Two in three women of colour forced to hide their personality at work and a majority face barriers at all stages of their career.
These are the findings of the Broken Ladders report conducted by the Fawcett Society and the Runnymede Trust. It calls on employers to implement evidence-based anti-racism action plans with clear targets and ensure they have in place clear and transparent reporting processes.
People Management reports on the survey of more than 3,000 women. It found that 61% of women of colour had made conscious changes to things like the language they used, the topics they talk about, their hairstyle and the food they eat in the workplace. 22% of them said they went as far as changing their name at work.
The BBC runs this story and profiles 24-year-old Hilda Kwoffie from Ghana who works as a paralegal in London. She told the BBC she has changed the way she looks and the way she talks since moving to the UK in 2016. She said "I do notice that I'm not being myself in the workplace. I try to tone it down a little bit. You find yourself having to always slick your hair down just to fit in."
That pattern of behavioural change is known as ‘code-switching’. It’s a term widely used to describe how Black, Asian, and other people from ethnic minority backgrounds feel the need to hide their cultural identity in white-majority spaces, such as in workplaces.
Last year the BBC produced a documentary for Radio 4 on this subject. It included an insightful two minute film which they have on their website highlighting the issue. Here’s an extract:
BBC video – ‘To code-switch or not to code-switch?’
The Broken Ladders report has made a number of recommendations for employers including clear, transparent processes for reporting racism, intersectional anti-racism training and "stay interviews" rather than the better known "exit interviews" to feedback on career experiences. It also wants the government to introduce a business-led plan to tackle ethnicity and gender pay gaps and wants salaries to be published on job advertisements.
It's worth saying this issue is not restricted to the workplace and it affects both adults and children. It has led to the Halo Code, a campaign pledge which focuses on hairstyles. Signed by schools and businesses, it promises members of the Black community that they have the ‘freedom and security to wear all afro-hairstyles without restriction or judgment.’ Head teachers and business leaders can choose to sign the code which indicates that everyone in the organisation recognises and celebrates every individual member and accepts their identity.
The Code is something a number of our clients have signed up to. Kate Dodd is a diversity and inclusion specialist and she joined me by video-link from Manchester to discuss the issue. I started by asking Kate how she explains the Halo Code to clients who may be considering signing up:
Kate Dodd: “The Halo Code is about understanding this kind of unspoken discrimination that takes place. It’s recognising that people of colour working in the UK often feel that they have to leave parts of their identity behind, whether that be that they change the language that they use, whether they change their accent, and also there is a big issue around hair, and what is really quite clearly hair discrimination. Whereby, possibly on an unconscious level, somebody has seen not to be professional, potentially, because of their hair cut, their hair style. Thankfully, there has been a real pushback against this to say, why is Afro hair not professional? Why should people with Afro hair, or other kind of natural hair styles, not seen as professional by Western standards? Why should they change their hair for the workplace? There are countless examples of people who have come forward and have been told that their hair isn't professional, that they need to change their hair for work, or told in an interview situation, oh, you should wear your hair differently. Actually, this is just people's natural hair so why should they be forced to feel that they have to change just because it doesn't necessarily fit with their kind of the Western standards or western ideals of what professionalism is?”
Joe Glavina: “So what can HR do to about it Kate?”
Kate Dodd: Well, I think signing up to the Halo Code is a really good start. That involves changing your dress code to make sure that you mention the Halo Code in that. Lots of business, lots of our clients, have joined us and signed up to the Halo Code which I think is excellent. Also, of course, it's about just recognising unconscious bias in yourselves and in your managers, looking at your staff, considering whether or not they appear to be safe to be themselves, and talking to people. We have to be really careful not to single somebody out and say to them, well, you're black so you now need to speak on behalf of all black people and tell us what we should be doing. There is a difference between that and inviting people to share their experiences with you and you need to do very much the latter, rather than the former. Open a dialogue and talk to people and, hopefully, you'll have some sort of employee network group that focuses around race and ethnicity and it's a conversation to be had with those individuals to say, do you feel able to be your authentic self at work and, if not, why not? What can we as a business do to change that? So, again, you're not looking to people to make the change themselves, but you are opening up a listening exercise with the intent to do something about it.”
The Fawcett Society’s website has a page devoted to its Broken Ladders report where they summarise very well the key findings of the report, what they want employers to do and what they want the government to do. We’ve put a link to that page, and a link to the report itself, in the transcript of this programme.
- Link to Broken Ladders report