• Mabel Osejindu

The Attractiveness of Doing the Bare Minimum!

Do people of a minority ethnic background aspire to leadership and management enough?

“Reach high! The sky is the limit” good sayers will tell us from a young age. “If we can put our mind to something and work hard, we can surely achieve it”. Importantly, every person, regardless of their ethnicity or background, should be able to fulfil their potential at work. But how much of our aspirations or goals are stifled by our social status or ethnic background? Many months ago, I discussed the sheer lack of career progression for individuals of an ethnic minority. While we can attribute the reasons for this to discrimination and institutionalised racism, I wonder if the situation is more complex than meets the eye. The leadership opportunities may be there for people of colour but they simply prefer to remain to stay in the status quo of their middle paying or a lower-income job because it decreases the likelihood of facing the brunt of prejudice and racial inequality. They perceive leadership as an unreachable quarter of their working lives and working lower down an organisation seems comparatively less stress-free than higher up. Of course, there may be organisations plaques with racial inequality whichever level you work on; higher or lower, which is just as bad. Sadly, in the UK, there are unconscious, unanimous and evident preferences for certain individuals in management. Caucasian, middle-aged, and privately educated seems to be the template. There is little sense that senior leaders are prepared to take the risk of developing diversity at senior management level and instead, avoid the ‘safe option’ by opening opportunities to people who ‘do not look and sound the same’.

If being in a managerial position means being continually questioned about your suitability, undermined, intimidated and heavily and unjustly scrutinised, naturally many people of minority ethnic backgrounds would quite naturally not want to take on such daily challenges for the sake of higher pay or professional purpose. Black and Asian professionals are more likely to perceive the workplace as hostile; they are less likely to apply for and be given promotions nor be successful in higher position interviews (due to the lack of diversity of interviewers) and they are more likely to be disciplined or judged harshly. The anxiety and fear that comes with prolonged racist treatment is enough for any individual of colour to frown at higher positions or opportunities where they may encounter more individuals of a racist inclination or stereotypical, damaging views. Many Black and Asian talented workers have aspired and succeeded momentarily in leadership, only to leave because they struggle with company backlash, company politics and frustrations around not being able to make an impact or unite teammates. BAME individuals fear disciplinary proceedings and are more likely to face them due to unjust practices and a lack of community understanding. So naturally, we tread carefully. Aware of the damage a negative outcome could have on our careers. My dad told me that he knew a young woman working as the head of a department in a local college under a business course. She had recently joined and was excited at the prospect of sharing her expertise and running department affairs to the best of her ability. Months passed and arguments began to form amongst her team to do with the successful monitoring of entrants on their courses by her efforts. Something she took personally and struggled to reconcile with certain staff, thereby resolving in her departure.

However, as put in the 2017 McGregor-Smith Review of “Race in the workplace”, “There is no reason why every organisation in the UK should not have a workforce that proportionately reflects the diversity of the communities in which they operate, at every level. The report goes even far as to say that the wasted opportunity of BAME talent in leadership has significant ramifications for the UK economy. So no “company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion can be taken seriously until it collects, scrutinises and is transparent with its workforce data”. They recommend “Reverse mentoring: Senior leaders and executive board members should seek out opportunities to undertake reverse mentoring opportunities with individuals from different ethnic backgrounds in more junior roles”. This will help to ensure that they better understand the positive impact diversity can have on a company and the barriers to progression faced by these individuals. It could be that many BAME professionals do not see enough role models in their organisation and wider society to even aspire to senior leadership in the first place. How many individuals of colour are courageous or wilful enough to be the first leader of their racial background in the workplace and fight through its challenges? These days many people prioritise mental health over such worthwhile aspirations. I refuse to believe that BAME individuals are not well educated enough to attain senior managerial roles in their respective organisations. Many BAME individuals hold master’s and PhD qualifications and a wealth of experience and would be an asset to whichever company they bring their services to. In the same way that racism may affect one’s desire to reach a senior level in their workplace, it may also put a dent in their sense of power and self-worth whereby they do not feel they are adequate or capable of even successfully obtaining and fulfilling a leadership position. This perpetuates feelings of being disliked, undervalued and underappreciated. Many Asian and Black employees feel they can be themselves at work and must work to the bone to even be heard or praised. If Black and Asian employees are working 120% day in and day out for a low paying or middle paying role, the thought of doing double that in a managerial role coupled with the pain of racial inequality just seems like too much.

Maybe what we need are conferences, powerful individuals and mentoring in a coordinated and supportive network to motivate and empower young talented and intelligent BAME individuals with the confidence needed to aspire to leadership. After all, a thought precedes a goal and a goal precedes an empowered action. If we can change our thoughts on management and seek to speak out more against institutional biases or cases of racial inequality, we’ll have more Black and Asian colleagues staying in senior positions with the assurance that they can overcome any workplace challenges they may face. So I say let all work appraisals challenge the individuals of diverse backgrounds to aspire for higher and better; offering heads of departments, chairs, governors, overseers and any others they know they are capable of. This comes down to having a sensitive and attuned manager; someone who not only knows their colleagues and their unique capabilities but encourages understanding of different cultural differences between groups concerning reverence and authority especially. Without this, the talent of BAME individuals can go unnoticed for years. For many individuals of colour, what holds close to the desire to remain in lower positions, is their negative perception of their accent. They feel they do not speak articulately or with the eloquence expected of someone in a managerial position. But this ought to not hold anyone back. How you speak and where you come from is the hallmark of who you are. Professionalism and clarity are the baselines for communication in workplace settings and nothing else. Respect should not be given to the person who supposedly speaks most beautifully and pristinely but to the individual who speaks with knowledge, intelligence, authority and conviction of what they intend to convey.

I hope you’ll join me in agreeing that race, gender or background should be irrelevant when choosing the right person for a managerial role in any UK industry. I hope that with greater awareness, educational review and more people speaking out about their challenges, each barrier people of colour face to leadership will be stripped away leaving an attainable seat for them, or maybe initially just a ladder. Individuals of diverse backgrounds should never have to feel like that ceiling can’t break. For respectable and hard work and talent, it must. Do you aspire to be a leader in the workplace one day? Are you in leadership currently? Share your attitudes towards leadership below as an individual of colour or an ethnic minority!