HomePeopleCareersRacial and ethnic diversity: travelling in the right direction

Racial and ethnic diversity: travelling in the right direction

RailStaff sits down with Network Rail’s Sharon Salmon to discuss ethnic and racial discrimination, speaking up, and finding the power to enact change.

25 September to 1 October saw National Inclusion Week, an event dedicated to celebrating inclusion in the workplace and promoting action to achieve it. This year’s theme was ‘Take Action Make Impact’, a call to action for all employers and a powerful message to get organisations and individuals thinking about what changes they can make to positively impact marginalised colleagues.

Initiatives such as National Inclusion Week are essential as ethnic and racial diversity remains a pressing issue for all sectors, the rail industry included. From its earliest days, the railway has employed workers from minority ethnic groups and, while discrimination remains an issue, over the years it has worked to improve the experience of its staff.

Key challenges

Historically, ethnic and racial minority groups have faced a range of challenges at work, not just in their daily working lives but also when it comes to career progression. One of the primary concerns is the underrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities within the workforce. There has been a historical lack of diversity at all levels of employment, from entry-level positions to leadership roles and this is a challenge the rail industry is working to rectify.

For example, according to Network Rail’s Ethnicity Pay Report 2022, black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees made up 9.5% of its organisation. While this is less than the UK’s minority ethnic population of 13%, these figures saw a 0.1% increase on the previous year. Slow progress, but progress, nonetheless.

Discrimination in recruitment and hiring practices can also be a factor in organisations, with candidates facing barriers to entry or promotion. Biases, whether implicit or explicit, may affect the selection process, limiting the opportunities available to individuals. ASLEF reported in February 2021 that fewer than 9% of train drivers identified as being from an ethnic minority.

Employees from ethnic and racial minority backgrounds can also face additional challenges in career advancement and access to training and development opportunities, hindering professional growth and limiting the potential of individuals to contribute to their chosen industry. Equally, pay gaps between minority employees and their white counterparts have been observed in numerous industries, including rail.

Network Rail’s Ethnicity Pay Report 2022, reports that, in 2022, a gap of 6.4% existed in the earnings of black, Asian, and minority ethnic group employees, versus their white counterparts. However, it was noted that this had decreased 0.3% on 2021. Again, slow progress, but movement in the right direction.

Cumulative effect

Individually, these challenges are bad enough, but their compound impact can be more problematic, lowering the aspirations of minority employees who may see progress as impossible.

“People from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds often may not apply for roles due to the lack of representation, in other words you need to see it to be it,” says Sharon Salmon, supplier manager (corporate services) at Network Rail.

But the rail industry is making positive steps, with many projects and initiatives in place to empower black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees and enact change.

For her work, in November 2022 Sharon won the RailStaff Award for HR, Diversity & Inclusion and, in May this year she was appointed as a trustee to Women in Rail’s (WR) governing Board.

Speaking up

One of the problems around tackling issues of racial inequality, lies in the fact that, despite our long history of immigration, as a country we’re not too comfortable talking about race. It’s a topic that many of us tend to shy away from if brought up in conversation. It’s one of those subjects that, like politics and religion, the Great British public tends to avoid.

“Race is always very controversial,” Sharon says. “It seems a more difficult to talk about than other issues. This is partly because people are afraid of saying the wrong thing and inadvertently causing offense.”

“Not everyone has the opportunity to grow up somewhere with a diverse makeup. I was brought up in London where multi-culturalism is just a part of life, but if you haven’t been exposed to that, you might not approach discussions around race with the same knowledge or understanding.”

But whatever the reasons holding us back, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk – communication is key. “You might well slip up at some point when you’re talking to colleagues about issues around race,” says Sharon, “but as long as you don’t intend to cause offense or make someone feel unsafe we must have these conversations, otherwise nothing will change.”

“There are so many resources that are out there to learn more about people who have had a different cultural experience from me. I am constantly reading and learning to get to a level of understanding, and I will ask colleagues and friends if I am not sure about something.

On the flip side, black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees, must not be afraid to speak out if they feel they are being discriminated against, or if the culture of their workplace is not inclusive. “I try to impress upon everyone I talk to that there are laws in place to prevent discrimination and they absolutely should not accept it if they feel their career options are being limited,” says Sharon.

Positive steps

Removing both conscious and unconscious discrimination toward black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees is a critical concern for the industry, and there is a clear drive to make the railway more equal and representative of British society. “The industry is doing what it can,” says Sharon. “We’ve been dealing with these issues for a very long time, but companies are taking notice and taking action.”

Indeed, it is in the best interests of companies to create an inclusive workplace. Building an organisation or business, where everyone’s contribution is valued and where all employees feel they can flourish, results in a more innovative and creative workforce. Today’s employees expect to be treated equally and fairly, and if they’re not, they’ll talk with their feet. “You have to make your organisation inclusive,” says Sharon. “If it’s not, then employees aren’t going to stay.”

Making changes

How can employers address all of these issues and promote inclusivity and equality? The rail industry, along with various organizations and policymakers, is undertaking several steps including:

  • Implementing diversity and inclusion programs: Companies can develop initiatives and training programs to raise awareness, challenge biases, and foster an inclusive workplace culture.
  • Employing transparent recruitment practices: Ensuring recruitment and promotion processes are fair and transparent can help remove biases and improve representation.
  • Establishing support networks and mentoring: Establishing support networks and mentorship programs can aid in the career development and progression of black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees.
  • Promoting representation in leadership: Encouraging and supporting black, Asian, and minority ethnic staff to pursue leadership roles can lead to more diverse decision-making and a more inclusive work environment.
  • Collecting and analysing data: Regularly collecting and analysing data on diversity and inclusion metrics helps organisations track progress and identify areas for improvement.