Breakthrough on addressing racism at companies can only occur if there is buy-in from senior management for cultural change, according to members of the #talkaboutblack movement.
That was the message from senior black professionals who took part in a webinar with more than 2,000 viewers on Wednesday addressing the issue of racism in the industry and offering steps individuals and companies can take to start to address it.
The session came at a time when the world is reeling from racially-charged incidents in the US, including the killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the actions of Amy Cooper, which have served as a stark reminder of the disparity between minority black communities and the white majority.
Earlier this month, senior black professionals in the investment industry teamed up with #talkaboutblack and the Diversity Project to launch the #IAM campaign across social media aimed at raising awareness of racism by asking black people and non-black allies to post a picture of themselves answering the question “what are you?” using the hashtag #IAM.
#IAM is not a knee-jerk reaction to recent events
But speaking during the webinar, Gavin Lewis, who co-founded #talkaboutblack with Redington co-founder Dawid Konotey-Ahulu, said the #IAM movement is not a knee-jerk reaction to recent events in the US and has in fact been 40 years in the making.
Lewis, a managing director and head of local government pension schemes at Blackrock, noted on a global scale the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on black communities, and in the UK before that the Grenfell fire tragedy and the Windrush scandal saw poor people, particularly those of colour, suffer unjustly.
“I want to dispel the myth that this has cropped up for us recently, said Lewis. “It’s a battle we have been fighting for a number of years.”
Being made to feel like an outsider
Despite saying it was difficult to talk about, Legal & General Investment Management head of retail multi-asset funds Justin Onuekwusi set the scene by giving a couple of personal examples of being on the receiving end of racism in the workplace. One came while working at the Commonwealth Games in his hometown of Manchester in 2002 when he was given some merchandise from an athlete which his line manager then assumed he had stolen.
The second was in 2010 in the asset management industry when at a conference gala dinner an adviser at the table he was hosting said, “Looks like your twin is here” while pointing to the only other black person in the room out of about 300 in attendance.
“It’s those kinds of things that reinforce the fact you are an outsider or maybe an impostor in the industry overall,” he said. “That is the challenge we know a lot of black people face in the in the industry, just trying to feel like they belong in the industry.”
Why has D&I not worked in asset management?
This led Impax Asset Management chief operating officer of listed equities Darren Johnson, who moderated the panel, to ask the panellists why, despite the intention being there, diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives had not worked in the asset management industry.
Lewis said part of the reason is companies have been focusing more on gender issues because it is more familiar to most people than race issues.
“Most people have a woman in their lives, be it a mother, sister, partner, and for many people, I work with I am probably the only black person they know, so that creates a degree of unfamiliarity,” said Lewis. “So how do you even start unpacking how to deal with the race issue if you don’t understand the challenges?”
He added corporations reflect the societies they operate in and the common perception of racism in the UK is the media’s portrayal of it as being violent and horrific, as was the case with the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993. This can be true, but it means most people, and by extension senior figures at companies, tend to assume it doesn’t exist in society beyond what the mass media peddles.
Lewis said: “The response is often to put out some fairly well-meaning but often benign diversity and inclusion solutions because we haven’t really unpacked what it is to be a black person living in the UK because we have a fairly binary view of it.
“You might get some diversity by having those people in your organisations, but the inclusion – ie those people really feeling like they belong and can make an impact and bring their authentic selves to work – I think we’re a step away from that.”
Not something companies can box-tick their way out of
Co-head of the Willis Towers Watson Thinking Ahead Institute Marisa Hall said racism is a system of oppression which continues to exist through people staying silent and one that actually benefits people who are not minorities even though they may not realise it.
“That job interview you go through, you are not immediately discriminated against because of your skin colour,” she said. “I think that is an important point about what racism looks like.”
It takes a change in culture in order to change behaviour, added Hall, but that is “really hard” and not something that corporations can “box-tick their way out of”.
There are steps that companies can take however, she added. “In a corporate context, you’ve got a formal method, top-down, of putting it in your organisation’s explicit objectives, making sure all of your leadership team has KPIs linked to things around race. Then your use of communication when you write emails or the imagery on your website – what imagery are you presenting? Is it representative of people or your clients?”
Don’t be colour blind
Onuekwusi said he has noted a common perception in society that it’s good to be “colour blind”, but it’s not something he agrees with and he urged people and companies to challenge this thesis.
“You can’t really eliminate biases or racism without acknowledging someone’s race and I think to ignore race ignores identity injustices and understanding someone’s lived experience,” he said. “You can’t truly say you’re an ally unless you fully understand the problem.”
Onuekwusi pointed to the lack of black role models and senior leaders as one of the main structural challenges the industry faces. He said in his experience of mentoring circles, where senior and junior people get in a room for Q&A, one of the things they consistently stress is the lack of role models in the industry overall.
“The lack of senior leaders in our industry means that when it comes to formulating policy black people simply are not at the table,” he said. “Often there are not enough senior people in the business to really help to drive that change.”
This means that students eyeing prospective careers are not applying for graduate or entry-level roles at asset managers and part of that is because they do not see anyone in the business that looks like them.
Unpack the BAME label
Lewis also said it is important to unpack the term black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) because it creates homogeneity against a very diverse group of people and the challenges that black people face are distinct from the challenges Asian people face.
“If you’re starting from BAME, you’re immediately creating challenges because effectively you have categorised people who are just different from you and you think one solution and one size will fit all of them which is a bad place to start.”
He also said firms should be wary of their use of ‘inclusion’ which in his mind basically means taking an individual and stripping them down to fit the corporate mould.
“I can tell you that if you’re a minority when you go into these organisations you are already changing and adapting. For me, I have to make myself smaller – I’m six-foot-three, I’m a big, black guy, I can’t raise my voice, I can’t show my emotions, I have to be the happiest, most well-dressed person just to avoid the potential to have the stereotype.”
He added: “What doesn’t happen is the companies say, ‘Actually, we’ve brought these people in, do we need to flex? Do we need to adapt and do we need to change to actually get the best out of those people?’”
Onuekwusi said fundamentally accountability has to be with leadership to change exiting structures and barriers which tend to result in watered-down outcomes once a message has finally reached executive level. Businesses, therefore, need to hear the raw views of people on the ground and the best way to do this is through taskforces.
“A taskforce that can bypass some of the structural roadblocks in organisations and give recommendations to execs, I think that is one way leadership can really hear the voices and get a feel of what’s going on in their business without the filters of an HR team or the structural hurdles in terms of bureaucracy.”
What can individuals do?
If you’re going to be an ally then be an active one was the message from all panellists. That involves educating yourself, not being colour blind and really trying to understand other people’s lived experiences no matter what their ethnicity is.
Lewis also pointed to the power held by the client or customer.
“Most people work in some kind of services industry and we’ve all got customers. If you say, ‘Jump’ we say, ‘How high?’ and actually if our clients start saying, in the way they have with climate change, ‘Actually, we want to see your policies and strategies around diversity and inclusion and actually really see the policies then companies will start to respond.”
If we can change overnight to deal with COVID we can address racism
Drawing the session to a close, Johnson drew a parallel between the Covid-19 pandemic and racism. He said the outbreak of the virus had caused society practically overnight to fundamentally change the way it operates from companies to schools shifting to a home working environment.
He questioned why this was. First, it is a case of life and death, second, there are very real numbers and statistics associated and third, it is a virus that shows itself in many different ways – all things that are applicable to racism.
Johnson said: “Governments and companies say things like, ‘It takes time to change, it’s a cultural thing’, but if we have the will to change we can. We did for COVID, we changed overnight, we changed everything – the foundations of our society, the structures in our society.
“If we can do that, if we can address racism we can move to a more equal society. We need to come together just to normalise equality.”