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Diversity data: you can't act if you don't measure

by Catherine Osaigbovo on 08 Jan 2020

As we know, companies have become more aware of their responsibility to improve ethnic minority representation in their organisations. Despite this, many senior leaders will not be surprised that the UK's top firms have failed to make any progress on increasing ethnic diversity amongst top executives. Or that ethnic minority representation has fallen over the past year.

While it is evident there is a strong business case for wider workforce diversity within organisations, it’s clear there is still some way to go to level the playing field.

As Baroness McGregor-Smith pointed out in the Race in the Workplace review last year, “no employer can honestly say they are improving the ethnic diversity of their workforce unless they know their starting point and can monitor their success over time”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission supports her assertion, suggesting that ethnic minority people’s careers are at risk because employers are failing to collect meaningful data on representation in the workforce.

However, just over half of employers say that they face barriers to collecting this data, including that it is too intrusive and onerous.

With this in mind, we brought together a group of senior leaders to discuss data collection within organisations and how we address the challenges.

Here are some of the highlights.

Why is collecting data a challenge?

Categorisation

Businesses will often offer a limited number of groups by which employees can classify themselves, making the data as easy to collect and assimilate as possible. However, if an employee does not identify with one of the groups on the list available, the data becomes almost meaningless when making decisions about the needs of a particular group.

This raises the question of standardisation and the number of ethnic groups to be considered. Should business adopt the classifications from the 2011 Census or should another set of classifications be developed?

It is clear that to attain a useful and reliable data-set from which employers can make meaningful decisions, a standardised list of ethnic groups will need to be built and the use of the list enforced when introducing any mandatory reporting.

For some organisations, grouping together all BAME employees under one classification works well, and, arguably, it is at least a first step. However, the reasoning for employee drop-off at certain management levels will obviously differ for different groups of people.

Having a number of male Asian employees at senior level, for example, doesn’t mean you have necessarily solved the diversity challenges in your business, if you do not have any female black African employees beyond junior management. To create a truly diverse culture at all levels of the business, the needs of individual groups should be sought and assessed.

Social mobility

The challenge around data collection is complicated further when social mobility is brought into the mix. There is the suggestion that those from privileged backgrounds, irrelevant of ethnicity, will often find it easier to climb the corporate ladder than those from a poorer or lower social background.

It also raises the question of how far into a person’s career, data on social mobility should be measured. For example, there may be a high number of graduates from a particular social background employed at entry level, but how many of these people make it to senior level positions?

Data deficit

There is, understandably, no legal obligation for individuals to disclose which ethnic group they identify with. So those employers currently committed to collecting personal data, be it internally or upon application externally, will have, undoubtedly, done so with varying levels of employee participation.

In a world where we are frequently warned of the risks of handing over too much personal data to organisations, it is unsurprising that employees are going to be reluctant about providing their employers with additional personal information they are not obliged to give. Especially if they feel it could hurt future job prospects.

There was wide agreed that effective communication is key. In some organisations, short and personal pleas from senior business leaders have worked well, alongside a series of communications explaining why data is being collected, and dispelling myths around what the data is being used for. Having videos, for example, “book-ended” by sponsors and allies at senior level, who can demonstrate how important data collection is and taking personal ownership, is powerful. Sending these communications out at the same time as a request to collect data has been particularly effective.

Final thoughts

It is clear that collecting meaningful data is difficult; however, we shouldn’t be deterred. We cannot solve these challenges overnight but actively engaging with employees and taking the first step is important. If they haven’t already, businesses should start carefully planning how they will collect and assess data on ethnicity within their organisations. That way, we can all start to move this conversation forwards.

Catherine Osaigbovo

Written by Catherine Osaigbovo

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