Employers risk their own growth by not employing a diverse workforce

“We don’t live in a meritocracy”, writes Reni Eddo-Lodge in ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’. “To pretend that simple hard work will elevate all to success is an exercise in wilful ignorance.” If I’m honest, I find the truth in that statement discomforting. I grew up in Teesside.  Hardly Richmond Upon Thames.  Deep in the Thatcher recession. I left school at 16. I worked low-paid jobs and moved up and up until I got here, the elected Mayor of the North of Tyne.

I’d like to think I achieved it all on merit alone. But I know that as a straight white non-disabled man I encountered far fewer barriers along the way than if I was disabled, gay, trans, a woman, a person of colour, or any intersection of those. And while I don’t think I’m ignorant in the way Eddo-Lodge describes, I understand that being aware of a problem is nothing like experiencing it. There’s a chasm between knowing the stats about discrimination and knowing what discrimination feels like, in your bones.

When I was elected, I promised to use my powers to host an ‘Equalities Assembly’. This would bring together local residents with ‘protected characteristics’. People who face barriers to finding good work because of their age, gender, race, disability, and more. We focussed on jobs because we work with hundreds of local employers. Training providers, too. We know there may be something we can do to make a difference.  

We held one assembly in person, and one online for people who – because of childcare responsibilities, neurodiversity, or other reasons – preferred this format.  It was here, at these events, that I listened to stories of discriminatory practices I didn’t even know existed.

One participant spoke about how the jobcentre told her to change her name on applications to something more “English-sounding”. Several times, I heard of people with high level qualifications in their home country falling victim to a vicious cycle. Apply for a similar job here. Get rejected because your qualification isn’t recognised in the UK. Apply for a lower-level job. Still get rejected, only this time because now you’re ‘over-qualified’. If you do get the job, the lower-level role is later used against you when you do go for a higher position. Compound disadvantage in full effect.

The challenges didn’t end once they’d got a job, either. Racism and sexism forced people out of roles. Another attendee had Autism and dyspraxia. They’d secured a good position with decent managers at a national company. But then their manager changed – and they stopped getting the support they needed.

A young single mum who’d experienced serious hardship described how she’d landed an “amazing” job. Working a few hours, each week. Limited hours meant she could afford the limited childcare. But now the jobcentre is pushing her to increase her hours. If she does, she won’t be able to afford childcare. If she doesn’t, her benefits will be cut. I can see what participants meant when they spoke about Universal Credit and “a sense of being trapped”.

The rooms were buzzing with ideas about how the North of Tyne Combined Authority can try to reduce and remove some of these barriers. One suggestion was convening a ‘truth commission’-style meeting, bringing together employers and people who’d experienced barriers to work.  Another was campaigning for spreading out a three-day a week, full-time role into a five day a week, ‘school time’ job – enabling parents to balance careers and childcare. My team and I have some serious thinking to do about how we can use our position to bring about some lasting change in the region.

“Employers are missing out on some real gems”, said one participant. They’re spot on. Employers risk their own growth by not employing a diverse workforce.

Diversity of background and experience means diversity of knowledge, character, thought, and ideas. What smart employer wouldn’t want these things? After all, as one attendee put it perfectly: “if you want resilience in an organisation, come to the people who have faced challenges.”