This year’s theme for Black History Month in the UK is Time for Change: Action not Words. It’s an expectation that, for business, comes down to issues in leadership – not just in creating Diversity and Inclusion strategies but in nurturing the circumstances that allow such strategies to thrive in the first place. So, how well is business doing in this regard?  

According to a recent Green Park study there is not a single FTSE 100 CEO, CFO or chair of board who is Black. In looking to explain this, questions focus on not whether these companies have D&I policies but how they are implemented.

Equality in the workplace has been the subject of UK legislation since the Race Relations Act of 1965, (superseded by the Equality Act 2010). In the preceding decades, people of African-Caribbean or Asian descent were invited to the UK, only to be met with racist rejection once they got here, from finding jobs and homes to using hostels and pubs.

A turn in the tide was brought about by individuals who made a stand for change. On the assumption that business still has more to do, now is a good moment to find fresh inspiration from pioneering Black campaigners in the UK.

Challenging the status quo

This summer marked the passing of UK civil rights campaigner Roy Hackett, one of the leaders of the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott. According to SOAS historian Olivette Otele, the whole country should know his name. Born in Jamaica, Hackett came to Britain in 1952, as one of the Windrush generation. After time in Liverpool, London and Wolverhampton, he moved to Bristol, spending the first night in a doorway as boarding houses refused to give him a room.

While transport companies in other UK cities were beginning to hire Black and Asian people, the Bristol Omnibus Company was slow to follow suit. In response, Hackett and others set up the West Indian Development Council, which planned targeted actions to raise awareness of discrimination.

In April 1963, these actions included a city-wide boycott of the Omnibus Company’s buses, inspired by Rosa Parks in Alabama. Drawing national attention, the boycott ran on for weeks. Eventually, on August 28, the same day that Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, the company abandoned discrimination in employing bus crews.

Recognition amid racism

The success achieved by Hackett and his fellow campaigners publicly underlined the need for legislation. Two years later, the Race Relations Act was finally signed into law, parliament having failed eight times previously to approve the legislation.

More than a century earlier, parliament had also been slow to recognise Mary Prince. Born a slave in Bermuda in 1788, Prince was later taken from Antigua to London where she escaped from her owners and asserted her freedom. This, however, only applied while she remained in Britain. If she returned to her husband in Antigua, Prince would be reduced to slavery again. On June 24, 1829, anti-slavery campaigners petitioned parliament, asking for Prince’s freedom. They did not succeed.

In 1831, Mary Prince became the first Black woman to narrate a personal story of her experiences as a slave. The book, The History of Mary Prince, raised awareness about the status of slavery in the colonies and helped pave the way to total abolition of slavery across the British Empire two years later. Despite Mary’s harrowing story, she’s still overlooked today. Google suggests the first woman to petition parliament was Mary Smith in 1832, who was asking for votes for women.

In the 20th century, Claudia Jones championed the rights of Black women in an article titled An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman! Born in Trinidad in 1915, by 1955 Jones was in London where she founded and edited the West Indian Gazette (WIG), Britain’s first commercial Black newspaper.

Changing the law, changing mindsets

In 1958, the Notting Hill race riots inspired Jones to organise the first of a series of events that later evolved into the Notting Hill Carnival, now the second largest in the world after Brazil’s Rio Carnival. Today, organisations such as The Black Curriculum help to keep alive the memory of Jones, who has since been described as “the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.”

Of course, Britain isn’t the only country with stories of dogged determination in the face of institutional racism. Examples abound, not least Mary Kenner, the African-American inventor who developed the sanitary belt, a precursor to sanitary pads, but was unable to secure a patent until 1957, 30 years after she invented it.

While civil rights campaigns led to legislation in the US, UK and elsewhere, more was needed than a change in the law. Ultimately, the move towards equality comes down to getting people to unlearn and then relearn what they think they already know, which in a business setting means embedding D&I values within company culture.

D&I in company culture

Rather than an endpoint, an organisation’s D&I strategy is a roadmap for ongoing commitment to inclusion. Employees are more willing to lead discussions when they know they’re less likely to be negatively judged by others. According to the World Economic Forum, D&I measures that support this level of confidence can increase an organisation’s rate of innovation by up to 20%.

A culture of inclusion pays dividends. Teams consisting of people from a range of backgrounds, contributing a mix of experience and ideas, enhance company performance, as shown by studies including this from McKinsey and this from Forbes.

However, achieving this level of inclusion quickly isn’t easy. At Working Voices, clients have found that implementing D&I strategies can involve a complex mix of factors. Leaders committed to D&I values can be constrained by budget issues, slow staff turnover and tough market conditions.

Smaller companies in particular may struggle to accommodate additional directors, executives or employees. They may have an appropriate D&I hire strategy in place but they can implement it only as and when vacancies arise. This situation isn’t helped by global downturns in the economy stemming from a pandemic or a war in Europe. Uncertainty in such moments is common. At Working Voices, D&I lead Chico Chakravorty says “I’ve worked with many clients where the leadership have said we don’t know what it is that we can do on this.”

An alternative to taking on new people is to adopt a more inclusive approach to those you already have, as well as looking at your business’s ethical voice when it comes to matters of D&I. Tackle biases by creating an inclusive atmosphere in which leaders and employees share a united sense of ‘belonging’. Working Voices offers D&I training and online eLearning that can support a meaningful commitment to change. In thinking about actions to take this month, adding D&I to your cultural DNA is a good place to start.



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