By Professor Binna Kandola
Senior partner and Cofounder,
DURING one of his regular press conferences, the World Health Organisation’s director-general spoke out about the racist abuse and threats that he has recently received.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he had endured “personal attacks” and “racist comments” for three months, with the abuse including “giving me names, black or negro”.
He seemed defiant in the face of this treatment, saying he didn’t “give a damn” about the death threats he has received and that he was “proud of being black, proud of being negro.”
He clearly felt strongly about the issue, but it seemed to me as though he was trying to contain the real depth of his emotions. I suspect there is a great deal more that, in another time or place, he would like to have said.
Despite his restraint though, his comments drew criticism from some quarters, with claims that he was playing the ‘race card’ in order to deflect criticism of his organisation’s performance during this ongoing crisis.
Leaders of major public organisations will always be under scrutiny, especially during challenging times. I am sure that many actually come to expect a critical gaze on their decisions, leadership style and achievements.
However, it is also the case that some individuals will receive more criticism than others, purely because of the colour of their skin or their nationality.
This kind of bias needs to be urgently addressed. You might not think this is the time to prioritise diversity, but I would argue that it is critical now. We need talented leaders to see us through this crisis, and that talent is being stifled. If we are to emerge stronger, we must understand the stereotypes that are holding back minority leaders and act to end them.
We can see these stereotypes in action all around. Here in the UK, a disproportionate number of senior leaders are white men, and of the various minority groups who have made it into senior roles, black people are easily the worst represented. Much of this is due to the stereotyping – both implicit and explicit – of black people; in particular, the stereotypical view that black people lack many of the key intellectual capabilities required to be successful leaders.
Today, very few people openly endorse such views. Indeed, some will be outraged that I am even broaching this subject. The research, however, paints a very different picture of the current state of diversity in society. For example, one study, conducted by Professor Geoff Beattie, found that when viewing CVs, HR managers tended to look longer at negative information on minority candidates’s applications than on those of white candidates. It is as if they were looking for reasons to reject them.
This kind of discrimination isn’t linked solely to the recruitment – or indeed promotion – process, though. Where an ethnic minority leader achieves success in their role, they are more likely to have those achievements attributed to factors other than their abilities, such as luck or having a great team. They are also more likely to be criticised for poor performances than their majority counterparts. And, of course, it isn’t just the case that these things happen in isolation – they can all be going on at different times.
It’s true that open abuse of the kind that Dr Ghebreyesus has experienced is less likely to occur in organisations, although even that is more common than we might think. Instead, it is the more subtle forms of racism that are likely to impede the progress of minorities to the realms of leadership.
There is no ‘magic bullet’ that can be used to solve this problem. Issues of race are too often ignored by organisations, either because they are seen as too difficult or because too few people see them as significant. Complex as this discussion is – and despite the “more pressing” challenges that Covid-19 may appear to pose – we must never underestimate the importance of keeping race and leadership on the agenda.
Once this crisis is behind us, there is a range of actions that organisations must take. We must be more willing to listen to the experiences of ethnic minority colleagues and establish clear protocols for the selection of leaders.
Likewise, it is critical that when people do speak up about issues of racism, they are not automatically dismissed as ‘playing the race card’, just as Dr Ghebreyesus has been by some of his critics.
Most important, we must understand the stereotypes that cause us to view minority leaders differently. Their performance – success and failures alike – must always be held to the same standard as their white colleagues. Only then will we get the best from our leaders and everyone will benefit. Put simply, the race card must never be played.