Being #Colourbrave in the UK Civil Service

“Take responsibility for the power you have.” A brave and important challenge to my perspectives on diversity…

Like most people I have always thought as myself as an open and inclusive leader, committed to meritocracy and equal opportunities for all.

Like most people, I am pretty sure I have never let race or ethnicity influence my decisions.

And although I may have never used the term, I think I have probably been proud to be ‘colour blind’.

So whats the problem?

I suspect most people feel the same? But despite this, we – like many organisations – have struggled in the past to build diversity at the top of our organisation. For instance, in last year’s Annual Diversity Inclusion Report DFID published the fact that 2% of our senior leaders were from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, compared to 15% across the rest of the organisation. Although this has improved dramatically recently, this statistic has prompted an important discussion about diversity at the top of our organisation and a worry that something isn’t working…

In discussions about diversity I have always agreed that we need increase the number of people from BAME communities in the civil service leadership. But I have felt that we need to be careful about not undermining meritocracy: we need to treat everyone equally..

A challenge

Caroline, a black female colleague, challenged me on this last week. Despite warnings from other BAME friends and peers that it wasn’t worth the hassle, the way she described her experience has transformed the way I think.

Caroline told me about the extraordinary signals she has experienced throughout her career in the civil service. She explained how, although she has never seen explicit racism at work, these signals incrementally undermine her confidence making her feel an outsider and unequal to others. She explained how this manifests itself in all sorts of ways:

  • how informal networks work and how BAME staff like her feel excluded;
  • how others (usually white, Oxbridge-educated) seem like to get more opportunities;
  • how odd it can feel to be the only BAME staff member in meetings;
  • how people make daily assumptions about her as a role model for our local staff, as if she isn’t a role model for everyone (which she most certainly is).

It was clear that my views of meritocracy are out of touch with her reality.

In 10 years in the UK Civil Service, and 20 years working in diverse, multicultural settings, this is the first time I have had such a conversation about how it feels to be from a BAME community at work. And although I feel ashamed it has taken me this long, I think I come away with a different perspective about diversity and clarity that we need to do more.

Rather than say I should immediately try to do things differently, she suggested I watch Mellody Hobson’s TED talk about being ‘Colour Brave’. It is fantastic: an inspiring call for all of us to take action.

Mellody presents a compelling case for why we need to be ‘colour brave’ rather than ‘colour blind’ to be comfortable having the ‘uncomfortable conversations about race and colour’, to ‘observe and interact intentionally in our environments’. It is — she says — this kind of boldness and courage that will lead to a more diverse workforce that is more representative and equal. But more than that, she explains how it leads to better decisions, which in our world means better impact on poverty as a result.

Reflecting on our conversation and Mellody’s TED talk, I realise there are some things I can do in the coming months:

  • Keep working on building trust so we can have open conversations like the one I had with Caroline. I will certainly seek out more conversations like this, as a way of building my confidence and understanding different perspectives.
  • Be more open and explicit about my own ethnicity and background. This means being less ashamed of being white, male and privately educated. By being more up front about it and how this affects my view of the world, I can start better conversations with others about their ethnicity and background and learn more about their perspectives.
  • Actively seek out people beyond my normal network when thinking about potential new opportunities (jobs, corporate priority tasks etc) encouraging and helping people different to me.

I certainly don’t have the answers and am probably a bit confused still (and would welcome further challenge). But I now know that I need to think differently if I am to rise to Caroline’s challenge.

Pete Vowles 🇰🇪🇬🇧

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This is not a corporate or a political blog so the opinions and ideas expressed here will be absolutely my own, not those of DFID.

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