I was one of 400 people that attended the ‘Diversity by Default – Under the Skin’ conference hosted by Lloyds Banking Group. The event was marketed as one that would ‘get under the skin of the issues impacting BAME representation in business’. I rubbed my hands with glee at the prospect of hearing from speakers that could increase/enhance my knowledge.
Irvinder Goodhew, Transformation Director at Lloyds, told us that “diversity is at the heart of transformation” and reminded the audience that organisations with visible BAME leaders have more impact. She also shared her story and spoke about the importance of roles models, quoting Oliver Goldsmith:
People seldom improve when they have no model but themselves to copy after.
This was followed by fascinating presentation about Ethics in AI by two speakers specialising in this area. Their talk covered artificial stupidity and racist robots (just Google ‘unprofessional hair’ and see what AI tell us!).
The break out session entitled: 'Increasing BAME Representation in Leadership' made some very interesting points and speakers shared their experiences and advice as BAME leaders in their organisation. It was an insightful and lively discussion. The panellists were candid and authentic – 2 of them acknowledged their privileged background and how they used that to challenge stereotypes.
Then it was time for the main Q&A and they started to introduce the panel. Let me pause here and share where my mind was at this point during the event:
The event was about getting ‘under the skin’
A large proportion of the room were women from African/Caribbean backgrounds
Speakers emphasised that engagement and relatability are key drivers in improving inclusion (role models)
We were told that the BAME term feels like an artificial construct
One slide informed us that Race and Gender stereotypes impacts our perception about a person’s competence and ability.
Got all of that? Ok…unpause.
What struck me about the panel was that no one was black and female (this was the same in the breakout session too). Please note, I am not someone that needs to see every hue of black skin (#16shadesofblack) to feel that there’s true representation. However, what I do expect from an event designed to get ‘under the skin’ is an understanding that having a black female on a panel emits a strong message. Having someone articulate that there are behaviours and experiences based on racial challenges and gender biases unique to black women, is so important. I’ve not even added other characteristics into the mix!
So when it came to audience participation, I shared this observation and was greeted with...
Followed by a response which went along the lines of not being able to have all ethnicities represented.
For a few seconds, I felt all by myself even though I knew that I was making a valid (and necessary) observation in a conciliatory way. This temporary feeling of isolation was heightened when a member of the audience stated:
“There’s only one person on the panel that looks like me but I think they are all fantastic and I can learn lots from all the panel members”
I’m not sensitive (well, not much) but when I heard that, I thought:
'Hold on a minute…what is that about? It completely misses the point. Can you not see that the panel almost mirrors what happens in the workplace? Can you not see the irony?'
Part of me wanted to do this...
But I think I would have been disappointed in myself had I kept quiet.
I raised the issue about representation not because I think it means that all the problems facing black staff will be solved just because you have a member of that minority group in a leadership position. At best that’s naïve and at worst, it’s lazy thinking and sits right alongside tokenism and tick boxism.
However, the people in room claimed to understand these subtleties and nuances of race but when it came down to it, missed the mark. How on earth then, can we expect organisations that neither know nor care about this agenda, to know and care about this agenda?
I raised the issue about representation because, research tells us that:
Black women still “face even more biases and barriers to advancement” than white women.
Black women are more likely to have to deal with daily discrimination and that most often their managers will not have their back;
For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 60 Black women are; 40% of Black women have had their judgement questioned in their area of expertise; 27% of men have; only 35% of Black women said their manager promotes their contributions to others; 46% of men said their manager does; 41% of Black women said they never have a substantive interaction with a senior leader about their work; just 27% of men said that.
If we are really serious about improving outcomes, creating equitable platforms, and fostering inclusive environments, then these type of events need to model what we want others to emulate. That is why I speak to organisations about building their R.A.C.E confidence©:
Recognise that great progress comes from a place of great discomfort - Who is uncomfortable talking about race and why?
Accept that what is in place is NOT working for everyone – what perspective isn’t in the room? Where are the knowledge gaps?
Courage to have crucial conversations™ and listen to understand (not to defend or doubt). Check your cognitive dissonance radar
Emotional and cultural intelligence is vital in order to navigate the human compass of emotions.
The conference on the whole was interesting but I felt a little let down. To get under the skin of this agenda requires focus, determination and commitment; otherwise, we’re just scratching the surface.
 LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co
 The Women in The Workplace 2018 survey
TM – Crucial Conversations - Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan (2012)
R.A.C.E. Confidence – Cherron Inko-Tariah (2018)