Tackling Structural Biases Behind the UK's Ethnicity Pay Gap

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In UK workplaces today, there are structural, historical biases that favour certain individuals. Leaders are making hiring decisions based upon preconceived notions of what makes a good employee. Wanting a good employee is admirable, however preconceived notions about what that employee’s profile might be too often stand in the way of hiring a diverse workforce. When individuals don’t fit employers’ preconceived notions of what a ‘good employee’ looks like because of their gender, race, ability or age, these biases are at play whether conscious or unconscious.  Research shows diverse workforces generate more revenue and innovation than homogenous teams. In fact, companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 35 per cent more likely to see higher-than-average profits than companies in the lowest quartile. 

It’s also no secret the UK is having trouble developing their economy in a rapidly-changing world. Technology in particular is disrupting established industries and creating new markets at an unprecedented pace. To compete and thrive globally, it’s critical to nurture and utilise all of the talent available.  

Many organisational processes, from recruitment through to progression to the very top, favour certain groups over others. This bias is often reinforced by outdated processes and behavioural norms that must change, to create more inclusive working environments that benefit everybody.  

The UK’s BAME Ethnicity Pay Gap 

According to Race in Workplace McGregor Smith Review, in 2016 14% of the UK working age population were from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background and this number is expected to rise to 21% by 2051. However, this is not reflected in the majority of workplaces. Only 6% of top management positions are held by a BME person. A disproportionate number of BME employees are concentrated in lower paying jobs.  

The underemployment and underpromotion of people from BME backgrounds is widespread. The potential benefit to the UK economy from full representation of BME individuals across the labour market through improved participation and progression is estimated to be £24 billion a year, which represents 1.3% of GDP.  

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found BME groups tend to have unequal access to opportunities for development due to a lack of clear information on training opportunities or progression routes within their workplaces. This can be made worse if: 

  • Progression relies on opaque or informal processes. 

  • There are a lack of BME role models or mentors at higher levels within their workplaces to provide support and advice.  

  • There is a gap between equality and diversity policies and practice in the workplace.  

Spotlight on structural biases 

How do these structural biases play out in workplaces? Below are some examples:  

  • Hostile work environment. A group in the majority is actively hostile towards certain employees in the minority, including discouraging or disparaging remarks. 

  • Inhospitable work environment. The group has a common bond that excludes certain employees. Often this means it's hard to advance professionally if some employees are left out of social activities outside of work. 

  • Covering. In order to survive, some employees must hide parts of their life, such as their sexuality or care responsibilities, that other people get to integrate with their work persona. 

  • Affinity bias. Managers may tend to mentor and support subordinates who are like them, helping to advance their career progression. 

  • Social capital. Organisations naturally recruit from people connected to them through referral programs. Who you know can provide you with introductions to hiring managers.  

  • Hidden tripwires. Usually the dominant group doesn't even realise these exist. Low paid or unpaid internships into roles such as art curator, journalist, academic and copywriter often exclude people who lack financial support from family or social networks. It's not surprising these professions are predominantly white and affluent.  

The importance of targets 

Late last year, the UK Government launched the Parker Review into ethnic diversity on boards across UK companies. It set targets for each FTSE 100 board to have at least one person of colour as a director by 2021, and each FTSE 250 board by 2024. 

According to the Race in Workplace McGregor Smith Review, addressing structural bias requires a critical examination of every stage of every workplace process, from how individuals are recruited to how they are supported to progress and fulfil their potential.  

“The importance of effective mentoring, sponsorship, role models and networks in delivering positive action needs to be understood at all levels of an organisation, with leaders taking responsibility for creating truly inclusive workplaces”.  

Baroness McGregor-Smith 

The report also found mentoring and sponsorship have consistently delivered results in supporting people from all backgrounds. It also lists a range of solutions to tackle the ethnicity pay gap including raising awareness of diversity challenges by:  

  • Establishing inclusive networks. 

  • Providing mentoring and sponsorship.  

Forming relationships and building networks across an organisation is an important way of seizing opportunities and making sure talent is recognised. In the review, 71% of individual respondents cited a lack of connections to the ‘right people’ as a factor in them not progressing at work. Individuals highlighted networking and support as the most beneficial intervention they had experienced to assist career progression.  

Only one in 16 top management positions are held by an ethnic minority person.  

Tech-enabled mentoring 

WERKIN’s tech-enabled mentoring platform facilitates, scales and measures mentoring programs and sponsorship across large organisations. WERKIN’s approach reduces bias by identifying employee skills, achievements and interests using technology rather than human instinct.  

  • Managers can set goals and schedule regular meetings as mentees work towards achieving learning objectives.  

  • Push notifications and optional geolocation connect mentors and mentees across global teams, helping them to meet for a coffee should they find themselves in the same city.  

  • Team leaders can also assign stretch assignments based on development needs rather than who is visible in their immediate circle.  

  • At the close of the financial year, dashboards showing the number of mentoring meetings, milestones, stretch assignments and promotions is available for stakeholders and shareholders, demonstrating progress towards gender pay gap targets. 

Mitigating institutional biases in the UK workplace for BAME employees is now a national economic imperative. Research and extensive reviews have shown that preconceived notions of what constitutes a ‘good employee’ is preventing BAME talent from achieving their potential. The UK needs a full spectrum of representation in their workplaces to compete globally, as well as to thrive locally. Mentoring and sponsorship that cuts across traditional relationship lines have been shown to be effective in developing BAME staff. WERKIN’s technology-enabled mentoring platform reduces bias by taking human instinct out of career development decisions. Algorithms enable team leaders to assess candidate suitability solely on their skills, experience and achievement.