‘The Colour of Power‘ has the potential to begin an honest debate in the UK about who wields power and, as a result, what might be the unintended consequences for all of us.
Perhaps even more boldly, it may precipitate a broader conversation about who we are as a nation of peoples, and who we want to be.
When we embarked on this journey we did not know exactly what we would find. We thought we would see some racial and gender gaps in certain positions of power due, in no small measure, to the way class and privilege play such an important part in pathways to positions such as high court judges and army generals.
But other areas, including union leaders and football managers, clearly demonstrated that class alone could not explain away why so few BME individuals, and women, were to be found in the highest positions of power.
The stark reality is that in 2017 pathways to the very top jobs in the UK for Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities are almost non-existent.
Denial will be the biggest challenge
Of course we could dismiss the overall findings within ‘The Colour of Power’ – which show that for more than 1,000 of the most senior posts in the UK, only 3.4% of occupants are Black and Minority Ethnic (BME), and less than 23.6% are women – by arguing that they illustrate a particular UK meritocracy in which both BME individuals and women in general are simply not good enough.
Or we could view the data, uncomfortable as it is, as a unique opportunity to think about a situation in which perhaps we are inadvertently not realising vast potential talent beyond a very narrow spectrum.
Furthermore, we might begin a process of unlocking creativity, dynamism and a self-belief that many more individuals have the potential to achieve high, all of which would help transform our society in so many positive ways.
To be clear, this is not an exercise to bash private, public and democratic institutions, but rather for us all to see the vast potential that we are missing.
Why did we embark on this project?
In 2016, after the furore of the #Oscarssowhite, the New York Times published a special edition that would be in effect a snap shot of what US power looked like in a feature entitled ‘Faces of American Power’.
What the ‘Faces of American Power’ feature did was to graphically illustrate the lack of diversity within the power people of America: the movers and shakers who shape arguably the most powerful nation on the planet.
Inspired by the New York Times piece we at OBV wondered what a similar exercise, perhaps one that was more thorough, might look like here in the UK.
I shared my thoughts with my good friend Raj Tulsani, who quickly became as enthusiastic as I was about the project. His company Green Park Consultants has been at the forefront of promoting BME talent for senior posts in the UK for more than a decade. He is acutely aware of the challenge of getting big business to recognise senior BME talent.
We then thought about potential media partners who we hoped would be supportive, challenging and excited about instigating a ground breaking conversation not just about ‘The Colour of Power’, but also about the gender of power too. The Guardian have been all of this and more.
After working on this project for several months we had no idea that the BBC presenters’ salary bombshell would be dropped just weeks before this publication. But it couldn’t have surfaced at a better time.
The BBC pay gap findings highlighted another uncomfortable truth, in particular how women and BME individuals can be doing a similar job to their white male colleagues but be financially and professionally devalued.
Interestingly the Guardian was one of the few publications to focus on the race disparity in the BBC findings, highlighting the fact that the highest paid BBC presenter, Chris Evans, was paid an annual fee close to that of all of the 11 BME presenters in the top 96 put together.
But whilst the BBC presenters might wield some influence, none of them made our list because we chose to highlight individuals who are, essentially, in charge.
Equally, the very recent David Lammy review which uncovered deep racial bias within the criminal justice system becomes part of this broader debate about an unrepresentative system producing negatively biased outcomes.
And before the Lammy review the Conservative Baroness and business leader Ruby McGregor Smith unveiled her report; ‘Race in the workplace’, which made very clear that in the business world, ‘Racial barriers exist, from entry through to board level, that prevent these individuals from reaching their full potential.’
McGregor goes on to argue that this race penalty cost the nation £24 billion a year.
So what does ‘The Colour of Power’ say about who wields power and, even more profoundly, about how that power dynamic drives the cultural, political and financial engine rooms of the United Kingdom?
We do not pretend to have the answers to many of the questions that are raised by shining this spotlight on power in the UK, but we do hope that as a nation we are collectively bold enough to begin a debate by asking questions such as: what are the consequences, if any, of having such a gross lack of diversity at the top level within a spectrum of sectors in the UK?
What has changed in the past 10 years? Is change too slow? Does this snap shot of the UK’s top decision makers have consequences further down the power hierarchy? Are BME individuals, and women, consciously or unconsciously locked out of powerful roles? How much of an issue is gender or racial lack of self belief?
What are the cultural dynamics within different communities that can play either a positive or negative role in high achieving? If we were to fast forward 10 years what would this situation look like? And what would it mean for society?
These are but a few of the questions that will help us understand the challenge and be best place to effectively respond.
For OBV the goal is clear. First, let’s not get stuck in cul-de-sac of denial. We should be brave enough to acknowledge the lack of diversity at the higher end of decision making institutions, and then set out plans for how we might fantastically unleash the potential talent that resides in every street in every city in every region of the UK.
Unlocking more talent does not mean there are fewer spoils to share amongst us. This is not a zero sum game. The more talent, the more creativity we can produce simply means the more the spoils get bigger and better.
Business becomes better; politics becomes more inclusive and more effective; science, medicine and other very technical industries become more inventive. The net results should see the whole of society as the true winners. Who would complain about a more prosperous society, one in which talent and success flourishes within every community right across the UK?
Equally, we could also argue that one of the greatest dividends of addressing the fundamentals around ‘The Colour of Power’ would be gains in our society’s well being.
Greater equality of opportunity would help translate to less resentment of ‘others’ who are often blamed by those feeling frozen out of jobs, particularly secure jobs, and the dignity that comes with employment.
Imagine the type of society we would have if millions more had a greater sense of belonging, because the nation’s institutional infrastructure viewed them as a rich source of talent.
Could this document help spark a conversation that truly becomes a transformative debate?
We think so.
Simon Woolley – Director, Operation Black Vote
Rita Patel – Chair, Operation Black Vote