DiversityQ sat down with June Sarpong OBE, television presenter, diversity expert and award-winning author, to discuss why businesses need to broaden their focus on equality, why companies don’t get it right on race and the need to overcome affinity bias. Here is what she had to say…
Focusing on equality will not produce equal outcomes without taking into account that people don’t all have equal starts in life.
As June Sarpong is keen to point out: “It’s crucial to factor in where people are starting from, what blocks may have prevented them from progressing as they should. There was a whole notion of, ‘if this person from a low-income community can do it, why can’t everybody else’ but there’s always a reason why that person has succeeded.”
Expanding on this, Sarpong offers: “Before businesses were more focused on diversity, which is all about numbers and targets. When you have been doing that for a while without fixing your culture or inclusion practices, you quickly realise you have a one in, one out scenario – a retention problem.”
Need for better racial equality
How does she respond to the idea that many businesses suffer from ‘DE&I fatigue’?
“If you look at the changing demography, mixed-race people are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in this country and, by 2030, over 40% of the world’s youth will be Black and African,” says Sarpong. “So, if you are a business that wants to future proof, you don’t have the luxury of DE&I fatigue. Businesses now realise that they have to get DE&I right.”
However, while there were now more opportunities for women and talent from working-class backgrounds, “I’ve yet to see a company getting it right on race,” says Sarpong.
The tragic death of George Floyd shone the spotlight on the need for better racial equality in the workplace. “I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it the way we’re talking about race now,” she argues. “Before we had to make the case that there was a problem, now there’s a general acknowledgement a problem exists, and the focus is on solving it. That in itself is progress. We’ve just got to ensure that the ‘how’ delivers results. And the only way to do that is to be very honest about why there’s a problem in the first place.
“If we don’t do that, we can have all the schemes in the world, and the outcome will be the same because, ultimately, people haven’t changed the way they think and the way they see other people.”
Sarpong has a distinguished career in broadcasting, starting at Kiss 100 before becoming a presenter on MTV UK & Ireland. Since then, she has become one of the most recognisable faces on British television and has hosted high profile events, including Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in London’s Hyde Park, and interviewed some of the world’s biggest names.
In 2007 she was awarded an MBE for services to broadcasting, making her one of the youngest people to receive the recognition. Last year she received an OBE.
In developing her career, Sarpong has also found time to help others. In 2010 she co-founded Women: Inspiration and Enterprise, which aimed to encourage women leaders to pay it forward to the next generation and provide a platform for women without a voice.
She is justifiably proud of what it has achieved: “We were able to bring together some extraordinary women. I’m most proud of the fact that we created a truly inclusive environment that invited all women, regardless of their background, and allowed them to interact on a level playing field, resulting in some great collaborations.”
More recently, Sarpong launched an initiative with HQ – part of Harper Collins – to nurture and develop authors from working-class and ethnic communities and those with disabilities who do not have agents.
“It’s near impossible to get a book deal without an agent, and knowing where to go and find one is incredibly difficult,” she says. “Hopefully, this removes that tough process. Also, book publishers tend to pay the bulk of the money once you’ve delivered, but if you’re from a low-income background, you won’t have the finances to sustain yourself while you write. Our processes are the other way around, and you’re paid while you’re writing. I’m hoping our process will help make the industry more inclusive and ensure voices from diverse communities reach as wide an audience as possible.”
Sarpong has written three books: Diversity: Six Degrees of Integration, The Power of Women and The Power of Privilege. There’s a fourth in the pipeline, The Only One in the Room, which, she says, has been the experience of her working life.
She believes strongly that affinity bias is a barrier to inclusion because it is ingrained in the human psyche. “The only way to disrupt that is to bring people from varying backgrounds together from as early an age as possible. The biggest problem has been making everybody fit into a very rigid box that only a small section of society naturally fits into. We should celebrate differences and acknowledge there are more similarities than not.”
Diversifying DE&I departments
On the subject of DE&I professionals, a lack of lived-experience knowledge can lead to blind spots. Sarpong elaborates: “There are issues that you can only understand from experience. I know that with disability, there’s so much I don’t get because it’s not my experience. Therefore, I need my disabled colleagues to educate me.
“The fact that businesses want results in this area in ways they didn’t before means there’s an added pressure with the job. Hence, DE&I professionals need a bit of humility to succeed. The DE&I department should be the example of what best practice looks like for the whole organisation.”
Overall, Sarpong feels that DE&I professionals are in a job that allows them to usher in a new era and new rules of engagement in the workplace.
She concludes: “The decisions they make now will make all the difference in the future. Actually, the decisions that they encourage their leaders to make could be what saves their companies.”