Years ago, near the start of my career, I remember getting an all-staff email from a patrician director general who announced himself as the department’s diversity champion. He didn’t explain why he was taking the role or what he hoped to achieve by it. I doubt he wrote the email himself. Irritated, I wrote right back and made these accusations to him. At that point, I was a fast streamer. There was one other non-white fast streamer who joined the department at the same time as me. He left within a few months. “This isn’t for people like us,” he told me in his parting shot. Meanwhile, the DG wrote back to me. We met and he started to mentor me. He did mean to do something after all – though, for the most part, he did it in private. For a long time, I too felt that was the right way to tackle race and diversity issues in the civil service.
Then I got to the Department for Education. At a senior level, I was just as unusual by my race as I had been as a fast streamer many years before. And yet it was more than 15 years later. We were supposed to have changed the talent pipeline. Most large organisations beyond the civil service looked different at senior levels. Even the civil service went through a brief, colourful phase at the top. So why have things gone back to white?
I think there are three reasons. First, other organisations have changed faster than us and hence many of the most talented people from BAME backgrounds have decided, explicitly or not, that they would be better off somewhere else – in client-facing organisations, for example, where firms have solid business reasons to change because of who their clients are. I’ve seen them go. I’ve been sorely tempted to go permanently myself.
The second reason is that we in the civil service haven’t been bold about creating a platform for change. We’ve kept the conversation about race and diversity as more or less a private one – between mentors and mentees within leadership teams – rather than take the risk of having it out in public. This is changing, but only after a long silence. And then the final reason is perhaps the hardest to state: the halo effect. We are civil servants, inspired by an ethos of public service. Good people. The reason we’ve failed to be diverse at senior levels must be the pipeline, we tell ourselves, it can’t be due to what is in our hearts and minds. It can’t be that we are racist, can it?
The other thing I found on arriving at the Department for Education was a permanent secretary, Jonathan Slater, who was willing to challenge the organisation and ask that question. He said it in a meeting of our leadership team and then he said it to the entire SCS. I remember the sharp intake of breath each time. I reacted in the same way. No, I wanted to say, not these folks, they’re not being racist, they’re my colleagues. But then, at that same SCS event, where we had invited people from our BAME network to join the SCS attendees, I heard stories from BAME members of the SCS that their senior colleagues made the assumption that they were members of the network not members of the SCS. From members of the network, I heard that during the table conversations about race, there were occasions where everyone else simply turned to them. The assumption was: you talk, it’s your problem to talk about.
Since then, we’ve had better and more open conversations in our senior leadership group. I chaired one of those conversations. I would never have agreed to do that before. This is very personal stuff. I don’t like crying at work. But I felt I had to force the conversation. It wasn’t happening with the right level of honesty otherwise. BAME colleagues more junior to me were taking the risk in speaking up, so I should as well. And Jonathan was there too, not chairing, letting BAME staff act as the centre of the conversation, fully engaged though, and ready to keep hitting hard so we don’t let the halo descend over the conversation again.
Where do we go next? We have plans and targets. Those are important to holding ourselves accountable. And we’ve dragged the conversation into the open. But we’ve probably got a way to go in terms of persuading enough senior leaders to be active participants in the conversation. I worry that it’s still the halo that’s doing the work: colleagues feel they ought to support the conversation, but it’s not yet the case that they want to have the conversation or are ready to act on the results of it. In private, when they don’t have to wear the halo, they might yet behave differently.
Changing this probably also requires broadening the conversation. Everyone has a stake in the conversation about diversity. The colleague who is obscuring their Birmingham accent because no one else around them speaks like that. The colleague who says “partner” out of hesitation rather than using a specific pronoun. The one who works from home on a Friday without saying that it’s to help in observing a religious practice. That’s important. But at the same time I’ve learned, thanks to the way Jonathan has sponsored the conversation in my department, that I shouldn’t stay back from holding my part in the conversation. It’s past the time to be polite and wait for someone else to have their say.
I was irritated at the start of my career by how bad we were in the civil service about diversity – and I’m irritated again. Too often I walk into a senior meeting and I’m the only non-white person there. Too often, when I’m with a colleague in those meetings, other people assume that he or she is the senior one, not me. I also have to reflect that these meetings at work are easily the whitest moments in my week. It’s okay to feel irritated about that. And then to act, in concert with others, on that irritation until we transform it into something else.