Merit-based promotions won’t solve your diversity problem

Power in Britain looks exactly the same as it always did: increasingly white, male and concentrated in the hands of a few.
Despite proclamations of change, diversity at leadership level is still practically non-existent and it’s barely moved in the last three years, according to data from a report by D&I consultancy Green Park. Only 51 of the 1,097 most powerful roles in business, media, politics, policing, education and sport in the UK are held by people from ethnic minorities. That amounts to just 4.7 per cent, despite the fact that they make up 14 per cent of the population.


Although British businesses pledged their support for Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd in the US, Black people in particular remain woefully under-represented with only 16 senior leaders in the UK.
Companies have ignored the elephant in the room. Meritocracy is flawed, and society is riddled with bias and racism that fundamentally stops opportunities from spreading widely and fairly.
Talent is everywhere but opportunity is not – the only thing that continues to separate Black people from anyone else is the lack of the latter. Like many, I went into the workplace thinking that you’ve got to put your head down, work hard and you’ll be noticed and rewarded for it. I was wrong. What I encountered was how people’s backgrounds were a key indicator of who was continuously being propelled forward in their careers.
The Black Lives Matter movement this summer highlighted something those from minority backgrounds already know: if you do not fit the traditional mould of what success looks like, opportunities coming your way are few and far between.


In an ideal world, you’d be hired and promoted based on ability, but to say that is happening in Britain in 2020 is far from the truth. When businesses are confronted with the need to change, they can quickly turn to tired phrases like “we only promote based on merit, not gender and ethnicity” or “we don’t want to be seen to discriminate against white people” (AKA we’re much more comfortable to continue to discriminate against everyone else and maintain the status quo). Ultimately, this sends a message to everyone else that the reason leadership and the echelons of power are overwhelmingly white and male is because they deserve to be there: these are the most talented, the hardest workers and the most intelligent. This is not only offensive and absurd; it doesn’t delve deeper into the problematic criteria that we use to determine merit.
We need to let go of the myth of an achieved meritocracy. Research from MIT revealed that companies with meritocratic values are often the most biased. When companies adopt a purely meritocratic environment, where social disadvantages are not acknowledged, biases and stereotypes are actually accentuated. Managers believe they are more impartial, and unknowingly give themselves permission to act on their biases. The authors of the study concluded that “merit-based pay practices in particular may fail to achieve race or gender neutral outcomes”. They call this the “paradox of Meritocracy”. We need greater transparency on not only who is being promoted, but why.
Following Blackout Tuesday, initiatives such as Pull Up or Shut Up led by beauty executive Sharon Chuter, the founder of UOMA beauty, urged brands to publicly release the breakdown of Black employees at corporate and executive levels. In a video on her Instagram she said, “You can’t tell us Black Lives Matter publicly when you don’t show us that Black lives matter within your own homes and organisations”. Brands such as Glossier and L’Oréal confirmed my suspicions that the makeup of the leadership of these companies were disproportionately and unsurprisingly white. This is repeated across all industries in the UK.
Change doesn’t happen overnight and at the current rate of progress, proportional representation among Britain’s top leaders will not reach 13 per cent until at least 2044, by which time the population will be made up by more than 20 per cent ethnic minorities. The businesses that recognise the opportunity this offers and invest in the talent now will stand out both commercially and culturally. To be in denial is to be left behind.


Imagine the unintended consequence this is having for many individuals: seeing the same people in positions of power time and time again; being overlooked for career opportunities; and an uninspiring lack of senior role models. Out of sheer frustration, many leave to create their own opportunities. A New York University study on self-employment found that the same stereotyped conceptions that plague women and minorities within the walls of a corporate office also exist outside, but that people who run their own businesses feel like these problems are more manageable. As entrepreneurs, they have more power to solve these issues than when stuck at the mercy of others in a corporate setting.
Entrepreneurship isn’t the answer for everyone and should not be a solution for a system that overlooks talent in favour of the myth of meritocracy. We don’t need more empowerment, we need opportunity. If we fairly draw from all of society’s talent pool, leadership would look vastly different. 2020 was a year of upheaval, when we have seen how much around us is broken at a deep and structural level. We must move from the passive to the active. If not now, then when?
Elizabeth Uviebinené is the author of Out of office: Why isn’t Work Working?, out February 18, 2021 (Hodder Studio)
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