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So...where do we go from here?

By Justin Onuekwusi Fund Manager, Head of Retail Multi-Asset Funds | Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM)

Sitting down to write about your first experience of racism is not easy. However, I think if you were to ask any Black person in the UK to tell you the moment they became aware of their race, the sad truth is that most would be able to recall exactly when and where it happened.

My first experience of overt racism was when I was just three years old – it still haunts me to this day, and I am now 38. It happened when my grandmother “Granny” was attacked by a group of white youths, who beat her with a bicycle chain. While I didn’t see the attack, I vividly remember overhearing the family discussions about it at her Collyhurst home in North Manchester. That sort of thing just stays with you I suppose.

While of course this experience was and still is very painful, the images of the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, and the deaths of George Floyd and countless other unarmed Black people at the hands of the US police, have provided a much-needed wake-up call to many regarding racism. For me, the flashbacks of the racist incidents whether overt or subtle have been on loop in my mind as I have revisited my personal journey. It’s a lived experience for many, and it starts as soon as we’re old enough to walk and talk.

It is for this reason that is not helpful when people say “I don’t see colour”. It is very easy to say you are colour blind and you don’t see ethnicity. But in doing so, you are not acknowledging my ethnicity, my lived experience and maybe even denying racism exists. There is an explicit assumption that the world is fair and a meritocracy yet the statistics show anything but. We can all influence society in this respect. It is time to be colour brave™ and use our voices and actions to create a level playing field for all.

Every Black person you speak to will have had different experiences of racism. From the intense name calling and racially motivated fights in the 1980s, to the less overt microaggressions faced since I started my professional career, it is something I am reminded of every day. In many ways, I was lucky that my upbringing shaped me to be ready for the workforce.

Whilst Black people were the main people I associated with from a family and community perspective, I went to predominantly white schools, which created a sense of not belonging, as well as teaching me how to adapt and change to fit in. Code-switching from home and family to school life is something I have been doing from an early age, so it wasn’t such a culture shock for me when I entered the workplace.

Speaking of which, the industry in which I now work – investment management – remains woefully unrepresentative of the UK population and workforce from an ethnicity perspective, despite playing such a major role in the economy and society as a whole.

Ethnic minorities comprise 14% of the UK population. Of this, 7.5% identify as Asian and 3.3% as Black. In London, where the majority of fund managers are based, 18.5% of the population is Asian and 13.3% is Black. In the fund management industry, 10% of individuals identify as Asian and only 1% identify as Black. A New Financial Report in 2017 could only identify 12 Black fund managers working in the investment industry.

This clearly is a problem. Can we truly claim that we have a fair and meritocratic system with such gross underrepresentation? In order to progress towards a better future, we need talent that represents our clients’ interests. With that in mind, there has been a drive to increase diversity and inclusion in the asset management sector with four major reasons cited by the Diversity Project:

  • Greater diversity of thought leads to better decision-making and better performance

  • Institutions should be representative of the customers and communities they serve

  • The changing economic, geopolitical and demographic landscape requires new perspectives to successfully navigate

  • Asset managers should contribute to society, represent fairness and reduce inequalities

While we know it’s the right thing to do, clearly the current methods we are using to get more Black people into the asset management industry are not working. This is because of a series of structural barriers – or ‘kinks in the hosepipe’ that prevent Black talent from reaching their full potential.

My fellow financial industry professional and personal friend Dawid Konotey-Ahulu wrote about this two years ago, and it’s still very much relevant today. There are five main barriers: 1. Community: The socio-economic situation in which many UK-born Black people find themselves means this demographic experience higher rates of unemployment, crime and mental health challenges. 2. Pipeline: These socio-economic challenges result in an underperformance in education when compared to white counterparts and other ethnic minority groups. 3. Entry: Should these individuals achieve a good education they are unlikely want to work in an unrepresentative industry, and less likely to be successful in securing their preferred roles. 4. Career progression: When these Black individuals do break into the industry, they typically end up in support functions, have higher rates of attrition and rarely progress to leadership or revenue-generating positions. 5. Taboo: Discussions about race remains a taboo subject in the workplace and more broadly in society.

In this personal story I will go through each of these barriers and try to provide some insight as to how they have shaped me into who I am today. The first kink: Community I grew up in Cheetham Hill, a disadvantaged inner-city area in North Manchester in a single parent household. In the early 1980s, National Front presence in neighbouring Blackley and Collyhurst were something I was explicitly made aware of, especially after the attack on Granny. My mother was part of the Windrush generation and, like her parents and many Black people in the 1980s, there were only certain roles that were attainable in a world where social mobility was severely limited for Black people. This, in turn has impacted upon future generations.

The socio-economic situation many Black households like mine found themselves in at the time meant that their children were on the back-foot right from the beginning. Many people I grew up with simply never believed it was possible to forge a successful career or even just move out of the area. For my family, that meant our house was repossessed during the recession in the early 1990s.

For me, that meant working nightshifts at local fast food chain, Allen’s Fried Chicken in order to save money to purchase a computer during sixth form college. This often involved getting in at 3am and getting up at 7:30am to get to school in time for my lessons the next day.

Our communities are also shaped by how we are treated by the institutions that are supposed to protect us. A good friend of mine, who I grew up with in the 1980s, was only eight years old when he was bundled into a car by plain clothes police officers and taken to the station. His offence? Picking up food from McDonalds for his mum. After being questioned, his bag of food was inspected, and he was let go. As a father of a seven-year-old girl, I can’t even imagine what my reaction would be to such an incident. To experience this as an eight-year-old affects not only your own experience, but that of your family and an entire community.

Yet, this kink is only the first of many, and we have to look at these holistically. Let’s look at the other factors that impact the pipeline of Black talent entering the jobs market. The second kink: Dropping out of the pipeline When Black children start off at school, they perform at a similar standard as other students. Curiously, they – especially Black Caribbean boys – start to fall by the wayside as they get older. Much of this school performance can be closely linked to socioeconomics with Black households being more than twice as likely as white households to live in poverty in the UK. So Black people are already falling out of the pipeline even before getting to university, let alone entry-level professional jobs.

Yet, it is about more than income levels. There is something fundamentally broken in the education system where Black children are three and a half times more likely to be excluded than all other children. A cursory review of my initial reports in primary school tells me all I need to know. By the time I started school, I could tell the time, I knew how to read: and yet it wasn’t until year 6 that I had a positive school report. It is no wonder that British-born Black people struggle to get through the education system with their confidence intact. The third kink: Entry into the working world I know from my own experience, that when Black people apply for graduate jobs, they don’t get through in the same numbers as white people do. When I graduated from Warwick University, I sent out 60 applications for graduate roles. I got responses from less than 10 and positive responses from just three. This was despite graduating from a Russell Group University with an Economics degree and a track record of pretty much straight-A grades. Given my name, there is typically little vagueness about my ethnicity when applying for jobs - so much so that I considered changing my name on my application forms to see if it would make a difference.

When I eventually joined an actuarial firm, I was shocked. I was in London – one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world – and yet, there were so few ethnic minorities with even fewer Black people. There were no senior people from ethnic minorities and I immediately felt a sense that I didn’t belong. I longed for years to return to Manchester and regularly took the trip back home where I could be my authentic self.

I think the problem here is twofold. Not only are Black people not getting through when they do apply, but they are also put off from applying to certain industries in the first place. This is because they don’t see people who look like them.

Role modelling is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in this regard – you can’t be what you can’t see. People find this very easy to dispute but this is a key reason that Black students told us they were less likely to apply to the asset management industry at the #talkaboutblack student event last November.

Even once you have entered the world of work, the systemic barriers don’t end there. The fourth kink: Progression – hitting the glass ceiling Let’s say you are one of the few Black people who makes it through onto a graduate scheme in the City. The more visible front-office roles in sales and investments tend to be even less diverse than back office roles. Not only do Black people struggle to get into these revenue-generating roles, the evidence is overwhelmingly strong they are not progressing in our businesses, especially to C-suite roles. I put a lot of this down to a feeling of not belonging.

It’s demonstrated by constant microaggressions that undermine minorities in the workplace and wear them down. It’s being mistaken for a security guard, taxi driver or janitor in the building where I work as a fund manager. It’s being presumed to be a tea boy or tech support right before a big presentation, which I am leading. They might seem like small things, but they all add up. They become draining and simply reinforce the message: You don’t belong here.

This is why I am dedicated to promoting the #talkaboutblack EnCircle mentoring circles,because helping people navigate corporate environments is important. Being a fund manager and Head of Retail Multi-Asset Funds, in a successful team managing over £60 billion means that I can help and encourage others to do the same. I can empathise with having been told constantly you are not going to succeed at school and at work, having a work review and the feedback being that you are lazy, or questioning whether investment is the right career for me given that nobody on the investment floor looks like me. These are just some of the themes from these mentoring circles that role models can relate to directly. The fifth kink: Ending the Taboo One of the other reasons #talkaboutblack was established was to create a platform to talk about ethnicity in the workplace, because until a few months ago these conversations were not happening enough. We need to start getting comfortable talking about race – including allowing people to make mistakes without judgement in order for these discussions to take place.

We also have to stop talking about 'BAME'. It’s a catch-all phrase that masks the hugely different experiences that different ethnicities face. Using the term BAME creates a vision that you have white people on the one hand, and all ethnic minorities on the other, who have similar experiences in the workplace. We know this not to be the case. Using ‘BAME’ hasn’t helped anybody any more than taking a ‘colour-blind’ approach. So where do we go from here? So, what can we do about these ‘kinks’ in the hosepipe? The last few months has created a real momentum for change, and it’s important this isn’t lost. Here are some of the things the #talkaboutblack platform is already doing to tackle these barriers to success: 1. Community – Our plan is to raise £5m over the next five years to invest in communities, to reduce gang crime, increase economic empowerment, and improve mental health. 2. Pipeline – We have set up an after-school programme to help people in deprived areas learn about finance and develop their soft skills. 3. Entry – Last year, we set up an annual student event that connects Black students to asset managers. Black talent exists if you are willing to expand your networks. 4. Progression – We’ve set up the EnCircle mentoring circles, as well as one-on-one mentoring. We’re also aiming to get more C-suite Black leaders over next five years through a proposed programme that provides mentorship and sponsorship to Black leaders across industry. 5. Taboo – We have a number of events that facilitate talking about ethnicity. Over 1,700 people joined the ‘I Am’ event and campaign we ran recently. We’re also creating articles and sharing stories with the media and on video to normalise conversations about race.

#talkaboutblack Black History Month virtual event Of course, there are many more personal stories I could tell. Telling my personal story as a Black man growing up in the UK has always been difficult. It wasn’t until I met the co-founders of the #talkaboutblack network that I realised the importance of not going through this alone. In fact, my lived experiences were common for so many Black people in our industry and beyond. This taboo can only be solved as a collective.

While we need to accept that the pain is going to continue, we have to stay strong and continue speaking out. We need to keep up that dialogue and empower others to voice their experiences. The past months have taken a huge emotional toll on many people. I have had people on the phone to me in tears about what they have witnessed in their workplaces. The constant microaggressions, the lack of empathy or simple misunderstandings, can lead to anger, frustration and depression.

There has been much talk of privilege in the last few months and how it is invisible to those that have it. I recognise I am privileged in so many ways. I am privileged to have an inspirational mother and a strong family network that provides encouragement when things get tough. I am privileged to have a very supportive wife and healthy children. I am privileged that every line manager I have had since graduating has been fantastic. I am privileged to have met some incredible colleagues, have close friends who are like siblings to me and to have had some incredible informal mentors. I am privileged that Legal & General and LGIM actively encourages me to positively influence other people, and for the level of support that it has given me to help drive the industry to be more representative. I am privileged to have met the team that has shaped #talkaboutblack into what it is today. You see, life is rarely easy but those with privilege have a responsibility to see and understand that.

I intend to use my privilege to support others by levelling the playing field and unkinking that hosepipe.

So where do we go from here? It is time to say no to whataboutism that deflect from the issue, stand up and be colour brave™. The only way we can truly create a representative industry and society is for all ethnicities to stand together side by side to create a level playing field for all. This is not about division, it is not about Black vs. White. It is about everyone vs. racism and that should unite us all.

It is time to put allegiances to one side and stand together to solve this challenge. Under-representation goes well beyond company loyalties. The investment industry is built on creating solutions to problems. We must come together as one to solve this. I want be part of a world where there are no kinks in the hosepipe so that unlike me, my daughters cannot vividly remember their first experience of racism. So, please share your stories, respect the experience of others, and let’s continue to #talkaboutblack.

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