Thinking outside the ‘Black’ Box: Why diversity & inclusion should be every day not a month
In this guest article, Siji Onabanjo, Chief Growth Officer at Cyber-Duck, looks at diversity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) beyond the box and provides a blueprint for sustainable change.
Society has a habit of putting things in neat and tidy boxes to avoid chaos. A way of being able to define what things are; easy to measure. But putting people into boxes isn’t so productive.
Black History Month is definitely put in a box. Sitting quietly on the shelf until October 1st comes around. The box comes down, and we look inside and celebrate it. Maybe ‘like’ or even put out a celebratory post, learn about someone super-inspirational who’s Black and feel all enthused.
Then October 31st comes, and everything goes back in the box, and back on the shelf, until next year.
The irony of having a Black box, or square, to show social media solidarity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 isn’t lost on me. So much positive noise was made about addressing systemic racism in society. Lots of DEIB initiatives were set up in companies large and small.
But how much progress have we really made since 2020? Is the Black experience still largely kept in a box, out of daily mind?
Reasons to be positive
Since the hive of activity after May 2020, I feel the collective voice of the Black community is stronger, prouder, and louder. Within the community, there are several successful initiatives supporting Black businesses and employees: the UK Black Business Show, Black Pound Day, 1,000 Black Voices, Evenfields Black Talent Awards, and the BYP Network to name but a few.
But what about outside of our bubble?
When the Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter launched in 2018, just 85 businesses signed up. Today, it’s nearly 1,000. Research from McKinsey finds when looking at the unconditional pay gap over the last ten years, Black women and girls, aged 16-25, now earn 11% more than white male workers of the same age in the UK; largely down to an increased pursuit of higher education and their participation in the three highest-paying occupations more than doubling over the past decade.
On the entrepreneurial side, NatWest/Aston University’s The Time to Change Report finds that 23% of the Black community wants to set up a business, compared to 7% of white people; 20% want to help their communities, compared to 7% of white respondents. A case in point is the car insurance company and Fintech unicorn, Marshmallow geared towards ex-pats and migrants. Founded by identical twins Oliver and Alexander Kent-Braham it secured $85m (£69.9m) in Series B funding off a valuation of $1.25bn (£1bn) in 2021.
Intersectional structural barriers, unable to progress
Despite Marshmallow’s success, the only thing rarer than a unicorn is a melanated unicorn, as the difficult journey to unicorn status is even harder if you’re a Black founder. Access to finance is a real struggle. A survey of 500 Black entrepreneurs revealed 56% of Black-owned businesses only receive funding once they’ve already become a successful business, compared to 35% of white business owners.
Soberingly, only 40% of Black business owners “trust banks to have their interests” in mind. Most go to family for financial support, which is a huge disadvantage given historically lower generational wealth.
In the boardrooms and offices, the picture is also bleak. Although Black people make up 22% of the ethnic minority population in England and Wales, the recent Parker Review into business board diversity found they only accounted for 13% of ethnic minority Director positions in the FTSE 250. None of the FTSE 100 companies had a Black CEO, CFO or Chair.
In my industry, The Experiences of Black Women in the IT Industry report finds that 0.7% of Black women work in tech, compared to 1.8% across the wider workforce. They’re more likely to be on inflexible work and temporary contracts – known to hold back women in work. Despite the positive unconditional pay gap for younger Black women that I referenced from McKinsey earlier, it still finds they’re at the greatest disadvantage on key metrics of workplace equality compared with all other ethnicity and gender combinations.
Business culture excludes authenticity
There are also deeply human issues impacting Black business owners and workers.
Who wants to have to change your name, hairstyle, accent, or even music interests, to be accepted in work or to obtain finance? But this is the reality for many Black Brits.
To add further complexity, colourism remains a very real issue for darker-skinned Black people, impacting everything from interviews to job performance, and feeling comfortable in the workplace.
While 85% of Black young people believe being authentic is vital to job satisfaction, nearly half feel they must change fundamental aspects of themselves in an interview and at work. This is from the eye-opening This is Black Gen Z 2023 report, the largest research study into Black Gen Z experiences in Britain.
Great intentions, minimal sustained action
I’d argue the reason why meaningful progress has stagnated after all the positive noises in 2020 is precisely because such Black issues are put into a box, only reviewed year to year.
We know recruitment strategies often don’t actively take into account socioeconomic, cultural and geographic factors. If you’re recruiting from the same few universities and narrow locations, in the same old ways, you won’t uncover diverse talent.
With the economic squeeze, the ‘last in, first out’ approach almost necessarily means younger diverse talent is more vulnerable to redundancy, unless mindful attention is given to counteract it.
Other factors include a lack of support network, feedback (McKinsey found BBP women are 17% less likely to get feedback on a failed internal promotion application than white men) and the absence of career champions and mentors. As a result, Black workers are more likely to change companies – a huge barrier to reaching senior leadership, as 82% of all senior leaders in the UK’s largest employers are homegrown talent.
Take the Black out of the box, embed DEIB in daily life
So, how do we really create change? Mainly we need to stop treating the Black experience and DEIB as a boxed topic. You simply don’t achieve an equitable, diverse, inclusive business by accident, it takes constant, intentional action, embedded in organisational culture, backed up with investment.
From my experience growing with Cyber-Duck from start-up to scale-up and reaching Board level, this looks like:
Rethink talent acquisition – look critically at all aspects of the recruitment process, from the search and the selection process all the way through to onboarding. Invest in Diversity & Inclusion specialists like Evensfields and enrol in schemes like 10,000 Black Interns.
Measurable policy and inclusion – from recruitment to pay and professional development.
Valuable in-person experience – creating opportunities to build confidence on a human level, building mentorship into employee progression and having active Employee Resource Groups. Educate all employees on the issues.
Collaboration with experts – we’ve partnered with 1,000 Black Voices since 2020 to support Black tech start-ups
Fostering and communicating an authentic culture – genuinely allowing people to be who they are, publicly championing those differences
It’s not easy. It means going out of our comfort zone, and taking what seem to be risks by doing things differently. But diverse people and their perspectives spark much-needed business innovation.
It’s not called thinking outside the box for nothing.