How has racial inequality impacted the workplace?

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Question: How has racial inequality impacted the workplace?

In Reni Eddo Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, she extensively details the UK’s history of workplace discrimination against black people.

From the story of Dr Harold Moody, an activist and doctor who set up the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 after being turned away from job after job in London; to the tale of Guy Bailey, a nineteen-year-old who was part of the Bristol bus boycott in 1965 after being denied a job interview — Eddo-Lodge highlights some of the ways that the UK has always had issues around work and racial inequality.

Whilst today looks very different and it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of their race or ethnic background, many forms of racism in the workplace still exist. In fact, racial bias continues to impact every stage of the employment lifecycle — from the application process to career trajectories and final salaries.


Ethnic minority people in England and Wales continue to deal with lower rates of employment and higher rates of unemployment than white people. As Tony Wilson, Director for the Institute of Employment Studies, wrote in June 2020, there continues to be pronounced racial inequality in the UK labour market:

“BAME people are more likely to be out of work than white people, to be in low paid work and to experience poverty. Overall, just over two-thirds of BAME people are in work (68%) compared with nearly four-fifths of white people (78%). White people are more likely to be in work than any other ethnic group, and this applies for both men and women (with one exception, where Indian men are more likely to be in work than white men).”

The issue extends into the workplace as well — with people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds being more likely to be low paid or in precarious work, like the gig economy. There is a significant pay gap — and the Resolution Foundation and the ONS have shown this gap cannot be entirely explained by the types of jobs, qualifications, age or experience of employees. Their conclusion suggests that it is down to unconscious racial discrimination.

The application process

In 2019, the HR magazine Personnel Today, ran a story on research that showed an “alarming bias against minority ethnic candidates”. The research came from the Centre for Social Integration at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, and suggested that black and minority ethnic job seekers need to send up to 60% more applications to receive the same level of interest as those from white backgrounds.

Black Africans and people from the Middle East and North Africa were the most heavily penalised through the application process, needing to send over 90% more applications than white applicants. Even with a university degree, Nigerian applicants needed to send an average of 80% more applications. Likewise, Pakistani job seekers needed to send 70% more applications, facing levels of discrimination similar to what was identified in the 1970s.

With people from BAME backgrounds seriously having to consider changing their name on their applications in order to get through the door — there’s clearly a big problem with bias from the earliest stages of the hiring process. According to Deed Poll, a company that helps people legally change their name, each year thousands of people Anglicise or adopt new names and a significant number of these are people from minority ethnic backgrounds escaping job discrimination.

The bias of “professionalism” standards

Aysa Gray wrote an article in 2019, that said: “professionalism has become coded language for white favouritism in workplace practices that more often than not privilege the values of white and Western employees and leave behind people of colour.” Whilst writing about America, many of the things that she calls out — like dress codes, speech, work style and scrutiny — also apply in the UK. This includes hair discrimination, particularly for people with afro-textured hair or braids, and hijab-wearing women finding themselves being passed over for jobs despite being highly educated.


Overt racism is the obvious, undeniable stuff — aggressive and openly hostile. But there’s another type of racism that’s a more covert, sneakier beast. Microaggressions may not seem like much at first glance but cumulatively build into white supremacist and racist systems. This can range from questions about where someone is “really from”, to assuming that your black or minority ethnic colleague wants to bear the burden of teaching you about racism.

It’s important to note that many microaggressions are unintentional and not meant to be malicious. If you’re called out, this isn’t because you’re a bad person, it just means it’s time to check your privilege and listen to what your colleague or peer is telling you rather than getting defensive. One helpful article is this Business Insider list of phrases that people think are fine to say at work but actually are racist, sexist or offensive.

Career progression

There is a significant lack of racial diversity at the top of UK organisations. There are currently more FTSE 100 CEOs called Steve than there are black or minority ethnic CEOs — and the lack of diverse talent continues across top-level jobs in the UK. In fact, “more than half of FTSE 100 companies have no ethnic minority board members and only around 3% of the most powerful, prominent 1,000 people in Britain are from ethnic minorities,” according to INvolve, who analysed UK boardroom diversity in 2019. The result of this underrepresentation could be valued at around £2.6bn to the British economy.

Allyship and Further Reading

Being an ally in the workplace is challenging but necessary. Sometimes you will make mistakes and be called out. Sometimes there will be whole structures or attitudes that need to be unravelled. Sometimes you will have to stand up for or with colleagues when it’s incredibly uncomfortable. This is a necessary part of being an anti-racist and an ally.

If you want to read more on being an ally to black and minority ethnic people in the workplace here are some places to start:

It’s time for white people to step up for black colleagues by Nicola Rollock

100 Ways White People Can Make Life Less Frustrating For People of Color by Kesiena Boom, Vice

White people, here’s how we can try to be better allies and proactively anti-racist by Chloe Laws, Glamour UK

5 ways to start being a better ally for your black coworkers by Courtney Connley, CNBC

Talking about racial inequality at work is difficult — here are tips to do it thoughtfully by Jennifer Liu, CNBC

3 Ways to be a better ally in the workplace by Melinda Epler, TED Salon: Brightline Initiative

Keep an eye out — more questions and answers to come! In the meantime, submit your question here and we’ll make sure to respond.

Authors: Harriet Allner and ikigai

Harriet Allner is a writer, blogger and fintech specialist. She cares about stories that matter and is passionate about promoting conversation around money positivity and financial feminism.

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