Last week, the British government put forward plans to introduce a new law that will allow firms to discriminate in favour of female and ethnic minority job candidates . The entire country has been debating this since it was announced, with most people it would seem against the idea. Personally, I'm in favour of it, and I think the problem is that most people don't understand the law.
First of all, the 'positive discrimination' aspect is just a tiny part of the legislation, which also targets age discrimination, and tackles the gender pay gap in the public sector. Secondly, this is not an affirmative action law, as operated in the US, which forces you to choose ethnic minorities over other people. As far as I understand it, affirmative action means that, for example, when a university is picking new students, they have to pick a number of black people, and this most likely means that some white people will be overlooked for blacks who may not be as qualified as them. This creates resentment a lot of the time. The UK law is not the same though. The UK law means that if you are recruiting staff, and for any reason you have to decide between two equally qualified candidates, you can pick a woman or an ethnic minority in order to 'balance out' your team, allowing you to have a more diverse team. So why would you need a law to do this? Well, because this protects you against an employment tribunal.
Make no mistake about it, women and ethnic minorities need some help out here. A couple of years ago, I saw a hiring manager glance at a CV, and toss it in the bin after looking at it for less than one second. When I asked him why, he said because the person had an Indian name. A few weeks later, the same person said he had decided to hire only 'white British people', because they gave the least trouble. To be fair, we had a team member who was of Bangladeshi origin (born in the UK), who left the company suddenly, using a story which we found to be a lie. However, I think it was unfair to tie this behaviour to his race.
It's not too long ago we had a case of a Pakistani man looking for job in Wales, who was told there were no suitable vacancies. He decided to write a similar CV, with a Welsh name, and fewer qualifications. And guess what, within 3 hours, he was asked to apply for a position paying £33,000 p.a.
So how many times has this happened to me? How many times have I applied for a job I am more than qualified to do, only to have my CV tossed in the bin because I don't have an English name? How many times does this happen daily to other applicants in recruitment offices all over the country? The truth is that I will never know. Take a walk around the City of London, and all you'll see for the most part are white men. Of course, they are in the majority in the population, so that's not too much of a surprise. But check the boardrooms of major UK companies, check key positions in the government, and black men and women are few and far between. There are a few exceptions though. Like Trevor Williams, Lloyds TSB's chief economist, who speaks regulalry on BBC's breakfast show.
But as you can see, he's the only black man on the board. And I suspect there are very few black man on boards of other banks and financial institutions in the country. I certainly didn't see any at the Mansion house dinner.
But will this law help? I don't think so. As long as the people making the decisions are not forced to pick ethnic minorities or women, they will always be at a disadvantage. Until there are more ethnic minorities in influential positions, and more hiring managers who are ready to pick people solely based on ability and talent, this new law is just a drop in the ocean. It's a step in the right direction though, and hopefully, in the not too distant future, attitudes will change.
And you know what? I like to think that the two jobs I have gotten since I got here, I got them because I was the best person who applied for the job. If I found out that I got the job for any other reason, I would not be happy. And I think most ethnic minorities or women would think in the same way.
I still remember when I was working in London, we had someone come in to fix the photocopiers. He was black. When he asked who he was to report to, he was directed to me. You should have seen the look on his face. When he left, and I was signing off his job, he said he was proud to see a black man doing very well for himself in 'The City'. And you know what, it wasn't until that day that I realised that I was the only place person in my office. And when I went out for lunch later that day, I walked down the length of Fenchurch street, and I could count the number of black people I saw on one hand. Coincidence? Maybe. But it had never occurred to me. An d from that day onwards, I became more concious of myself, of my race, of the colour of my skin.
I heard an argument on TV that a white working class man in the UK is less likely to go to university than any other section of society, and that if anyone needs help in the workplace, it is them. That's not an argument I want to get into, the whole 'working class white man' story is something that perplexes me completely, but they are becoming more and more of a political force in the guise of the British National Party. And from my Nigerian roots, I know how much emphasis our people put on getting an education. However, statistics in the UK show that blackboys don't do too well at school. All sorts of reasons have been postulated as to why this is so. But the truth is that, at least, they are in school in the first place.And I'll stop here, because I don't want to say anything controversial.
I just hope that by the time my daughter starts looking for her first job, she won't get chosen because of the colour of her skin, or her gender, but because of her ability to do the job.