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Why are ethnic minorities struggling to reach the top?

The technology industry has a reputation for struggling with diversity and inclusion, especially at the C-suite – what is standing in the way of ethnic minorities making it to the top?

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Although members of ethnic minorities make up a higher proportion of the tech workforce than average across the wider UK labour market, representation at management level remains low.

This situation is reflected even among companies that have signed up to the Tech Talent Charter (TTC), the aim of which is to promote greater diversity and inclusion in the sector. The organisation’s latest research found that people of colour account for a quarter of all tech professionals among member companies, compared with 18% across the wider tech workforce and 11% among the total working population.

But in the case of ethnic minority professionals holding senior roles, the TTC figure almost halved to 13%. Older stats from BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, confirm such findings. They indicate that while just under a third of people of colour were supervisors or middle managers, a mere 9% had a director-level role.

This is despite the fact that they are generally better qualified, with 85% of ethnic minority professionals holding a degree or higher education certificates compared with only two-thirds of their white colleagues.

So, just what is going on here? What key barriers are people of colour facing, what is preventing them from reaching the top, and to what extent are tech employers truly understanding and tackling the issues they face?

Aimee Treasure, marketing director at tech recruitment consultancy Templeton & Partners, says: “Awareness of the problem is better than it was, and organisations are investing more as most have realised that diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI] is important and necessary to improve the bottom line. The issue that they’re struggling with today is the ‘how’.”

Time for tech to face uncomfortable truths

Shereen Daniels, founder and managing director of HR Rewired, an HR advisory firm with specialist expertise in anti-racism, agrees that the tech industry still has a long way to go to get its DEI house in order.

“Tech is similar to other sectors in that it’s lulled itself into a nice, safe bubble around DEI,” she says. “No one wants to talk about racism and discrimination as it’s too uncomfortable, but those are the fundamental issues that need to be addressed.”

As to how this racism, whether conscious or unconscious, manifests itself, Daniels provides a clear example. When black employees at a global telecommunications company were asked why they were struggling to reach leadership positions, they replied, “You’re asking the wrong people”.

Daniels explains: “They said, ‘Everyone’s asking what life is like for us, but we’re not the ones making the decisions. We have to apply for a promotion X number of times, but a white person will just get a tap on the shoulder and won’t even need an interview, so you need to go to the hiring managers and leaders and ask them’.”

Treasure agrees that ethnic minority employees face a range of challenges in career progression terms, one of which relates to what many employers refer to as “cultural fit”.

“It can be interpreted in many ways, but is often expressed as ‘it’s not that they’re not qualified, but I don’t see them in my team’,” she says. “So people base things on the culture they already have and treat people who don’t look like them differently.”

The situation can be even more problematic for tech workers born outside the UK. A recent study by academics at the IESEG School of Management in France, which was recently published in the International Journal of Conflict Management, found that individuals with strong foreign accents are often perceived to be less competent than native speakers, a scenario that can in turn lead to discrimination and conflict.

“If you’re perceived to be different, even if the bias is unconscious, it’s harder to prove your worth, especially if you do manage to get into a management position,” Treasure points out. “Others may not be used to seeing members of minority groups in positions of power, which can lead to higher barriers to success.”

Systemic DEI challenges

But there are other issues too. Hallam Sargeant, chief diversity officer at Avanade, a services company set up as a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture, believes many of the problems people face are systemic.

“If you picture groundwater in which you see one or two dead fish, you’d ask yourself, ‘What’s wrong there?’. But if there’s a pool with lots of dead fish, you’d think, ‘Is something wrong with the water?’,” he says. “If the company ecosystem isn’t set up for under-represented groups to thrive, there’s something wrong with the water, not the fish.”

Another problem is that all too many employers “shine a spotlight” on recruiting people of colour but fail to put enough effort into retaining those they already have.

“Most organisations do a good job of getting diverse talent in, but not such a good job of ensuring the ecosystem works,” says Sargeant. “Getting to a senior leadership level is generally a pipeline issue and, in most organisations, there’s a cliff, whether we’re talking about under-represented groups or women.”

Daniels agrees: “If you’re patting yourself on the back about your diversity activities, ask yourself how they manifest in your retention rates. It does away with the excuse that it’s all about the recruitment pipeline because retention covers cultural and behavioural issues too.”

Not everyone is the same

Another important consideration, meanwhile, is although members of ethnic minorities tend to be discussed as if they fall into a single category, using such blanket terms masks the complexity beneath.

“In tech, Asian people are almost as equally represented as white people in terms of the percentage of the population they make up and the sector really welcomes them,” says Treasure. “But black people are very under-represented, so different diversity strands face very different barriers.”

The same situation is true of people who are born in the UK versus first generation migrants, says Amit Shanker, deputy chief executive and chief digital officer at the London Borough of Newham and Newham Sparks.

As he points out: “People may look similar, but they all have slightly different contexts and challenges so you can’t just lump everyone together. It’s about recognising that if you’re employing the colours of the rainbow, you have to accommodate everyone from an HR policy and visibility view.”

This includes trying to ensure appropriate senior role models are in place, not least to help more junior colleagues understand what is required to get to their position. “If you don’t see people like yourself, you don’t know which path to navigate or even think it’s possible, so lack of progression can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Shanker.

As to why organisations generally start taking action to address these issues, Daniels says it is usually the result of several factors.

“They’re either trying to attract a new consumer base, they’ve got challenging employee relations issues due to discrimination or racism, or they’ve been getting poor PR on things like social media or Glassdoor,” she explains. “So they’re under pressure to demonstrate they’re doing something and it’s no longer enough to say, ‘We’re committed’.”

What can employers do?

The first step in taking positive action, says Daniels, is to accept that as in the rest of society structural barriers exist for ethnic minorities within the organisation. Next it is important to acknowledge that such barriers must be addressed at every level of the business rather than simply delegating responsibility to either HR or the DEI lead. Leaders and line managers alike have a particularly important role to play in this context.

“Typically, organisations say they take racism seriously and refer to policies indicating they have a zero-tolerance approach,” says Daniels. “But if managers can’t even engage in a conversation with colleagues about racism, they also won’t be able to engage in a way that will do something about it.

“Companies have to be braver about articulating the behaviour they want and don’t want to see, and they also need to hold their leaders to account and think about how to evaluate their performance to ensure inclusion.”

Another important consideration is understanding colleagues’ lived experience, says Sargeant.

“We all show up from different backgrounds and ethnicities, so if we’re all treated equally it’ll never work, as some people have a head-start on the journey. It’s why having difficult conversations is so important when trying to make the ecosystem work – it’s part of having a growth mindset.”

A further powerful approach is to introduce mentoring programmes for employees run by people of a similar background or ethnicity to themselves, whether such mentors work inside the company our outside it.

“Being mentored by someone who looks like you is very powerful and can make a significant difference to your life,” Treasure explains. “That kind of one-to-one dedicated communication to talk about the barriers people are coming up against and solutions to help them progress their career is key.”

Even more beneficial is being sponsored by a senior leader. “If someone’s willing to sponsor you, they’re willing to use some of their corporate capital to vouch for you and say, ‘I think they’ll be successful at a more senior level’. It makes a big difference,” Sargeant says.

But Treasure believes the tech industry still has a long way before the playing field will be truly levelled for ethnic minority professionals.

“Things are getting better. Leadership is improving, but it’s very slow – individual digits-worth of movement over the years. So, there’s still a lot of work to be done, even if most businesses in Western Europe have realised DEI has to be done if they want to improve the bottom line,” she concludes.

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