Why do ethnic minorities still face discrimination in gaining employment?, asks Ken Clark.
The issue of racial prejudice in British society has been in the news recently. Under the headline Racism on the rise in Britain, the Guardian reported on data from the British Social Attitudes Survey which showed that the proportion of respondents describing themselves as prejudiced against people of other races had risen between 2012 and 2013. The newspaper quoted Omar Khan from the Runnymede Trust as saying: “This nails the lie that the problem of racism has been overcome in Britain”.
Subsequently, the Guardian’s interpretation of the data on prejudice has been criticised. One objection is simply that in fact the overall trend in self-reported prejudice is downward and that different measures of negative attitudes to other races, such as the proportion of people objecting to mixed-race relationships, have been in long term decline.
Another problem with self-reported data on racial attitudes is the question of whether these actually measure anything useful: those reporting themselves to be prejudiced might in their daily lives act perfectly fairly towards other races, with minimal impact of their views on the actual lived experience of different racial groups.
Prejudiced thoughts are commonplace for all of us. (See for example, Stephen Bush in the Telegraph or Dean Burnett in the Guardian.) Acknowledging this illustrates the distinction between prejudice and discrimination, between what people say and what they do, between attitudes and outcomes.
It is therefore timely that two major reports on the labour market outcomes of non-white ethnic groups in the UK have been released in the last week. The first, from the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity, uses a variety of data sources including the Census, to investigate ethnic inequalities in social mobility (see also, this infographic). The report, based on a workshop last year at Cumberland Lodge, was presented to policymakers at House of Lords last week.
The overriding message is that while, in absolute terms, ethnic minority communities in the UK have experienced employment growth in clerical, managerial and professional occupations, they have fallen behind when compared to the progress made by the majority white community. This is in spite of large gains in educational attainment for non-whites (see infographic) with most minority groups now surpassing whites in terms of the proportion with degree-level qualifications.
The second report comes from Race for Opportunity and focuses on the gap between ethnic minority and white representation in management positions. Using Labour Force Survey data, it finds that, while one in 10 employed people in the UK is non-white, only one in 16 top management roles is filled by a non-white person. Furthermore, this gap has widened since 2007. Some ethnic minority managers are concentrated in particular sectors – with Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Chinese managers much more likely to be operating in the distribution, hotels and catering sectors, where firms tend to be smaller and employment lower paid.
Both reports contain some positive news. In the CoDE report there is some social mobility for second generation minorities relative to their parents. The substantial increase in educational qualifications must contribute to the progress of, particularly younger, members of the minority groups. Similarly, the RfO report finds that minorities are well represented at the early stages of the career ladder, leading to managerial positions.
Nevertheless, the overarching impression from these studies confirms the results of decades of research on the labour market position of ethnic minority groups in the UK. These demonstrate that for many ethnic minority groups there are serious gaps between their outcomes and the outcomes of the white majority community. Given their population share, their level of educational attainment and their patterns of geographical location, ethnic minorities do less well than should be expected. It is not surprising that both CoDE and RfO call for policy action to address this situation.
So, what are we to make of this? If racism is not on the rise, as is claimed, if there is evidence to suggest that prejudiced attitudes are fading away, why do minorities still face barriers to workplace success? Are racist attitudes concentrated amongst those who wield the decision making power in organisations? David Johnston and Grace Lordan think so.
Do those who discriminate in the workplace hide their racist views? Are there other factors besides discrimination that we need to consider? Answering these questions could help to design the policies that our public and private institutions need to level the playing field for all workers in Britain.
One promising line of research emphasises the importance of implicit racial attitudes or unconscious bias. The idea, popularised in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, is that our brains take shortcuts when processing complex information and often fall back on automatic, implicit thought processes which we may be largely unaware of. These thought processes can include racial generalisation about other ethnic groups.
Rooth conducts a field experiment in which attitudes to members of the Arab-Muslim ethnic minority group are measured in a sample of recruiters who are also responsible for deciding whether to pursue fake job applications submitted to them by the researchers.
Rooth shows that an increase in implicit bias against Arab-Muslims is associated with a statistically significant reduction in the probability of an Arab-Muslim worker being short-listed for employment. Irrespective of how much explicit bias recruiters admit to, it is the unconscious negative associations they hold that lead them to reject minority applications.
Training on unconscious bias and how to avoid it is already being undertaken by some employers in the UK including the BBC and PwC. RfO are calling for this to be mandatory – resources to support such training are readily available.
The research challenge is to establish whether addressing prejudiced attitudes – the ones that we may be prepared to own up to and, perhaps more importantly, the ones we may not even know that we hold – can begin to improve the seemingly entrenched labour market disadvantage, which is experienced by many non-white ethnic groups in the UK.
- The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).