Following the killing of George Floyd there has been an injection of new energy among London’s businesses in recognising the need to challenge racial injustice. According to Rewiring Meritocracy, a new report published by the Global Future think tank, of which I am a director, 50% of London companies have made concrete changes in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the world.
As a young Asian girl raised above my parents’ post office in East London in the 1970s, I know our capital has its share of racism. Whereas many in my parents’ generation kept their heads down and quietly tried to fit in, my generation actively campaigned for change. Now, we finally feel at a tipping point where it seems more and more Londoners are increasingly aware that further progress is needed to eradicate racial injustice in our society.
New YouGov data in our report, based on surveys with business leaders, consistently shows London’s businesses joining this fight. They were twice as likely to have taken action on diversity and inclusion in light of Black Lives Matter protests than those in the rest of the country. Furthermore, some 63% of respondents in London said that companies have a “large role to play” in fighting discrimination compared to just 52% in the country as a whole.
Why does London pull so far ahead in these figures? Our rich multicultural diversity probably helps us here. Even if our business leaders are still disproportionately likely to be white British, those in London are also more likely to know, socialise with and employ a rainbow of people from different backgrounds and empathise with their lived experiences. This is even more true when you consider how many global headquarters are based in London with (pre-Covid) easy connections and multiple transport links to other countries.
Another possible explanation is London’s customer base. According to our research, some 41% of London businesses reported customers taking more interest in race issues after the summer protests, compared to an average of just 18% across the country. Perhaps some of London’s businesses have therefore been motivated to act after a cold, hard look at their bottom line.
Of course, London cannot be complacent or arrogant in the face of these figures. We are still a city where ethnic minority residents are more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation and work in lower paid jobs. We may be taking action to change things, but there is an awful lot more to do.
One extra step we could take is to work with businesses outside the capital to share best practice. Especially where businesses have branches outside London, this could be a chance for new relationship building and training. Again, this would have to be handled sensitively – if London falls into the stereotype of the pontificating, self-righteous centre, it will likely cause a backlash. However, if done well, partnerships where both sides listen to each other could be both beneficial and profitable.
Network Rail, one of the companies featured in our report, provides an excellent example. Their chief executive sent a letter to every single employee just a few days after Floyd’s death with a clear and evocative message that racism exists in Britain as well as in America, and within Network Rail as well as the country. They hosted a series of Let’s Talk About Race conversations, with over 1,000 participants holding small group discussions about how to change things. Leaders listened and learned from these discussions and made concrete changes as a result, including deepening flexible working practices.
Businesses have come a long way since the 1970s. But there is still much to do. The capital’s energy and commitment to make the changes revealed in our survey give me hope that we will not simply forge ahead alone but will also help bring the rest of the country with us.
Anita Kirpal is a director of Global Future and also a partner at Global Future Partners, the consultancy which supports the think tank. Anita is a business psychologist who coaches FTSE 100 leaders.
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