecting subjugated identities.

Emotional intelligence

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence sees empathy as the “antidote” to issues that arise in cross-cultural interaction. Managing with empathy enables leaders to read a situation and evaluate the sum of cultural differences and potential misunderstandings based on those differences.

The objective is to avoid one further cognitive bias: fundamental attribution error. This error of judgement attributes team member behaviour to their personality (such as aggression, sensitivity or laziness) rather than the situation and system they find themselves in.

Here is an example of how this cognitive bias can further undermine employees:

“A lot of black graduates come in and they don’t last long, because they don’t get mentored. One of them didn’t have a car and he was taking two hours to get in. It was: ‘Oh, he’s lazy.’ People use that to alienate the black graduates.”

Esther, BAME worker

Really getting to know your team members means asking them about the challenges they encounter at work, beyond the main points of difference such as ethnicity. Their top of mind concerns may pivot at different stages in their career and may be exacerbated by their BAME experience, rather than led by it.

Identifying how and when employees require support and then providing it, is the mark of an inclusive and diversity-aware manager. Over time, this conscientiousness can shape professional environments that are more aware of, and ultimately less plagued by endemic biases hindering the career advancement of BAME employees. This work can open up access to senior executive positions for these employees and ultimately close the ethnicity pay gap.

WERKIN helps global organisations support the careers of their employees through inclusive mentorship. WERKIN’s approach opens up access to mentorship for underrepresented employees at large companies. Through mentorship, junior employees gain support and the ability to see themselves in role models at the top.