‘There are lots of BAME candidates’: UK boardrooms fail to embrace diversity

When Tevin Tobun launched his food distribution company, Gate Ventures, in 2001, he knew his leadership team had to be different.

As a young black man fresh out of London’s Middlesex University, he wanted the top team to reflect both his workforce and the customers they served. Today, Gate Ventures – which counts Iceland and Fortnum & Mason among its clients – is led by a six-person boardroom with three BAME directors, one of whom is female.

“It allows for a very engaged board, allows for us to be on everybody’s radar within our workforce, and allows for everybody’s voice to be heard within our workforce. I think it has contributed hugely to the success that we’ve had,” says Tobun, 44.

But Tobun’s team is still the exception when it comes to diversity across British boardrooms. While Sharon White’s recent appointment as chairman of the John Lewis Partnership was widely applauded, even the boss of one of Britain’s largest retailers was quick to acknowledge that change has been slow.

In her maiden speech in February, White told senior managers the company needed to “improve the diversity of the partners we are hiring”, and after the recent Black Lives Matter protests wrote an open letter to staff making clear there was “no place in the partnership for discrimination”.

In February, an update from the Parker review – a government-backed report into ethnic diversity in boardrooms of stock market-listed companies – showed that people of colour held only 178 or 6.8% of 2,625 director positions across the FTSE 350 index. And only a handful of firms are propping up the numbers for Britain’s 350 largest public companies. Eight firms accounted for nearly 25% of the directors of colour, including mining companies owned and founded in Central and Southern America, and firms with roots in Asia and Africa.

The numbers are also stark when accounting for top leadership roles. Only 15 people of colour served as chair or chief executive, including Carnival’s chief executive, Arnold W Donald, Ivan Menezes of the alcohol firm Diageo, and Octavio Alvídrez, head of the Mexican mining company Fresnillo.

Meanwhile, deadlines are looming. The Parker review gave FTSE 100 firms until the end of 2021 to appoint at least one non-white board-level director. The same target was set for the FTSE 250 but with a deadline of 2024.

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Sir John Parker says he is confident the goals will be met. “Obviously, Covid has interrupted recruitment in companies, without a doubt, so it’ll be tougher. But I’m still very hopeful we’ll make the target.”

He expects some stragglers, particularly among listed investment trusts that have just two or three board members. Some firms say they are plagued by slow turnover, since board members are allowed to serve for up to nine years. Parker says that while this was a practical consideration, it should not serve as an excuse when failing to hit recruitment goals.

“It’s a reasonably pragmatic target,” Parker says, adding that the pressure was on both boards and executive headhunters that have so far failed to discover burgeoning BAME talent across the UK.

Tobun, whose business employs 300 people and is not listed, says any recruiter who claims there is a shortage of suitable candidates of colour for board-level roles is not looking hard enough. “If it were my company, I would tell the recruitment companies to go back and do more work and find more people. There are a huge array of candidates from BAME backgrounds.”

While there is broader support for boardroom diversity than when he launched the review in 2017, Parker believes recent Black Lives Matter protests will drive the issue home.

The protests, Parker says, “undoubtedly stirred the conscience of many people around the world and I can’t believe that that will not influence a greater sensitivity …about the importance of coherent societies where fairness and justice reigns, and where the colour of our skin should not be a barrier to progress.”

Major business groups like the British Chambers of Commerce and Confederation of British Industry are still formulating concrete plans in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, but say they recognise their shortfalls.

The CBI is pledging to strengthen support for black and ethnic minority employees, to establish a “business-led movement” to further boost boardroom diversity, and develop toolkits to help businesses attract, hire and promote employees from BAME backgrounds. But its outgoing director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, is clear: “The lack of black and ethnic minority representation in the highest echelons of UK enterprise must change.”

The UK’s trade union umbrella body, the TUC, says employers need to monitor recruitment, pay and progression for BAME workers and publish clear targets for improving representation at all levels. It is also urging the government to draw up an action to address systemic discrimination across the labour market.

Tobun says there is no business group that deserves accolades for the way they have responded to the protests that followed George Floyd’s death. “I don’t think I can say anybody has done a good job yet, because putting a statement out doesn’t really take anything. What I’m hoping, though, is that this is the start of lasting change.”

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