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Spotlight on diversity: balancing ethnic bias

Drapers investigates why an ethnically diverse workforce at all levels is good for business.

For decades, people of ethnic origin have been key contributors to British fashion. But look upwards through the ranks of the industry today, and representation falls. In fact, a report by recruitment consultancy Green Park shows that, in senior management, the proportion of retail sector board members with a non-white ethnic background is 4.8%, even though the UK population is 13% non-white. In the past three years, that ratio at senior level has risen by only 1.4 percentage points.

And it is not just in the boardroom. Online forum the Fashion Spot’s spring 2018 Diversity Report found that in Milan, London, New York and Paris combined, just 30% of models on that season’s catwalks were from black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

Despite this, while gender diversity remains a hot topic in the industry, ethnic diversity is less so. Many businesses are reluctant to release figures or comment on the subject and, unlike with the gender pay gap, they are not legally obliged to publish data on pay in relation to ethnicity.

Ethinc diversity is strong business rationale. It’s not a choice – it’s essential for survival

Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community

“The fashion industry should be a barometer of our times and of our society,” says Andrew Ibi, principal lecturer in fashion promotion at Manchester Fashion Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University. “As culture shifts [towards diversity], and what’s valued within fashion changes with it, we need black people also making decisions.”

Ibi refers to one blunder in particular: last month, lifestyle magazine Grazia apologised to Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o for digitally editing away her natural hair on its cover shoot. The edit sparked public outrage. Ibi says he “can’t imagine” a black person was involved in the editing process.

“Black women’s hair has political significance – the last thing you do is crop it out,” he says. “We’re in a time when things need to be accurate – people won’t tolerate a ‘whoops’.”

Unrepresentative teams

The retail industry is well versed in keeping up with its ever-changing customer, so it is essential the teams working within it reflect that.

“For retail, it’s so apparent that the customer and client demographic is changing,” says Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community, one of the Prince of Wales’s charities, set up after the Toxteth and Brixton riots in 1982. “The industry needs to take on a workforce that is reflective of that to ensure they can deliver for those customers. The mixed [race] group is growing fast in the UK – it’s your future customer base. This isn’t just about current consumers, but future-proofing as well.”

Leaders should ensure that their brief to headhunters is that they wish to see a diverse group of candidates

Hash Ladha, chief operating officer at Oasis

Kerr points out that having a diverse workforce can also generate financial gains. In 2015 a report by management consultancy McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. Understanding your customer or client can, quite literally, pay off.

“Western countries today are more multicultural than ever before,” says Ravi Grewal, owner of independent fashion retailer Stuarts London. “So a good representation of diversity, even at board level, can lead to decisions more tuned in to consumer behaviour that belongs to other cultures, and provide opportunities for growth.”

Or, as Kerr puts it: “It’s strong business rationale. It’s not a choice – it’s essential for survival.”

Why this imbalance persists – despite all the clear advantages – however, is complex.

“Students come here with good qualifications, but there’s an attainment gap at graduate level,” says Angela Drisdale-Gordon, head of further education at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. “People say there are ‘snowy peaks’ at the top. At technician level there’s a balance of staff, and then fewer and fewer as you get higher up.”

Failing to see oneself reflected in the senior ranks of a workplace can make a big difference to candidate behaviour or, as Kerr describes it, “people looking for jobs are looking for people like them”. Ethnicity can also affect recruiters’ decisions.

Drisdale-Gordon explains: “People naturally recruit people who look like them. I’ve been on panels where I know I’ve made a difference when [BAME] people were almost dismissed. It’s about trying to take away those unconscious biases.”

Whether conscious or unconscious, these biases have a strong effect upon business culture. Sach Kukadia, co-founder and chief commercial officer at SecretSales, explains: “As a first-generation Asian in the UK, I have in the past personally experienced the effects of being stereotyped. It is clear that these stereotypes continue to exist within certain company cultures and it requires a better understanding of how a diverse culture can in fact positively benefit values and company DNA, before things change.”

Balancing bias

To tackle bias, both Kerr and Drisdale-Gordon recommend including at least one BAME person in selection panels, whether or not they are as senior as the other recruiters.

“If you can get different people as part of the selection process, it will result in diversity and different hires,” says Kerr. “There will be someone prepared to challenge others around the table, to explain when they have missed certain things.”

Leaders should look at implementing diversity targets within their organisations

Sach Kukadia, co-founder and chief commercial officer at SecretSales

Diversity targets should not be under-estimated either, says Kukadia: “Leaders should look at implementing diversity targets within their organisations to ensure equal opportunity and balance. They could also plan visits to other organisations where diversity is more prevalent, thereby learning at first hand the benefits of a mixed team.”

It is important to differentiate between targets and quotas, however. Hash Ladha, chief operating officer at Oasis, does not believe quotas are the way forward. Nevertheless, the hiring process can be made more representative.

“Having a diverse team is crucial, but the job itself should go to the person who is most qualified and suitable for the position,” he says. “Leaders should ensure that their brief to headhunters is that they wish to see a diverse group of candidates. If you see a diverse group, you are more likely to end up with a diverse team.”

Virtuous circle

Having a mixed team can have a ripple effect, explains Peter Ruis, CEO of Jigsaw, whose “Jigsaw Loves Immigration” campaign  made headlines in October after plastering the London Underground with statements such as “there’s no such thing as 100% British” and “without immigration, we’d be selling potato sacks”.

“A diverse representation at management level ensures one naturally creates that diversity of decision making as you have those people within business,” he says. “If it can feel a natural part of your business, that it is genuinely mixed across all strata of Britain, Europe and beyond you will be in a much better place and [assured there is] no conscious bias coming in.”

Good representation of diversity, even at board level, can help make more tuned in decisions to consumer behaviour

Ravi Grewal, owner of independent fashion retailer Stuarts London

As ethnic diversity improves one percentage point at a time on the FTSE, it is clear there are some businesses trying to set an example. Marks & Spencer has given itself until 2022 to ensure 15% of its senior management team is from a BAME background, and John Lewis 10% by 2020.

In 2016, John Lewis launched a “Bring Yourself to Work” week – a campaign that highlights how employees of all backgrounds are affected by diversity and inclusion through talks by senior partners and colleagues. The retailer launched its own BAME network in 2017. 

Change is also happening in the wider business community – in December, Deloitte publicly reported its ethnicity pay gap for the first time. However retailers choose to improve ethnic diversity in their businesses, what is important is to keep asking questions and opening dialogues, says Drisdale-Gordon: “Have those discussions and ask, ‘Why is it that our board members are represented in this way?’ It’s about understanding the issues that surround people of colour within this industry. If we don’t have these fundamental conversations, things won’t change.”


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