Same Issue, Different Focus: Reframing the Conversation Around Diversity

Hannah Abban

23 Oct 2020

The Pressing Problem

The PR industry, like many others, has an issue with diversity. It isn’t that surprising, particularly to a black woman like me, looking from the inside out – or those looking on the outside in. Not long ago I was part of the latter category. I spent the summer job hunting, and many times I found myself on an agency website only to see exclusively white faces staring back at me on the ‘Team’ page. In most of the agencies I’ve worked in, the bulk of their diversity was in the people who were employed to clean the kitchens. This has never sat right with me considering most of these agencies are located in London – the UK’s most diverse city. More than 44% of London’s population is of an ethnic minority group,  so why isn’t more of this diverse make-up filtering through to my profession? I can’t offer a singular answer because there isn’t one. However, it is something worth pondering as we make our way through Black History Month; a month I believe to be just as much about our future as it is about our past. Every diversity scheme or initiative has phases. And, I can tell you from personal experience, that the introductory phase can be pretty lonely for the first cohort of black people recruited. Making things worse, these firms often haven’t done anything to cultivate an inclusive environment in the workplace. Instead, senior management think that diversifying the workforce with a few token hires will force a company’s culture to change – which is often not the case.

Working Whilst Black

There’s a lingering loneliness that comes with being the ‘only’ or one of a few black employees in a workplace. I remember feeling this loneliness at one of my previous workplaces but not really being able to pinpoint the feeling. It’s a combination of loneliness mixed with a constant hyperawareness of just how black you are. I suddenly find myself second guessing all my actions and behaviours at work or social settings because I’m trying to not give a bad impression for black people everywhere. However, I’m also trying to not give a bad impression of myself! I want to be liked and to succeed just like any other new employee. But having to represent all black people while trying to fulfil my own desires and aspirations gets to be burdensome. But until diversity recruitment drives start to take place alongside real diversity initiatives, and work is done to change the existing company culture, then this will be a feeling many non-white employees will continue to have.

Unlocking long-term change

Retention is where focus needs to shift when it comes to workplace diversity initiatives because, let’s be honest, we’ve been having this conversation for years. Panels upon panels (or shall I now say ‘webinars’) will be advertised on the theme of diversity, particularly during this time of year, Black History Month. However, the results of these diversity conversations haven’t been nearly as impressive as advocates like me would like. You look on an agency’s website and think, “yes, you’ve invested a lot of money in diverse hiring but what are your retention rates like amongst these employees?” I realised the importance of focusing on retention while in my first role in the publishing industry. A report published by the charity, Creative Access, showed that many ethnic minorities (66 surveyed) within publishing held mixed views about their industry’s efforts towards racial diversity. Interestingly, one of the main reasons cited by 32% surveyed was the inability to move upwards within their workplace. For black women there is even a term coined for this phenomenon – a ‘double-glazed glass ceiling’ – formed from the bias we face based on both our gender and our race. As a result, many employees facing such ceilings end up leaving their role and joining a new workplace with a higher salary offer. This is often the saddening solution for many who actually enjoyed working at their previous place of employment. But there’s only so long you can be passed over for pay rises and promotions without feeling demotivated and undervalued enough as an employee that you decide to leave.

Clarify the culture

It all starts with reversing the demonisation of anything related to race. People – particularly those at the top-level who need to be talking about it the most – walk on eggshells around the topic, and it’s incredibly unhelpful. A good example of this is when a team director at a previous workplace heard a presentation I did on racial diversity. They approached me afterwards and said something along the lines of, “this is very true but let’s not forget we need diversity in other areas too” (i.e. class and sexuality). Of course, this is true. But it is also a dismissive sentiment that only serves to help companies skirt around the issue of race. On the plus side, for those fearful of the topic of race, it does prevent any likelihood of straying onto offensive territory i.e. if race is never talked about there is less chance of being accused of racism. However, it also makes it uncomfortable for black people to bring up any race-related issues with HR or their manager if they’re struggling. Why should they, if no one else has before? If talking openly never happens, it never feels like an option. This makes the best course of action to suffer in silence – something that affects a person’s wellbeing, confidence and work performance over time. I’ve been that person before and admittedly, I even found this article quite weird to write since few of the corporate settings I’ve been in have encouraged me to talk openly about race. Tackling this issue head on is key to ensuring that diversity initiatives can succeed. It’s why I’m very proud of Harvard for taking part in BAME to Boardroom, since it’s an important step in destigmatising dialogue around race. As part of the initiative workshops, I was involved in some very refreshing conversations centred around race – and that’s what we need! The next step: expand the workshop’s safe spaces and make them a permanent reality in our agency.