25th May 2022

Leading gender equality organisation, the Fawcett Society, and the UK's leading race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, are today releasing a landmark report which explores and documents the experiences of 2,000 women of colour in workplaces across the UK. It evidences the harmful, pervasive and entrenched racism that women of colour are forced to endure at every stage of their career journey, with 75% having experienced racism at work and 27% having suffered racial slurs.

The report, entitled ‘Broken Ladders’ is the largest representative survey of women of colour. It explores not only the shocking structural racism faced by women of colour at work, but to also look in detail at the different experiences of women from different ethnic minority groups and religions.

The data shows that:

  • 50% of women of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage and 48% of women of Black African heritage stated that they had been criticised for behaviours other colleagues get away with at work, compared to 29% of White British women.
  • Black women of Caribbean heritage, and women of East Asian and Chinese heritage were the least likely to report ‘often’ or ‘always’ feeling comfortable in their workplace culture, at 43% and 41%, respectively.
  • Muslim women were significantly more likely to make changes to themselves at work than non-religious women or women of other religions. 53% of Muslim women changed the clothes they wear at work ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’, compared to 37% of Christian women and 32% of non-religious women.

Jemima Olchawksi, CEO, Fawcett Society, said:

“Today’s report reveals what women of colour across the UK already know – that experiencing completely unacceptable racism at work is, sadly, the norm.  It’s sickening that three quarters of women of colour have experienced racism at work. We just can’t accept this as a society. If we want to be a country where everyone can achieve their potential, to progress and make the most of their talents, then we need serious and concerted action to address this. This evidence and the stories women have shared with us must be a rallying call to Government, to employers to our educational institutions to drive real change.”

Dr Halima Begum, CEO, Runnymede Trust, said:

“Women of colour face a double jeopardy. From school to the workplace, there are structural barriers standing between them and the opportunities they deserve. Our landmark research exists to support these women to thrive in their workplaces, and to challenge employers to harness the talents, skills and experiences of their employees, or risk losing them. Women of colour know first-hand the myth of meritocracy, from the mental gymnastics of constantly code switching to being repeatedly passed up for promotion, in 2022 it is high time we invest in them. Until we do so, we will continue to lose them as they leave the workplace, resulting in a huge waste of talent.”

Broken Ladders highlights institutional racism, discrimination and entrenched negative workplace cultures that hold back women of colour and prevent them from fulfilling their potential, meaning countless UK workplaces are missing out on talents and skills. The report shows that 39% of women of colour stated their wellbeing had been impacted by a lack of progression compared to 28% of white women, whilst being refused promotion led to loss of motivation for 43% of women of colour. Women of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage (37%) and of Indian heritage (32%) were most likely to report a manager having blocked their progression at work as compared to White British women (20%).

The data reveals that institutional racism is common across all sectors and in all types of organisations and this leads to a cumulative negative impact on women of colour at work. As well as being subject to racism, workplace cultures mean that women of colour have to change who they are in order to fit in. Workplaces are a constant negotiation between identities and inability to progress.

61% of women of colour saying that they have changed one or more of the following by ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’, compared with 44% of white women:

  • the language or words they use (37%)
  • the topics they talk about (37%)
  • their hairstyle (26%)
  • the food they eat (28%)
  • and even their names (22%) at work.

 Black women of African heritage were most likely to change by a ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’, their clothes (54% did so), the language they use (50%), the topics they talk about (46%), their hairstyle (39%), and accent (29%).

Jemima Olchawksi, CEO, Fawcett Society, continued:

“As well as being held back at work, women of colour are being forced to hide their identity in workplaces across the UK; things like changing their hairstyle or what they eat, just to try and conform. What a waste of those women’s time and energy – we need workplaces that respect and celebrate everyone’s individuality and allow women to focus on bringing their talents into the workforce. Given skills and labour shortages this is a waste of potential we can ill afford. We are pushing for urgent action and are calling for Government to set-up and back a business-led initiative to accelerate change on ethnicity and gender pay and progression gaps, and for every employer to implement effective anti-racism action plans.”

At all stages of the career pipeline and across all sectors, from recruitment to leadership, women of colour face barriers. This starts in recruitment, where 52% of women of colour experience discrimination – such as being made to feel uncomfortable in relation to their race or cultural background, being asked for UK qualifications or English as a first language and being asked for ethnicity information outside of monitoring processes. It carries on through to decision making and leadership, with 34% of women of colour reporting requiring their colleagues vouch for them to have their decisions accepted, compared to 23% of White British women.

Yet there is no lack of ambition, with 64% of women of colour saying that it is important they are promoted over time, compared with 49% of white women. What the research shows is that women of colour are being told to lower their ambitions, with 28% of women of colour (compared with 19% of white women) reporting that a manager had blocked their progression at work, and 42% reporting being passed over for promotion despite good feedback (compared to 27% for white women).

Urgent change is needed across all institutions and sectors. The Fawcett Society and the Runnymede Trust are calling on the Government to:

  • set-up and back a business-led initiative to tackle ethnicity and gender pay gaps and accelerate change on progression and representation
  • legislate to ban salary history questions and require salaries to be published on job advertisements.

And employers to:

  • implement effective, evidence based Anti-Racism Action Plans with clear and measurable targets, and regular monitoring and evaluation of progress
  • have clear and transparent processes for reporting racism, with multiple reporting routes, including options outside of line management structures.
  • introduce meaningful and intersectional anti-racism training supported by systems and structures to minimise bias; with outcomes linked to organisational performance targets on diversity and inclusion
  • set structures that ensure line managers deliver equitable and fair promotion outcomes for all employees and make progression routes explicit and well-known rather than based on informal networks.
  • undertake regular ‘stay interviews’ (an alternative to ‘exit interviews’), giving women of colour safe spaces and opportunities to feedback on their career experiences.

 You can read Broken Ladders here: www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/broken-ladders