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Ethnic diversity in social research: a persistent problem

Posted on 17 April 2020 by Shivonne Gates, Senior Researcher
Tags: BAME researchers, discrimination, equality, ethnicity, race, social research

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Research Matters magazine, published quarterly by the Social Research Association (SRA). Back issues are made available to non-members three months after publication.

Ethnic diversity in Britain is increasing. According to the most recent Census in 2011, 14% of the British population identify as Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME). This proportion had doubled since the 1991 Census, which found that the BAME population accounted for just 5.9% of the population.[1]

It is well-documented that Britain’s increasing diversity is not reflected in its workforce. Among people of working age, 12.5% are from a BAME background, but only 10% of Britain’s workforce are BAME, and only 6% of top management positions are held by BAME people.[2]

Social research is sadly no different. We do not have aggregate data across social research as a field, but if we look at different sectors some trends emerge:

  • In charities, only 9% of employees are from BAME groups.[3]
  • Higher education academic staff are only 9% Asian and less than 2% Black.[4]
  • For civil servants, 7% are Asian and 3% are Black.[5]

These findings are of course limited, as we don’t know the proportion of BAME researchers in these sectors. Nevertheless, these numbers go some way to illustrating that our workplaces do not reflect the communities we come from, or indeed that we collect data from. But why is this a problem? We’re social researchers: we know there are advantages to having a diverse workforce. And if colleagues are open minded, we should all just be able to fit in anywhere, right?

The impacts of working in White research spaces

When research spaces are predominantly White, BAME researchers face a significant burden accessing, and then maintaining, their position within the organisation. Whether it’s altering speech and clothes to fit in, dealing with microaggressions, or feeling like you have to educate colleagues about racism (or deal with the repercussions if you refuse), everyday work requires more effort for BAME researchers.

Anecdotal evidence from a recent workshop (run by NatCen Social Research and funded by the Social Policy Association) highlighted how predominantly White social research spaces can be hostile environments for BAME researchers. There can be an assumption that if anyone understands racism, social researchers do. However, understanding racism and being actively anti-racist are not the same thing. This can make being a BAME researcher particularly challenging.

There are also institutionalised barriers that prevent change. A lack of BAME representation, especially in leadership roles, can prevent ethnic minority employees from feeling included, being supported, and progressing within the sector. For example, in the third sector, it’s an unfortunate reality that BAME staff often leave early in their careers.[6]

If our workplaces do not change, these problems won’t go away. And sadly, although ethnic diversity has been increasing in Britain, diversity in many workplaces hasn’t.

What can we do about it?

For things to change, agencies and academic institutions must invest time and money in tackling the roots of the problem. Business in the community[7] suggest five steps that can help increase ethnic diversity:
  • Appoint an Executive Sponsor for race to provide visible leadership on race and ethnicity in your organisation. They can drive actions such as setting targets for ethnic minority representation, briefing recruitment agencies and supporting mentoring and sponsorship.
  • Capture ethnicity data and report on progress, similar to what organisations have to do for the gender pay gap and, from this year, the executive pay gap. 
  • Commit at board level to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying. The Race at Work Survey revealed that 25% of ethnic minority employees reported witnessing or experiencing racial harassment or bullying from managers.
  • Make clear that supporting equality in the workplace is the responsibility of all leaders and managers by making sure performance objectives cover responsibilities to support fairness for all staff.
  • Take action that supports ethnic minority career progression by embedding mentoring, reverse mentoring, and sponsorship.

The impetus is on organisations to take action – to improve company cultures, to actively work to improve representation, and to reap the rewards of a more diverse workforce. 

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