Civil service 'prejudice' a barrier to promotion, say officials from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds

Some Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) civil servants believe Whitehall prejudice is acting as a brake on career progression, exclusive survey reveals


Civil servants from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds feel that prejudice is still hurting their chances of promotion, a snapshot survey has revealed. 

Almost half of the BME respondents to a survey by Civil Service World's sister organisation Dods Research about barriers to career progression in Whitehall said they believed prejudice had prevented them from progressing to more senior roles. The Cabinet Office has acknowledged that there is “more to do” to improve BME representation, but said our research did not match its own findings.

The survey spoke to 2,171 civil servants at all levels. Of that total, 16% identified as being from BME backgrounds. Forty seven per cent of those BME respondents cited perceived prejudice as a barrier to career progression. That compares with 27% across the wider sample who claimed prejudice was holding them back. 

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Much progress has been made in improving Whitehall diversity in recent decades, with recruitment from ethnic minority backgrounds now standing at 10.1% compared to 5.7% in 1997. But a number of respondents to the survey aired concerns about representation at Senior Civil Service [SCS] level, where 4% hail from BME backgrounds. 

“Overall the civil service has changed for the better,” said one senior official from the Department for Transport. “However, I feel as a person from an ethnic minority group there are still too few ethnic minorities at SCS level. 

“This may not be down entirely to the civil service but a proactive promotion of opportunities at school, higher education & university level might improve the up take from minority groups.”

One senior Home Office agreed that while gender diversity had improved in the SCS, there remained too few senior officials from BME backgrounds.

The official said: “White, middle-aged, Oxbridge educated men have been replaced by white women. There are very, very few role models for anyone who falls outside a 'narrow norm'”. 

Another senior official at HM Revenue & Customs claimed that while more was being done to encourage diversity in the fast stream, the senior civil service remained unrepresentative of broader UK demographics.

“Whilst I commend the intake of a new more diverse work force, those who have worked in the department for many years have not benefited from the diversity agenda,” the official said. “For example where is the diversity in HMRC’s Board?  Our staff demographic does not reflect our vastly diverse customer demographic.”

Responding to the CSW survey, a spokesperson for the Cabinet Office stressed measures the government had taken to try and improve Whitehall diversity, and promised more comprehensive research on the theme would be published soon.

"We need the best and brightest civil servants, regardless of their background,” the spokesperson said. “We already have some programmes in place to support civil servants from minority backgrounds but we recently commissioned independent research to examine some of the actual barriers faced. We will be publishing this research shortly and an updated Talent Action Plan with steps to address the specific obstacles found.

"Our latest survey of over 270,000 staff does not match the findings of this small survey. We know there's more to do but our survey found that when it comes to views on respect in the workplace and career opportunities, civil servants from ethnic minority backgrounds gave similar indications to other respondents.”

Home Affairs Committee chairman Keith Vaz, who recently questioned David Cameron on civil service diversity, said the findings of the Dods study were “profoundly disappointing”.

“It is very concerning that there is such a lack of diversity at the senior levels of the civil service,” he told CSW.

“It cannot be right that certain departments continue to be totally unrepresentative of the British people. Those in senior positions in the civil service must work harder to challenge these views or they risk losing some of the best talent in the country."

Read the most recent articles written by Sarah Aston & Matt Foster - Fast Stream making progress on diversity

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