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The ethnic pay gap: What does it feel like to be the only woman of colour in the office?

“Being the “first” or the “only” in the workplace is challenging, and for me it was a huge shock to the system.” Former Creative Access intern, Digital Assistant and Contributor to The Sunday Times, Alice Kemp-Habib speaks as one of the newspaper’s first ‘diversity hires’, goes into depth about navigating the ethnic pay gap and discusses the necessity of organisations like Creative Access.

You can read the article in full here and below.

The ethnic pay gap: What does it feel like to be the only woman of colour in the office? 

Alice Kemp-Habib, one of this newspaper’s first ‘diversity hires’, explains how she’s navigating the ethnic pay gap

In 2017 I became this magazine’s first “diversity hire”. I was interviewed for the role of digital intern on a muggy Monday morning in August — the first of a handful of black and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates (I’m half-Bangladeshi, half-English). I was brimming with nerves and postgrad anxiety, but, happily, I was offered the role on Style three days later. Such measures are referred to as “positive action”, an increasingly common method of hiring, as companies attempt to build a more inclusive workforce. And it’s likely to become more common still. While it’s regrettable that this is necessary in 2019, these measures make a difference. The company that recruited me, Creative Access, has placed more than 1,000 interns from underrepresented groups, 84% of whom have stayed in full-time employment, myself included.

In October 2018, more than a year after I’d been hired, Theresa May announced a consultation into mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, based on the fact that, generally, ethnic minorities earn less per hour than white employees. There is no headline figure — pay varies according to ethnicity and gender — but the gap reaches up to 17% for some. The consultation was launched to establish what mandatory reporting would look like; who should report, how ethnicity should be defined and how the data will be presented. We are currently awaiting the conclusions.

The ethnic pay gap, like the gender pay gap, which continues to make headlines, is not the same as equal pay. It is already against the law for BAME employees to be paid less than white employees for doing the same job, but there are many factors that help to explain it.

One is age: ethnic-minority workers are, on average, younger than the UK’s white workforce, so they haven’t had the opportunity to age into senior positions. Given that pay increases as you get older, you would expect a disparity. Another is occupation: BAME groups are more likely to be in low-paid, low-skilled jobs. A third factor is progression. Once in work, ethnic minorities do not climb the ladder as far, or as fast, as their white counterparts, excluding them from high-paying roles. It’s not an encouraging backdrop for young people of colour.

Being the “first” or the “only” in the workplace is challenging, and for me it was a huge shock to the system. I grew up in Haringey — one of the most diverse boroughs in the country — and attended a secondary school in which 63 languages were spoken by girls from all walks of life. For me, diversity was the norm, not a buzzword or something to aspire to. But when I progressed to university in London and then into the working world, the opposite was true. I was one of a handful of BAME students on my undergraduate journalism course, and in 2016 the industry was 94% white. Seeing those figures IRL, and being part of the 6%, is deeply frustrating. It’s not at all reflective of the London I know.

Figures suggest that BAME people are ambitious —something I see reflected in my close friendship group, made up of accomplished young women of colour who encourage me daily — but they often see their ethnicity as a barrier to success. According to Baroness McGregor-Smith’s report, Race in the Workplace, published in February 2017, 35% of Pakistani, 33% of Indian and 29% of black Caribbean employees feel that they have been overlooked for promotion because of their ethnicity. It’s easy to understand why. People of colour are, on average, more highly qualified than white ethnic groups, but white employees are more likely to get promoted.

Heather Melville is the director at PwC, which has voluntarily published its diversity pay gap figures since 2017. She believes that role models are an essential ingredient to success. “I have never experienced any outward challenges because of my ethnicity,” she says. “What I have noticed is the lack of people that look like me.” Clearly, the lack of identifiable role models did not hinder Melville too much — last year she was named as one of the most influential black people in the City, and she received an OBE for services to business and gender equality in 2017. But that alone does not negate the idea that you cannot be what you cannot see. Baroness McGregor-Smith’s report found that one in eight of the UK’s working-age population are from BAME backgrounds, yet BAME individuals hold only 6% of top management positions. With so few people of colour in senior-level roles, it can limit aspirations.

When I accepted the internship at Style, I was guardedly self-conscious about my route in. I had worked hard and was more than qualified, but would other people think I’d received some unfair advantage? Just last month, an aggrieved reader reacted to a piece I’d written on the race-attainment gap in UK universities and how it might be addressed. “You are showing bigotry of low expectations,” they commented. “You think that ‘BAME’ students should not be held to the same standards as everybody else and need a leg up.” In crept that same feeling: had I received a “leg up”?

In moments like this, I think back to a comment made by Josie Dobrin, CEO of Creative Access. I was hired by The Sunday Times through her agency, which seeks to boost BAME representation in the creative industries. At a training day for new starters, she asked how many of us felt, on some level, that we didn’t deserve our roles. The majority of the group tentatively raised their hands. “Wealthy, well-connected people have no problem landing jobs at their uncle’s firm or calling in favours from family friends,” she said. “You applied for a job, you met the criteria and you got it.” And right she was. My diversity shortlist pales in comparison to the advantage offered by money, a private education and centuries-worth of preferential treatment.

Once you’ve made it into the workplace, though, there are daily “microaggressions” to contend with. The term, coined by the Columbia University professor Derald Sue, refers to the “commonplace indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults”. Adesola, a 24-year-old IT graduate of Nigerian heritage, told me about her own experiences. Adesola says that after more than six months at her company — a well-known insurance firm in London — colleagues still mispronounce her name and touch her hair without permission. “It makes me uncomfortable, but I don’t want to say anything as most of these people are senior to me.”

“Commonplace indignities” such as this — hair touching, mispronounced names, being told your heritage is “interesting” or “exotic” (happens a lot, highly annoying) — won’t come as any surprise to most people of colour. For me and my friends, they form the basis of impassioned WhatsApp rants or exasperated dinner chats at the end of the working week. It may not be in-your-face racism, but it’s enough to make you feel unacknowledged or “other” — and the constant tongue-biting is exhausting.

All this points to one fact: representation alone is not enough. “Unless every fibre of the organisation is optimising for inclusion, nothing is going to change,” says Abadesi Osunsade, the founder of Hustle Crew, a networking platform for women in tech. Melville agrees: “Employers think, ‘Lets hire some people from ethnic backgrounds and that’ll be OK,’ ” she says. “Actually, you need to have a pipeline, you need to support and sustain people of colour when they’re there.”

So how can we close the gap? Transparency is essential, and the proposal to make companies report their pay gaps is a step in the right direction. Also, employers should choose from a more diverse pool of talent. “There are things you can do at entry level, such as blind recruitment or making sure you have diverse interview panels, so you’re not hiring in your own image,” says Dobrin.

And if social justice isn’t enough of an imperative, consider this: McGregor-Smith’s report concludes that equal participation and progression across ethnicities could be worth an extra £24bn a year to the UK economy. Put simply, equal opportunity equals financial reward.

On a personal level, I believe people from BAME backgrounds should seek out role models. “Find someone you aspire to be like. Read their story, ask to meet them for coffee,” says Melville. Not only will this give you something to aim for, but it will form a network that will support you throughout your career. Individuals should also do their research before joining a company, Osunsade advises. “What are their values? What are they talking about when it comes to diversity and inclusion?” she says. “It’s about joining a company that’s willing to change, and has an attitude of respecting people equally.”

When I came for my interview at Style — two years ago this August — I was impressed that an institution like The Sunday Times was finally creating space for more diverse voices. Moving forward in my career, I’ll make it a priority to ask exactly what organisations are doing for their BAME employees. It’s 2019, and companies that aren’t actively making themselves attractive to people of colour need to be spurred into action.