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Jan Gooding and Sheldon Mills 

Leave racism at the shore

Leave racism at the shore

Jan Gooding and Sheldon Mills - Stonewall chairs, past and present - look at the challenges minority groups face in society, and offer guidance on making positive workplace changes

I could not help but be deeply moved by the sight of so many people marching, when they knew the risks they were taking by breaking the rules around lockdown. It was visceral. A show of anguish, defiance and a loud and resounding demonstration to drive home the point that enough was enough. ‘Black Lives Matter’ was the unifying cry. But we also know we have to translate that shared sense of outrage into meaningful, daily actions that can take on oppression that is systemic and profound.

I was impressed by the open letter and pledge made by leaders across our creative sector to support black talent. I have chosen this month to offer my column to one of the most talented black leaders I know, Sheldon Mills. We have all been asked to educate ourselves and listen to the real experiences of black people so that the steps we take are informed and sure footed. This is what he wanted to say to us:

I am the Chair of Stonewall
, the UK's LGBT+ charity, I am a lawyer and work at the Financial Conduct Authority.  I am black.  Jan gave me this space to say a few words about the challenge of racism and making the workplace a better space for black people and to urge you to ensure that your industry also strives for black LGBTQ+ people too.

George Floyd's death has unlocked a moment in history where the world can confront racism (again).  Why?  The image and video of his death has burned into the memories of us all.  For me, Derek Chauvin's knee on George Floyd's neck is the visceral representation of the lived experience of black people for centuries.  That knee is the continuous pressure, fear, stigma that black people feel regularly.

But from his death, and the Black Lives Matter protests that have followed, has come an opportunity for change, especially in the workplace.  Not just for black people but for everyone.  Your industry has a great opportunity to be at the centre of change - in your workplace but also in society.

Black talent is there, you need to let it in and support it to prosper

I once headed up the merger control branch of a regulator.  In that role I saw CEOs, CFOs and senior execs from every industry across the UK including yours.  Of the thousands of people who came to these meetings, I can count on two hands the number of black people I saw.  Only one made the main presentation to me as a senior exec.  It was clear to me that black people were not represented in senior roles in a range of industries in the UK.

So here we have two systemic problems

Black talent can't get in.  When we do get in, we cannot rise to the top.

We also have external supplier or contractor problems: black businesses, contractors, consultants or creatives often cannot get hired, or sustain strong, successful partnerships with a firm. And let's not talk about Boards.  Black people struggle to get on boards.  Your industry has one of the few black CEOs in the country, but it’s not enough: we need a sustained pipeline of talent.

What happens to black people when they get in or hired?

We face overt, indirect discrimination and micro-aggressions.  We get pigeonholed in terms of work or content.  We may not get the best assignments and we often can't get promoted.

You need to create a culture and safe space where all employees (black and non-black) can speak up, resolve conflicts, and challenge the way things are done. Leaders must build bridges of trust to hold these spaces.

Ask yourself, who today is accountable in your organisation for achieving race equity in the workplace? And please do not say HR. As with any corporate or organisational problem, every leader in your business needs to own this.

Trans and LGB black lives matter too

This week the New York Times reported on a march in support of Trans Black Lives.  Black trans women face violence and discrimination in the US and the UK.   Stonewall, alongside other charities, will continue to fight for and support transgender communities.  Their struggle is reminiscent of our struggles to achieve equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  In the UK, according to the media, our efforts to make trans people's lives easier through legal reforms may stall. What can you do to help?

Black trans lives are overlooked

My brother is trans.  The trauma he has suffered as a black man has been compounded by the difficult journey to be himself.  As experienced by so many trans people, the workplace and healthcare system let him down. Our intersection: black, transgender, queer, working class, single parent layer on top of one another and leads to significant disadvantage in the workplace and society.

Stonewall works alongside many other charities to support my trans brother because black trans lives matter too.  I hope your industry can also find ways to represent black trans and non-binary, queer people in your media and advertising content and make your workplace a safe space for their talent.   They need your positive representation urgently.

Five tips for making change in your workplace

Turning to the workplace, I recognise your difficulty. As a leader of 450+ people, I know that it is a challenge to set direction amongst competing priorities.

Self - Take personal accountability

Make leadership commitments that you are personally accountable for.

I find that accountability and ownership of genuine pledges by the executive or parts of the business supported (not led) by HR can lead to effective change.

History - learn about black people and their history

I learned about 'white' history throughout school.  Your industries can learn about the history of black representation in media, advertising and art.  Context is critical to combat racism and prejudice.

Open - your space to black talent, people and communities

You have workspaces, equipment, people, contacts, power, influence.  Be open and share this.   Open to partnerships with black talent, black creativity and businesses.   Open to your local community. Open your content to positive representation of black people.  Your industry has a powerful impact on how society views black people and LGBTQ+ people of colour and needs to be part of change.

Revolution - a workplace revolution is needed to tackle racism

Reform processes, policies and systems to meet the needs of black people who want to bring their talent to you and your organisation.   You need a race audit, and a review of hiring, retention, promotion outcomes.  You need to look at pay and remuneration gaps.  Set targets for representation especially in the manager, exec and Board level.

Empathy - black people have empathised for many years

There needs to be a level of empathy to remove corrosive micro-aggressions in the workplace. Black people are tired of empathising. Yes, demand high performance, that is respectful.  But empathise.  Practically, you need open conversations to gain real insight into how it feels to work in a system that was not designed for you to thrive in.

On a positive note, we can change organisations and society.  We can improve the lives of black people including LGBTQ+ black lives immensely.  I have faced racism and homophobia but have managed to be successful because people I have worked with have sought to understand and accept me as a gay black working class man.  As a leader in your industry, you have a critical role.  If it feels a bit uncomfortable, then you've probably started on the journey to change.


Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), and the president of the Market Research Society. She writes for Mediatel News each month.

Sheldon Mills is the interim executive director of strategy and competition at the Financial Conduct Authority, and the first person of colour appointed as Chair of Stonewall. He has long supported the charity’s ground-breaking partnership with UK Black Pride.

On 25 June at 3pm Mediatel Events hosts the first in its Future of Diversity series, focusing on Pride in Advertising. We'll be taking a look at how brands can engage with the LGBT+ community beyond just the month of June through both their advertising and media plans. Click here for details.

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