Taking place every October in the UK, Black History Month is a much-needed time for us to celebrate the contributions and achievements of black people everywhere. It’s also a time to reflect on how we can all do better to create a more inclusive society. Diversity in the workplace plays a big part in this.
There are major problems with black representation in certain sectors, and tech is one of the worst. In 2019, black people made up only 3% of the workforce in tech, with black women only making up 0.7%. For an industry that’s focused on innovation, there’s a shocking lack of variety in the voices that are making the decisions.
And Mention Me is no exception. We know we have a long way to go before our company truly represents our diverse society – and we’re committed to making it happen.
As part of our commitment to better understand and address the issue, we had a session with writer, entrepreneur and diversity and inclusion professional Vanessa Sanyauke. Through her work in social entrepreneurship, such as setting up projects like The Rafiki Network and Girls Talk London, Vanessa has mentored and uplifted communities of young black people (girls in particular) to introduce them to career paths they may not have considered otherwise. As well as telling her own inspiring story, Vanessa also shared practical advice on how we can make our workplace more inclusive for black people and other marginalised communities.
While the tireless work of leaders like Vanessa makes a huge impact on the attitudes and ambitions of young black people, self-belief and perseverance are only half the battle. It’s up to the decision-makers within these sectors that are failing so miserably on representation to play an active role in being an ally and promoting change.
Companies and institutions across the UK are celebrating Black History Month this year, but are we doing enough? The answer is almost definitely no. Based on our discussions with leaders like Vanessa, our own ED&I consultant and others, here are our suggestions on how we can all do better to create truly diverse and inclusive workplaces.
Be an ally
For white people who will never have to worry about being treated differently because of their race, being an ally for black people and other minority groups in the workplace is vital.
Some people try to deny that white privilege exists, but the reality is that it feeds into all aspects of life — without white people even realising most of the time. We can turn this into something positive, however. The best way to use our privilege is to support others who don’t possess the same privilege, and this massively comes into play at work.
Vanessa told us about a few allies in particular she worked with throughout her career, explaining how they would advocate for her in the workplace by encouraging her to speak up in meetings and publicly supporting her work. These colleagues opened up doors for her that may have otherwise been closed.
Allyship and advocacy are particularly important for white people in leadership roles, as these power players have the biggest influence in shaping the culture that surrounds them.
Speak out against microaggressions
Due to the insidious nature of racism, people’s biases and prejudices often bubble to the surface in their interactions with black people. But these comments might not be seen as overtly racist.
From commenting on black women’s hair (such as calling it ‘unprofessional’ or asking to touch it) to repeatedly mispronouncing someone’s name after being corrected, there are many ways in which racist ideas and attitudes can find their way into everyday conversations.
Black people may not point out these microaggressions due to fears that it will affect their friendships or reputation at work, so white people have to speak up when they witness them.
By educating yourself on common microaggressions experienced by black people, you can know what to look out for, and make a conscious effort to try and stamp them out.
Don’t be performative — do the work
Empty promises achieve nothing in creating an inclusive workplace; companies must prove that we are committed to change by taking action. This involves tackling uncomfortable conversations and dismantling the pre-existing structures which stop black people from having a seat at the table.
Vanessa suggested, for example, using blind hiring pools, where hiring managers view CVs with no knowledge of race or gender, but the pool has been designed to guarantee an even split of different demographics. If the pool isn’t fairly split, put a pause on hiring until it is — this shows that your pledge to be inclusive isn’t all talk.To celebrate Black History Month, Mention Me held a book club and a film night with the theme of 'Black Brilliance'.
How we’re working to make our company more diverse and inclusive
At Mention Me, we’ve got a new Equity, Diversity & Inclusion programme in place. So far, this has involved running a series of employee focus groups to spark conversations, which has informed the creation of several steering groups. These committees will guide how we work towards establishing a truly inclusive culture. Each steering committee will have an Executive Sponsor as part of the group, so we can ensure that ED&I is always being discussed at a senior level.
We’re currently working on how we hire here at Mention Me, and we’re changing our recruitment strategies to reach a more diverse group of applicants. We’ve done this by reviewing our hiring process and identifying barriers to inclusive hiring, which included how hiring managers evaluate candidates, as well as looking at how candidates are shortlisted.
We’re also looking at how we can improve the diversity of our interview panels. This not only ensures the hiring process is informed by a variety of viewpoints, but demonstrates to candidates from marginalised communities that your workplace is somewhere they can visualise themselves. A lack of visibility can be one of the biggest barriers to black people deciding to apply for a job at a company, so we have to work to break down this barrier.
In the coming months, we’re also looking to introduce tools to our hiring process that can help ensure we’re consistently evaluating our progress.
While collective action is required to drive forward real change, we must all take individual responsibility for educating ourselves. For Black History Month, Mention Me hosted an internal film night and book club to promote powerful stories about black people and their experiences. Our Mentioneers watched films including One Night in Miami and Becoming, and read books such as Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. (This list has a good selection of further anti-racism resources.)
This is only the start of our journey to becoming more inclusive and diverse at Mention Me. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but we’re putting in the work to create a diverse and inclusive workplace we can be proud of.