Why more BAME women in boardrooms makes business sense

12 April 2021 Consultancy.uk 6 min. read
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When she was at the top of her game, leading 100+ employees in a blue-chip firm, Bukola Adisa saw how rare it was to see black and minority women in leadership positions. To address this disparity, she advising and supporting women, especially black and minority women, to arm them with necessary capabilities to succeed in their careers. 

A successful black woman who has broken the glass ceiling in international financial organisations and banks in the UK, Bukola is now helping other women to do the same. She discusses with Consultancy.uk why it makes sense to have more BAME women in Britain's board rooms, and how she has transitioned her business Career Masterclass into a firm that advises and helps build successful corporate careers through advice and training.

What inspired the birth of Career Masterclass? 

I recall sitting in a meeting room, having yet another meeting on the 12th floor of my office building at the time. I was looking at my notes but when I looked up, it struck me that every face around the table looked similar, in terms of gender and race, and they were different from me. This scenario was more often the case than not. 

Bukola Adisa, Founder of Career Masterclass

I started questioning the lack of BAME representation in senior roles. It became a nagging question at the back of my mind, as I interacted with more BAME women who were competent at their jobs and wondered why they struggled to get promoted or noticed at work. I decided to do something about it. And that’s how Career Masterclass was born. 

As you started your journey, what were the key things you found to be responsible for this gap in career growth across ethnic minorities? 

Overtime, I began to see clearly what there were knowledge gaps,  and this is why the C-suite seemed elusive to many of them. I started hosting career development sessions in my free time to help women, especially black and minority women, by arming them with necessary tools to succeed in their career. This has now turned into a lifelong passion and a growing business. 

While the knowledge gaps are now being filled and many competent BAME professionals can be found at junior and mid-levels in companies, organisations are not responding quickly enough to the calls for more inclusive leadership at the very top despite the many benefits of this. It is also no secret that BAME professionals suffer from the ‘frozen middle’ phenomenon, where there is just no movement and progression beyond the middle management grade. 

How would businesses benefit from a diversified workforce with good representation from women and ethnic minorities? How does this affect the bottom line of the business? 

Multiple studies have shown that diversity impacts businesses positively and contributes to the bottom line. To illustrate this, a Gartner study predicts that through 2022, 75 per cent of companies with diverse and inclusive decision-making teams will exceed their financial targets. The study also found that gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperformed their less inclusive counterparts by 50 per cent. 

However, diversity and inclusion aren’t reflected enough in British boardrooms. A recent study by Green Park Business Leaders 2021 index highlights that for the first time in six years, there are no black chairs, chief executive officers or chief financial officers in the UK’s 100 largest companies. These are really worrying trends. 

In fact, data from BoardEx, which collects information on senior executives, reveals that only around 3% of female board-level roles are held by women of black, Asian or minority ethnic heritage in the UK’s 350 largest listed companies. 

These are worrying stats. How can we reverse these trends and address these issues to achieve greater inclusion at the top level? 

To address this disparity and to help BAME women rise to the top in their chosen careers, three things are key: 

Firstly, BAME women need to be actively championed, mentored and sponsored. I have seen women with top degrees who are held back, not only by structural inequalities but also by a lack of knowledge about how to understand the DNA of a company. Hard work and top degrees are important but you can’t succeed in a blue chip company without learning how to navigate the power structure. I worked very hard and it was my only strategy for many years and I was sorely disappointed. 

I learnt that when you put your head down and focus solely on working hard, you miss out on picking up cues in your environment, understanding the power plays, building vital relationships, networking and making yourself visible. These are all strategic activities that we must marry with strategic hard work to get the desired results.

Secondly, we need role models. When women in top positions are more visible, it may well open up promotion pipelines and encourage other women’s aspirations to career success. It also reinforces the belief and notion that success has many faces and it is normal for BAME women to progress to the highest levels of an organisation. After all, having Kamala Harris in the White House and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the head of the World Trade Organization does inspire everyone across the globe.  

Finally, equal opportunities will not become the norm until they are monitored and enforced. As we know, the number of applicants who get called for job interviews is much lower among those with names associated with ethnic minorities than with white applicants, even though both sets of CVs are constructed to be equivalent and are sent to the same firms. We have to challenge these structural and unconscious biases. 

What would be your advice to businesses and the Government on addressing this issue of diversity and having a very diverse boardroom? 

Diversity is essential for running healthy businesses. To promote diverse talent in the top tiers of organisations, we need concrete actions from the government and the private sector that can help bring more BAME women into Britain’s boardrooms. We must encourage enforcement of fair policies, opening doors, offering right training, mentoring and challenging unconscious bias in workplaces.

I believe very strongly that we need a democratisation of opportunities in the corporate world. As mentioned earlier, diversity in leadership is good for business. For example, a Harvard Business School report on the male-dominated venture capital industry found that “the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments’ performance”. To have diversity in boardrooms is not just fair, but is also profitable.