by Dr Nike Folayan MBE (PhD, CEng., FIET), Co-founder AFBE-UK.
2020 was a year we will never forget and not just because of the pandemic. The events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement deepened the discourse around ethnic diversity in an unprecedented way. The fact that the use of a word like “intersectionality” is less likely to lead to blank expressions proves this deepening in our understanding.
Intersectionality acknowledges the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, the existence of these multiple identities creating overlapping systems of discrimination or disadvantage. A commonly referenced example is that of the black woman standing at the intersection of gender bias and racism. When we look at the statistics that indicate such dual systematic subordination of black women the temptation is to view the impact of all overlapping categorisations as additive but to do that would be to ignore the working of social hierarchies and how they affect people with perceived privilege like black men.
I once attended an EDI meeting with a Black male colleague in preparation for an event. Working in a male dominated profession, I am used to the feeling of exclusion during work-related meetings, so it quite quickly dawned on me that my male colleague was being alienated from the discussion on an idea that was entirely his. “We feel you would be more suited to lead aspects of the work because you are more familiar with the client”, they said. This struck me as odd because the reality was I was no more familiar with the client than my colleague was, he had worked for the client a few weeks prior and had received positive feedback. Nothing he said in that meeting was inappropriate. It was clear to me that he was being typecast for no reason other than the fact that he was a black male. It was a strange feeling, but it reminded me that feelings of exclusions are not exclusive to a particular gender and that it is possible to experience privilege and oppression simultaneously. The plight of black men is one that is often overlooked when we talk about diversity.
In the way that we rarely disaggregate statistics about women to identify for example how many of the 12% of the engineering workforce that are female are also black, we seldom ask how many of the men at the top of organisations are black. When we discuss diversity in most workplaces, we typically focus at first on gender. You often hear statements like “Men always get ahead regardless in the engineering industry “. Such statements view men as monolithic. Men are intersectional too and are adversely affected by the perceptual filters of others and this is often overlooked.
Even the most well-meaning diversity agendas exclude ethnic minority men and more specifically black men. While getting more women into engineering is a cause I actively champion, evidence suggests that black men in particular experience some unique challenges in recruitment, progression and leadership In his book the danger of indifference business psychologist Binna Kandola explains that whilst there is some research suggesting that BAME women face the most discrimination in the workplace, there are some who believe that it is actually black men who encounter the most prejudice, as they are perceived as more of a threat to white men. According to social dominance theory, power struggles between men and women are less important than those between in-group and out-group men. White men perceive BAME men as more of a threat than BAME women. Therefore, BAME men are penalised for displaying agency and are rewarded for showing deference. Black men also face a backlash if they display dominance, because this further threatens the power and status of white men. Binna Kandola also stated that it is young black men who suffer the brunt of exclusion, because of specific stereotypes around aggression and fecklessness.
A study by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) also highlighted the challenges associated with being black and male in the workplace — the persistent negative stereotyping, the complicated dance of managing interactions with white women to avoid appearing threatening, the need to avoid ever being perceived as the “angry black man. ”The unfair treatment of black males has been consistently documented by various sources including law enforcement, teachers, and employers.
In an experiment in 2016 researchers led by Yale professor Walter Gilliam showed educators, videos of children in a classroom. Each video had a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl. While the teachers were asked to detect “challenging behaviour”, no such behaviour existed in any of the videos. Yet when asked which children required the most attention, 42% of the teachers identified the black boy. Education thinktank LKMco study in London in 2018 demonstrated that unconscious prejudices affect the way black boys and white working-class boys are disciplined at school, how their work is assessed, and the academic ability set that they are put in.
In 2017, the results of the survey conducted by the BBC in 2017 showed that only 30 of the 1,803 graduates recruited in 2016, were black males and that there was a marked gap in wages between black Caribbean men and their white counterparts.
“According to mental health charity Mind, Black boys in the UK were shown to have lower levels of mental health problems at age 11 compared to White or mixed heritage boys. However, UK Black men have a significantly higher likelihood of developing mental health problems during their adult life. This does not occur in countries with a predominantly Black population and appears to be an environmental risk related to experiences in the UK.
The Race in the workplace: McGregor -Smith review published in 2017 found that BME women are more likely to be promoted than BME men (BME women overall promotion rate is 7.3% compared with 6.4% for BME men) and the Fawcett Society reported that Black Caribbean women earn more than their male counterparts. One can therefore infer that black men are not only less likely to be able to access opportunities to be sponsored/mentored to executive level but this is even in comparison to Black women as they may be perceived as more threatening than women. Unfortunately, this is also prevalent within the EDI space where black men can be excluded in discussions of discrimination due to preconceived stereotypes. Failing to see intersectionality allows companies to circumvent race all together because they can choose to assume that where a black female for example reports discrimination that it pertains to her gender rather than her ethnicity.
So, in our diversity discourse why should we focus on black men? Because the invisibility of black men in leadership positions in engineering and certainly within the diversity sector should be a cause for concern. They are equally and, in many cases, disproportionately represented in discrimination cases, are less likely to progress to leadership positions, as men when they share views with regards to discrimination, they are perceived to have a gender advantage and their experiences are put in doubt.
I gave birth to my first-born son at the start of lockdown. As I think about the future, I want for him, I long for a world where the full expression of himself as a black man is not perceived as aggressive or as a threat to anyone. To create that world, we must devote ourselves to understanding the very complex issues surrounding inclusion, diversity, and intersectionality.
To read the full article and other similarly interesting articles you can view the AFBE-UK 2020 Annual report or visit https://www.afbe.org.uk/news/afbe-uk-2020-annual-report-now-out to download the full report.
This piece was originally was written for AFE-UK ‘s Annual Report
Binna Kandola, Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference
Gender pay gap in ‘reverse’ for some ethnic groups https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39181532)
Thanks to Dr Ollie Folayan for his support in writing this piece