Refusing to turn a blind eye to the race gap

Ella Rhodes reports from a symposium at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology.

August 8, 1444 – the date of the first large European slave market, held in Portugal, in which Black African people were taken from their homes in Mauritania and sold to Europeans. That, said Professor Binna Kandola, was his choice of a tipping point where colour prejudice began. ‘For much of human history people weren’t stereotyped on the basis of the colour of their skin’, Kandola said, opening a powerful symposium on the race pay gap. 

Kandola said that after the slave trade was ‘inaugurated as a godly, worthy, profitable enterprise’, philosophers, scientists, theologians and many others helped to support the slave trade by creating ‘evidence’ for the idea that some races were inferior to others. Several scientists, including botanist Carl Linnaeus and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, created taxonomies and racially-based hierarchies of human beings – one foundation of the race-based societies we see today. Exploring wages is, Kandola argued, the ideal way to view how those racist ideas are still expressed. 

After looking at data from many countries Kandola saw the same hierarchy repeating itself – white people earn the most, black people earn the least, and other races come in between. In the UK white men earn the most, followed by Chinese men and women and Indian men. Black men and women from African or Caribbean backgrounds earn the least, along with Pakistani and Bangladeshi men and women. In the USA white and Asian men earn the most while black and Hispanic men and women earn the least. 

Organisations are sometimes coy about collecting or publicly releasing pay data, but the BBC’s recent analysis found that of its employees £150,000 per year or more a significant majority were men. Kandola reanalysed the data looking at race and found the race pay gap to be larger than the gender pay gap. This pattern can, he said, be seen in many organisations. And a survey carried out by Kandola’s business consultancy Pearn Kandola revealed that 60 per cent of black people and 42 per cent of Asian people had experienced racism at work. Other research has found that minorities are also less likely to get timely, helpful feedback on their work, and are less likely to be given challenging assignments to stretch them. While many experience subtle types of racism, others experience it in its most explicit forms. 

Kandola said there is a role for psychologists in tackling racism and race pay gaps in the workplace. The starting point is acknowledging that race bias exists and that it’s a factor in the work psychologists do. Psychologists can challenge organisations who do not collect ethnicity data, help to effectively analyse that data and support leaders in doing better.  

Dr David Biggs, an Occupational Psychologist Senior Consultant with Advanced People Strategies, hoped to explore the Labour Force Survey for differences in pay between races. Although the data revealed little about ethnicity overall, it was possible to look at how many people from ethnic minority groups are employed as temporary workers. Biggs, who studied temporary workers as part of his PhD research during the late 90s, said they tend to be some of the more vulnerable members of society – their employment is precarious. In the Labour Force Survey data, which involved interviews with 250,000 people four times per year, Biggs found that people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to be in temporary work than white people. Other research, including some from the TUC, has found a similar pattern. 

Occupational Psychologist Dr Nic Hammarling (Pearn Kandola) then gave a fascinating, slightly horrifying talk, on the gender pay gap and how this links to the race pay gap. Since 2018 companies with more than 250 employees have been required to report on the equality of their pay. There has been very little progress. In 2018, 78 per cent of companies paid men more than women. This rate was the same in 2019. The proportion of those earning less than the minimum living wage who are women increased from 62 per cent in 2018 to 64 per cent last year, and the number of sectors which pay women more than men has remained at zero. 

Hammarling said that the gender pay gap cannot be tackled without tackling inequality in pay between races – they are inextricably linked. A further contributor is legacy salary, when potential new employees are asked what their current salary is. This moves the pay gap from one organisation to another. Of course, having children also has an impact: up to the age of 39 the UK gender pay gap is ‘virtually zero’, appearing around the time people have children, take career breaks or start to work part-time to care for children. While women’s salaries are affected negatively by having children, men’s salaries are often given a boost after they have children. Hammarling shared a quote from a salary appraisal meeting: ‘He’s about to get married. Our assumption is that he is about to get more motivated because of getting a family.’

Historically, Hammarling argued, we have treated bias ‘like a game of whack-a-mole’, but we won’t move the dial on racism or sexism until we take an ingrained approach to tackling bias throughout organisations and across their processes. She called for companies to be aware of two biases in particular. ‘Cumulative bias’ describes the sum impact of all biases that someone has experienced throughout their career. For example, ethnic minority job seekers have to submit 60 per cent more job applications to receive the same response as a white person, are significantly more likely to be in insecure work, are treated differently by colleagues and have fewer informal mentors. The ‘informal bar’ describes the way in which female and ethnic minority employees are asked to prove themselves more, and for longer, before being put into positions of authority. Pearn Kandola carries out live bias reviews looking at appraisals of employees in the workplace. In one example 18 employees were on the borderline for promotion: 10 female and eight male. Seven out of the 10 women had their rating reduced, yet seven out of the eight men had their ratings increased. Some of the appraisal comments illustrated the informal bar perfectly: the senior team remarked that they had not seen one man demonstrate leadership but increased his rating regardless. However, when discussing a woman they said that while she was doing a ‘great job’, they wanted to see her doing it for longer. Hammarling said similar patterns emerge in discussions about ethnic minority employees.  

Research Psychologist Ryan Lewis (Pearn Kandola) then shared some of the qualitative findings from his work with African and Caribbean men. He carried out six semi-structured interviews with black male professionals working in various fields including architecture, IT, higher education and manufacturing. Nine themes extracted from those interviews were divided into ‘repressive’ and ‘facilitative’ structures – the former describing troubling experiences happening in the workplace increasing a feeling of discrimination, and the latter describing the strategies the men used to help them survive and thrive in the workplace. 

Lewis, himself a black man, said it was important to be mindful that one instance alone may not paint the full picture of how a lifetime of such experiences build up and hold people back. One man spoke of his experience on an NHS interview panel alongside two white women. Shortly after a black Kenyan male candidate left the room, the two women immediately spoke about his non-British accent and doubted his suitability for the role – despite the fact that he had scored highest out of all interviewees. Many of the men Lewis interviewed spoke about the need to constantly perform above and beyond, as if representing all black people. One man commented: ‘You have to come across as non-threatening… non-aggressive… you can’t show anybody you’re annoyed, you have to smile all the time, you have to be happy all the time and unless you do these things you will not get ahead.’

Among the ‘facilitative’ structures the participants spoke about – the strategies they found helpful at work – were mental resilience, education and continuous learning, the ability to leverage key relationships and faith. Lewis said as psychologists it is important to openly, receptively and non-judgementally listen to the experiences of ethnic minorities and exercise perspective taking. ‘I see no other in-road to tackling these issues apart from talking openly about experiences and refusing to turn a blind eye.’

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