By Marsha de Cordova, MP for Battersea
October is Black History Month 2021 – a time to celebrate and reflect on the many great achievements of Black Britons in the UK.
First celebrated in the UK in October 1987, on the 150th anniversary of Caribbean emancipation, Black History Month was established to challenge racism and educate communities about the British history that was not taught in schools. 34 years on it remains as relevant as ever, as we continue to challenge structural inequalities and fight for racial justice, from the classroom to the boardroom.
This year’s Black History Month theme, ‘Proud to Be’, offers a timely opportunity to reflect on intersectional inclusivity in the workplace, and consider what must be done by employers, and the Government, to nurture diverse talent, establish a level playing field and ensure everyone can play their part in our country’s success.
I want to open up a conversation about the deep and multi-layered challenges facing Black disabled people in the workplace. The latest ONS figures show that around half of disabled people are unemployed, and that disabled people in work are significantly less likely to be employed at a managerial level. During the pandemic, unemployment rates among Black young people rose as high as 41.6% and Black British adults are now three times more likely to be unemployed. Black disabled people are also more likely to experience discrimination in recruitment, promotion and pay reward decisions. For Black disabled women like myself, barriers in the workplace are compounded as we face intersectional inequalities. A serious engagement with race and how it intersects with disability is desperately needed to tackle some of the deep-rooted inequalities that exist today.
It is clear the pandemic has had a significant impact on the employment of millions of people across the country. However, for disabled people, the impact is disproportionately devastating. Research by Leonard Cheshire found that 1 in 4 disabled people have reported that they are at risk of, or in the process of, being made redundant, and 55% have reported a negative impact on their wellbeing. That’s why, as we aim to build back better from the pandemic, urgent action must be taken to ensure an inclusive economic recovery. Not only will this lead to a more inclusive society, but it will also ensure adherence with the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People and increase businesses’ revenue, market share and productivity.
Meaningful progress on workplace inequalities starts with understanding the problem and committing to proper investment. That’s why I believe introducing mandatory ethnicity and disability pay gap reporting is a vital first step. Discrimination – in any form – is often hard to measure and by reporting accurate and consistent data, employers will be able to identify barriers and make informed decisions about how to address them. The McGregor-Smith Review recognised the importance of legislation on ethnicity pay gap reporting and the same is true for disability. We must learn the lessons of mandatory gender pay gap reporting which clearly show the power of transparency for driving focused action on inequality.
Representation and leadership are also vitally important. Disabled and Black employees often lack access to training and promotion opportunities, and are disproportionately excluded from managerial positions. For example, in 2020, the ‘Race at the Top: Revisited’ survey found that Black employees hold just 1.5 per cent of top management roles in the UK private sector; a figure that has increased just 0.1 percentage points since 2014. This shocking statistic clearly demonstrates the need for targets, regular reporting, and significant investment in development opportunities. However, to truly transform workplace inequalities, we must also foster working environments that accommodate diverse talent day-to-day.
The Access to Work Scheme does just that, by providing grants to support disabled people in work. For example, the grant might pay for assistive technology or extra transport costs. Delivered effectively, it is the best form of support for disabled people in work, and yet it is currently a little-known secret across the diversity & inclusion sector. To share the benefits of the Access to Work Scheme across the labour market, it must be expanded, strengthened and better promoted.
Disappointingly, the Government has made little progress towards its target of supporting one million disabled people into employment. The National Disability Strategy, published in July 2021, falls short of the transformational plan required to close the disability employment gap.
At this crucial time, we need a plan that supports more Black disabled people to find sustainable and meaningful work, retain employment and create new jobs in the future. The stronger our collective understanding of the lived experience of Black disabled Britons today, the more we can do to re-imagine a future free from inequality. This Black History Month, we must seek to better understand society’s overlapping systems of disadvantage and stand against intersectional inequalities.