Rock the Boat

Mind the complacency gap and raise a collective voice for change. 



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Cheryl Cole

Cheryl Cole is the Editor of DiversityQ and has worked for GSK, The Birmingham Post, Investment Week and Bloomberg.  Cheryl is an award-winning and innovative journalist, in addition to being an editor with over 20 years’ experience in implementing effective communication and publishing strategies.

Given my role as editor of DiversityQ, a publication solely dedicated to improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace, it’s probably a given that I’m all for creating a fairer society where people are not treated differently because of the colour of their skin, sex, gender, sexuality or religion.

I’m all for protecting people from discrimination, and the burden of proof in such cases to shift from the individual to the perpetrator or employer. I don’t like racists, misogyny; indeed, any forms of bullying, harassment and victimization.

An End to Complacency

But I also have an aversion to complacency. Especially, when that inertia has helped fuel decades of educational, gender, income and ethnic inequalities to create vast wealth gaps—now exacerbated by the global coronavirus pandemic. Organizations were forced to stand up in the name of diversity and inclusion, forced into action, during 2020 as racial and economic injustices were laid bare at their door.

Why? Because they failed to heed the warning signs and listen to their black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees who have been lobbying for more transparency on workplace opportunities, progression and pay for years.

I want to say that complacency has come to an end, but I’m not convinced.

Where are the champions of minorities equal pay?

The thing is, as a black woman, in a relatively high-profile job, I still have to search for those championing equal pay for minorities on my behalf; and after much soul-searching, I wonder if the lack of noise may partly be my fault.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, I want to be paid the same as my peers, especially those I saw leave university with weaker grades than me move with ease into roles at coveted mainstream media publications because they knew someone, who knew someone or simply ‘fitted in’.

Low Expectations

It may partly be my fault because when I started my second career as a journalist in the late 90s, (my second, as at school I was repeatedly told journalism wasn’t an option for “someone like me” so first became an optician) I initially applied for ‘safe’ roles in newspapers like The Voice where people of colour set the news agenda, and best represented me.

When I finally moved into mainstream media, the question wasn’t whether I was being paid the same as my white male colleagues, but instead, would I be mistaken for the cleaner or someone in catering.

Having ‘made it’ I was content with keeping my head down, doing the best job I could and not rocking the boat. What I was being paid wasn’t an issue—but it should have been. (I later found out it was around 14% less.) As I suspect was the case for many minorities who worked their way up the corporate ladder in the noughties, there wasn’t ‘someone like me’ in the business to compare notes, get angry, and protest.

Raise a Collective Voice

We shouldn’t then be surprised to hear that minorities are paid up to 37% less than their white counterparts in some sectors. It’s something people of colour, especially black women, have long known but were either reluctant or felt powerless, to do something about. That’s why if we want things to change, now’s the time to use our collective voice.
It’s not going to be easy. While businesses found having to report on the disparity between what they paid men and women an insightful and useful exercise in promoting gender equality, the process also shone a light on the inadequacy of the software and some processes used to capture pertinent data.

This in part may explain why the voluntary business-led approach to reporting on black and minority ethnic pay and bonus gaps the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy favours has failed to gain the same momentum as gender pay gap reporting.

Fill out a form…who me?

I suspect it’s more to do with that historically ethnic minorities have shied away from completing certain sections on work/employment forms and surveys for fear of persecution, misrepresentation, or belief that they serve no personal benefit. The situation was made worse by the former reluctance of both white and minority colleagues to talk about race at work in case they “say something politically incorrect”.
Gathering data on ethnic minorities in the workplace has not been easy. In some instances, the declaration rates can be as low as 25% in the private sector – with companies without diversity leads struggling the most.

Mandatory reporting has a way to go, but first, the complacency has to stop. I want minorities to stand up and be counted (in a non-threatening way) if we’re going to bring about change.

In her Race in the Workplace review in 2017, Baroness McGregor-Smith said that, “No employer can honestly say they are improving the ethnic diversity of their workforce unless they know their starting point can monitor their success over time.”

Businesses won’t be able to monitor what they don’t know!

Don’t Keep Your Head Down

Regardless of when it does become the law in the UK, mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting is on the horizon. Whether the methodology used is a ‘single pay gap’ figure comparing the earnings of ethnic minority versus white employees; multiple percentage figures involving a more detailed breakdown of the different black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, reporting in £20,000 pay bands or ethnicity pay information by quartile, businesses need to start taking practical steps to engage their minority staff.

I’m asking ethnic minorities not to be like me in the early stages of my career; content with keeping my head down. Here’s a real opportunity to be part of the solution and not the problem of equality and equal pay.

Be visible, be vocal; let’s rock the boat. •