The fact that the only candidate rejected for the Channel 4 board was a black woman (the other four candidates were white men) has sparked outrage across the cultural sector. A number of high profile cultural sector leaders including Bonnie Greer, Tessa Jowell and Liz Forgan signed a letter requesting an explanation for the decision. The answer provided: The candidate did not meet the qualifications outlined in the job advertisement.
This, sadly, reflects the research findings reported in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) article If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be Hired. Through analysis of a series of controlled and uncontrolled experiments, the authors found significant unconscious bias favoring the status quo in hiring decisions. They found that when the majority of candidates in a final interview pool were white and male, the selected candidate was a white male. However, when the majority of candidates were from a BAME background, the selected candidate was from a BAME background. The problem is not racism per se, but the status quo. The authors concluded that our natural fear of change causes us to unconsciously perceive an outlier as incompetent or unqualified.
Interestingly, it does not take much to alter the status quo. The HBR authors examined a set of hiring decisions for university academic positions. They found that when there were two female candidates, the chances of a woman being hired increased by 79%. When there were two minority candidates, the chances of a minority candidate being hired increased by 179% regardless of the size of the final candidate pool (the pool size ranged from 3-11 candidates).
The irony of the Channel 4 decision is that the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) published a Culture White Paper in early 2016 highlighting the need for greater diversity in the arts and creative industries. Furthermore, just two weeks ago Arts Council England (ACE) held a conference called Power through Diversity in which CEO Darren Henley stated in his keynote address the need to increase BAME diversity among cultural sector leaders. He also noted the high number of ACE-supported organisations which do not report information about the diversity of their staff. He suggested that there may be funding consequences for those who fail to disclose this information in the future.
The threat of ‘consequences’ is interesting to me. As an African American who has worked in the UK cultural sector for close to 10 years, I have experienced the difference in approach to diversity in the United States and United Kingdom. Affirmative action, or positive action, is a policy used by the US government to destabilise the status quo by requiring the organisations it funds to actively monitor and compare the demographics of their workforce against the general labor pool and take steps to rectify imbalances. This type of policy has not been adopted in the UK. What I have personally experienced and seen in the UK cultural sector is investment and energy put into upskilling potential BAME employees to make them more qualified for positions in the sector. The Channel 4 incident, however, demonstrates why this isn’t enough: The Black woman who was rejected for the Channel 4 board was Althea Efunshilehe, former Deputy Chief Executive of Arts Council. She was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours for services to arts and culture and is Chairman of the National College for the Creative and Cultural Industries. How much more training does she need?