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Do you work for a racist organisation?


This blog is the first in a three-part series that reflects on our experience of diversity and inclusion at The King's Fund. The other two blogs are 'Between a rock and a glass ceiling' and 'Capable of leading for diversity?'.

Did that question surprise you? For some people, it will perhaps be an incendiary one. Some might react with disbelief. For others, their reaction will be a nod of recognition. Because the truth of it is that we all work for racist organisations that form a system and society that is inherently racist. If you were surprised by my question, it is likely that you think of racism in terms of individual incidents of discrimination – bumps in a largely level road. However, once you start to survey the road and add up all the bumps, it might start to dawn on you that the road is far from level and there is nothing for it but to call it a bumpy road. And for those who understood my opening question, this is what I mean when I say that we all work for racist organisations, in that The King’s Fund and others form a part of a greater whole that is systemically racist.

Part of your surprise might also be because the Fund has not recently been publicly and actively engaged in this debate. Within the Fund, over the past two years, we have been engaged in the difficult and messy business of trying to become a more diverse and inclusive organisation. We know that if you are from an ethnic minority group, you have to work harder at being shortlisted during recruitment and that there is significant ethnic pay gap. We know that even in a diverse organisation such as the NHS, the top is not representative of the whole or the community that it serves. Part of our efforts to become a more diverse and inclusive organisation means that we need to accept our role in being complicit in many processes and standards that represent an uneven playing field.

Over the past year we have been called out for our lack of diversity – in our public profile, in our choice of speakers at events and on our podcast. Earlier this year, we published data that starkly illustrates the lack of ethnic diversity in our organisation, particularly at senior levels. Being transparent about our own problem is just one of many ways in which we are tackling our own lack of diversity. Of course, ‘diversity’ is wider than race, and this blog could just as easily speak to the disadvantages that women, those with caring responsibilities, LGBT+ people or those with disabilities or impairments face. However, in our own work at the Fund, we are starting by focusing on gender and race. We have embarked on a mentoring programme, where more junior members of staff from underrepresented groups mentor our senior leaders. We have changed our recruitment practices in an effort to correct our own unconscious biases. We’ve also set targets for representation, both within our own organisation and for our work.

That was the easy part, relatively speaking. The hardest part is changing our culture, attitude and understanding on diversity and inclusion. Anyone who is involved in organisational change of any kind will know that it’s complicated, difficult and frustrating. It is doubly so when we talk about behaviours that are dissonant with how we perceive ourselves. Ask anyone at The King’s Fund and they’ll tell you that many of the staff have progressive views and believe in equality. Not particularly surprising, especially for a charitable organisation based in the heart of London working to improve health care.

However, in an organisation in which only 18 per cent of the staff are people of colour, cultural change is tough because it means asking people to fundamentally upend and question their understanding of the world. We’re asking people to understand that there are different lenses through which the world can be seen and that there is great divergence between our lived experiences. But asking this of people doesn’t make them ‘bad’ or cast aspersions on their moral character. It just means that our society is structured so that people of colour have a dual understanding of what it is to be ‘other’, through their everyday lived experience, and also ‘white, middle-class, straight, male and able-bodied’ because everything around us assumes that this is the universal experience.

There are myriad other challenges facing us in our ambition to become a more diverse organisation. We work within a system that faces similar issues, and this has been highlighted by the work of Roger Kline and the recent findings from NHS Confederation’s research on the diversity of chairs and non-executive directors on NHS boards. Our stated ambition on diversity and inclusion is to draw ‘from the widest possible pool of talent’ and to select ‘on merit and on the values we share as an organisation’. In practice, our own progress on diversifying our workforce is hampered by the fact that we are operating within a non-diverse system. But our work in this area should not be impeded by the fact that the landscape is dominated by ‘snowy white peaks’. Much of our policy work explicitly looks at how the health and care landscape should look and this should also be reflected in our approach on diversity and inclusion.