The Blog

Let's End Discrimination in All Its Forms

I have been dealing with the issue of diversity all my life and professionally for over forty years. That started when I asked a television producer why we couldn't have a more diverse portrayal of professional black characters, such as lawyers and accountants and he dismissively told me 'that is not realistic'!... The fact is that, all we need to make change, is to have empathy with others. Sadly this is something many find difficult.

I have been dealing with the issue of diversity all my life and professionally for over forty years. That started when I asked a television producer why we couldn't have a more diverse portrayal of professional black characters, such as lawyers and accountants and he dismissively told me 'that is not realistic'!

I knew it was blatantly not true because my family were all high professional achievers and I was surrounded by ambitious and successful people from minority groups.

I have never been afraid to challenge the status quo and have always had the moral courage to speak out for fairness and equality. Back in 1976 when I first appeared on the iconic children's programme Playschool I asked, why couldn't we have illustrations on the screen of black, Chinese and Asian faces of children represented in stories? The producer said 'Oh we hadn't noticed'. Thankfully she acted upon it and from that day on, children's BBC programmes became the most diverse genre on television and a great example of how differences can be so brilliantly represented on screen and in turn, in society.

The fact is that, all we need to make change, is to have empathy with others. Sadly this is something many find difficult. I believe it's partly because people are afraid to step outside their comfort zone and much rather stick to what they feel comfortable with. Having to deal with their fear of the unknown can throw up inadequacies and a loss of confidence, a feeling of not being in control, as they are uncertain of others who are not the same as themselves.

I pride myself on not only being a strategic thinker but also being someone others can put their trust in and my 46 years in the public eye, gives me a great advantage to make others feel reassured and safe. So what I have tried to do within every organisation I have been involved with is to open their eyes to the world that I see.

That is a world of inclusion and acceptance of others, who through adversity and resilience can bring a different perspective to the table. This can be extremely beneficial to the success of the company by giving it a global approach and identity. Research has shown that companies with diverse workforces and executive boards perform significantly better than those with little or no diversity. The big problem facing companies who realise this is how to go about finding the right people with the relevant experience to do the job.

I remember during my time at Ofcom as a Member of the Content Board, persuading the then CEO, to invite young up and coming people from diverse backgrounds to the annual high profile media reception. At first it was thought that they weren't top executives so should not be invited. But my argument was unless people are allowed to mix in the arena to gain confidence and get the opportunity to understand the protocol, then they will always feel excluded. Also those who are already accepted will miss out on the opportunity of getting to know potential leaders who have undiscovered capabilities and skills.

This type of thinking I suppose is called mentoring and thankfully many organisations are adopting this. But we have a long way to go because a 2014 report by Race for Opportunity called 'Race at the Top' found "...there has been virtually no ethnicity change in top management positions in the five years between 2007 and 2012."

Their research finds the situation has got worse because, despite the fact that one in ten UK people are from a minority background, only one in sixteen of all senior management positions and one in thirteen management positions are held by BAME people.

That is why I am so encouraged by the diversity motion which passed at the recent Lib Dem Conference. As a party we have agreed to new rules which will ensure more spaces on constituency shortlists for BAME and LGBT+ members, alongside introducing all women shortlists in key seats. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats will be the first political party in the country to implement all-disabled shortlists. I believe these changes will bring our Party in line with current thinking especially by those who consider themselves excluded. We need more representation at the top, more women, more ethnic minorities, more sexualities, more people with disabilities making the laws and deciding the course of our nation. We need a political system which reflects the society it represents and serves.

What the whole of society has to realise, especially the older generation, is that as we move towards an age in which diversity and equality in the workplace is looked upon as the norm, not as a problem there has to be real sustainable change. But I am optimistic because finally after many years of ineffectually tinkering round the edges companies and employers are now taking diversity very seriously and are making major steps to rectify a situation which in the past has frankly been shameful.

I have been on the receiving end of discrimination in all its forms since arriving in Britain in 1960 as a ten year old girl. I was spat upon and told to go back to where I came from. My older sister was told to her face that the company she wanted to work for did not employ black people. Thankfully those dark days are long gone but there is still a considerable way to travel before discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or race in the workplace is consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Mind you these days I come up against a different type of bigotry. Upon taking up a new board position I was condescendingly told by someone that I had only been appointed to the post because I was black and the organisation was being politically correct. I replied, "You only get your jobs because you are white, now it's my turn and by the way read my CV"

And speaking of CVs many people from BAME backgrounds are often very driven and culturally brought up to be high achievers. It is drummed into them by their parents that they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves in order to be judged as equal and to be accepted as a serious contender. My beloved mother repeated this mantra to her six children every day. So when you are from a diverse background your CV can be held against you because it can be construed as being too good to be true. I have often been told by people who have read my CV "you can't possibly have done all these things" But resilience, tenacity and determination are instilled and learnt by people from backgrounds like mine and these qualities are particularly useful in my profession.

It is widely acknowledged that the lack of diversity within the television industry, where I have spent most of my life, has always been a major issue. I and others have been banging on about it for decades with very little effect. But now suddenly within that last few years things have taken a dramatic turn for the better and all the major broadcasters are coming up with charters which sweep away the shocking practises of the past. Channel 4's new diversity 360 Charter and the BBC's dynamic drive to improve its diversity remit are shining examples of this.

I have been working with government, in particular Ed Vaizey at DCMS, to address some of the diversity issues within the arts and creative industries and successfully finding ways to deal with them.

So after forty three years of campaigning, persuading and being told to shut up or I will never work again, things really do look as if they are changing.

But there is still work to be done in other sectors, because not everyone gets it. So it's up to those who select candidates for management roles to assists companies to think differently and develop a better understanding of the benefits of a truly diverse workforce. Therefore selection panels themselves also need to be diverse in order to fully achieve this in their decision making process.

Companies need to be educated and informed about the benefits of having diversity in their senior management. Also to understand the aspirational and positive message it sends out to their workforce and to their customers.

Recent events such as the diversity controversies concerning the Oscars and the Brits, and the Prime Minister highlighting the need for Higher Education to address the low number of university intakes from diverse backgrounds, all highlight the need for society to make changes in their approach to diversity and not let it continue to a subject that is not treated with urgency.

One in five nursery school children are from a diverse background. They are the future and they desperately need and expect to see role models to inspire them. To encourage them to find their place in society where they feel valued and appreciated. Without having this feeling of aspiration, the gap of 'the haves' and have nots' will forever widen.

Over the centuries Britain has always been a country which has assimilated different cultures. This has given it a unique quality which has created a rich cultural tapestry, the envy of the world. We must not hold back that evolution just because of skin colour or cultural and physical differences. But embrace these additions to the nation's wealth. I long for the day when everyone is given an opportunity to continue the process of making Britain the great country we know and love.

Baroness Floella Benjamin is a Lib Dem life peer and actress, TV presenter and writer

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