March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which coincides with our own Human Rights Day.
If I am brutally honest, it is a little disappointing that today we are still having to highlight the necessity to fight racism.
And oh boy, do we need this day: despite pockets of progress, racial discrimination remains rife and affects all corners of society, including the workplace.
Take Glassdoor’s 2019 Diversity and Inclusion Study among workers in the US, UK, France and Germany. The data shows that 30% of the respondents experienced racism at work. When looking at discrimination in its entirety, including ageism, sexism and homophobia, that figure jumps to 49%.
In South Africa, the situation can’t be much different. I deliberately use the word can’t because no recent reports have been published on the prevalence of racism, gender-based bias, ageism and other forms of discrimination based on religion, culture, and sexual orientation in the workplace.
We however know from isolated reports that executive and managerial levels, are still not representative of the South African society. A study by the Commission of Employment Equity last year suggests white South Africans, who comprise 9% of the country’s workforce, occupy 66% of top managerial positions. The overall majority are men. Black employees, accounting for 75% of the workforce, fill only 15% of top positions. Most of them are, once again, are men.
Without question, the above stats are indicative of a systemic racial and gender-based bias, especially in light of the growing number of young black women graduating from universities and colleges often with better grades than their male counterparts.
While higher diversity levels are undoubtedly necessary, what truly transforms our workplaces is inclusion. Diversity is about numbers, which is easy to fix by intentionally hiring people of different races and gender. Inclusion on the other hand goes much deeper.
Whether or not your company is inclusive depends on whether everyone’s ideas, knowledge, perspectives, approaches, and styles are considered. More importantly, inclusion is about whether each employee feels safe to be who they are, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, culture, religion and ethnicity.
Inclusive workspaces also make it easy for all employees to report unfair treatment while holding perpetrators accountable, regardless of their rank, while taking adequate steps to prevent transgressions in the future – no matter how small they seem to unaffected parties.
The problem with discrimination is that violations are subtle and disguised as micro-behaviours and micro-actions, thus often invisible to unaffected parties. This makes it difficult for victims to report their experiences to management, especially if the managers belong to unaffected groups. The result is that many acts of discrimination go unreported.
Helping victims of discrimination, holding perpetrators accountable and preventing incidents, go hand in hand with nurturing a strong corporate culture of listening without judgement, dialogue, learning, unlearning and empathy.
Often, unaffected groups fail to acknowledge their colleagues’ experiences, not out of maliciousness but because they, clouded by their privilege, are unaware of how certain words, actions, reactions, and behaviours affect others.
Our golden rule is “just because something is not problematic, hurtful, and offensive to you doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic, hurtful, hateful, and offensive to others”.
Turning your workplace into a place where everyone can thrive mentally, emotionally and professionally requires some investments in terms of time, money and other resources. It is worth it, though.
A 2018 Boston Consulting Group report shows that diverse and inclusive management teams reported 19% higher revenues than uniform companies. Businesses with a culture of inclusion experienced 2.3 times higher cash flow than those who don’t and are 70% more likely to capture new markets.
That said, higher financials while important, shouldn’t be what motivates one to fast-track inclusion and thereby obliterate the need for an International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
One should stand on the side of equality, equity, fairness and justice because it is the right thing to do. Not everything should have a price tag.
Equally, we should all aim to exist in a society or world where race or any form of classification are immaterial. People should be considered and given access to opportunities purely based on what they bring to the table.
I am hopeful for a time when this status quo becomes the norm.
Nwaneri is CEO of Afrika Tikkun Services