How companies can take action to address white privilege 

By Alice Allan, Business Fights Poverty Challenge Director

Everybody’s multiple identities will have an impact on how they experience life at work. People’s age, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation or a mental or physical disability can all bring advantages and disadvantages.  Taking a broader approach to how we view others and not just looking at gender or race in silos, is key to achieving company diversity and inclusion ambitions.

Like many, I have been reflecting on the injustice of racism since the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and considering how my own actions might be perpetuating the interests of dominant white power structures within business.

Over the last year the majority of my time was spent producing two Business Fights Poverty Challenges to help achieve gender equality in business. Whilst researching statistics on women’s leadership I came across an FT article that included a sentence that has stayed with me ever since.  It went like this; ‘the patriarchy that has been prevalent in UK boardrooms is gradually opening, but only to include a white matriarchy. Ethnic minorities have been relegated to the background’.  The January 2019 article highlighted that all 25 female executive directors working for FTSE 100 companies are white, and 97 per cent of the female executive directors of FTSE 250 companies are white.

If I ignored these facts I was in danger of continuing to prop up a system of white supremacy – one that simply replaced white men with white women. Thankfully, I was regularly reminded  by experts in our workshops and by organisations like Promundo that we had to take an ‘intersectional’ approach to looking at gender equality. Meaning we had to look at the multiple identities people have, that often intersect to create unique forms of discrimination. Those identities might include class, race, gender, sex or disability.

Our Business Fights Poverty Challenge outputs achieved this to a degree – we certainly made it clear that intersectionality had to be a guiding principle when engaging men as allies for gender equality. But there is a need to go much further. And doing so might help shift the needle on corporate diversity and inclusion ambitions – which urgently need to move from good intentions to more concrete progress.

Five immediate actions spring to mind that might help:

  1. Ensure all gender pay gap reporting is also broken down by ethnicity and other protected characteristics, including disability.
  2. Use the language of becoming an ‘upstander’ not an ‘active bystander’ (which as a black friend pointed out at the weekend is an oxymoron and also suggests you can remain a passive participant.)  
  3. Urge all staff to read Peggy Macintosh’s list of ‘50 daily effects of white privilege’ and see which applies to them. She brilliantly describes white privilege as ‘an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious’. Her description helps break down the hostility people often feel about being called ‘privileged’. 
  4. Encourage an honest conversation about your organisations history with staff and the public to confront and educate people about any legacies of slavery, exploitation or colonialism.
  5. Ensure staff running internal diversity and inclusion networks are rewarded (ideally paid) for their time, rather than working on a voluntary basis (which simply leads to minorities having to work doubly hard).

Finally,  I would urge everyone at home or in the workplace, to heed the words of one of the best placards I saw via twitter during the Black Lives Matter protests in London:

Treat Racism like COVID19’

  1. Assume you have it
  2. Listen to experts about it
  3. Dont spread it
  4. Be willing to change your life to end it 



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