In January 2015, McKinsey published an article stating that companies in the top quartile in terms of ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to outperform those in the bottom quartile. Having more women in senior management positions also has been shown to increase profitability.

In that case, so the rational argument goes, it should be obvious that organisations should increase diversity simply because it’s good for business. In the corporate world business tends to be about maximising profit so it is worth posing the question – why have organisations been so slow on the uptake in putting that information to good use?

Today, almost three years later, research from The Guardian shows that amongst the UK’s top 1000 companies, only 3.5% of senior managers are BAME. According to Grant Thornton, the proportion of senior business roles held by women in the UK has fallen from 21% in 2016 to 19% in 2017. The percentage of businesses in the UK with no women in senior management has also risen from 36% in 2016 to 41% in 2017. After some progress in recent years, UK firms now appear to be going backwards, despite increased pressure to improve gender diversity levels.

The number of women in senior positions is now close to the levels reported over a decade ago when Grant Thornton’s first annual survey in 2004 revealed the proportion of senior business roles held by women stood at 18%. The UK is the second worst performing EU country in terms of female representation in senior roles.

One explanation for why this happens is the part that unconscious bias plays. This refers to the biases we all have, regardless of our own gender, race or class, but are unaware of. Our brains are hard wired to categorise people based on their external attributes and this can be influenced by our upbringing, social interactions and the media.  

Every one of us experiences difference. If you think of the protected characteristics from the Equality Act (2010), and then look at the people who you interact with, you’ll see that you do interact with someone who is different to you – maybe you don’t know someone who is transgender – but you probably do know someone who is a different age, race, or gender.

However, all of us experience these differences in different ways. People are considered to be privileged have access to social power which they are perceived not to have earned. What is not in dispute is these people often don’t realise that others don’t have the same access that they do and might see everything as a level playing field.

There was an article a few years ago detailing the experience of a doctor who joined a gym. Upon joining, the doctor received the code to enter in order to get into the changing room. But the code didn’t work. At the front desk, staff told her that the code was for the men’s changing room, and she’d have to drop the “Dr.” for the system to give her access to the women’s room. Men would never have to experience this: their privilege is invisible to them.

Unconscious bias can have a significant influence on various organisational processes like recruitment, promotion, learning and development and individual outcomes like employee engagement, performance and productivity. When unaddressed, unconscious behaviours have the potential to shape and reinforce a culture where employees are treated unfairly and where they can develop a feeling that they are being discriminated against.

And yet, because all of us experience difference, it means that changing our society is something we can all contribute to. Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments, came up with the term “Colour Brave,” and she says we all have a part to play: “The wonderful thing is if we can all take responsibility. It’s on all of our watch. Rome is burning, and we’re all holding cans of water. Every single person. If we could do that – all of us – I think that moves the needle in a big way. We all do our part in different ways. The question is – what is your part?”

For us at the IPA, our part is to provide training, where we introduce ideas that will help people have the difficult, uncomfortable conversations that might move the needle and address, in our own small way, some of the inequality we experience both in the workplace and in society at large.

If you would like to know more about our training programme, “How to understand and deal with unconscious bias”, please contact Derek Luckhurst, IPA Training & Development Director

[email protected] 07780697024.