Public Sector Leadership Summit on Race Equality in Employment: report

This report summarises the outcomes of the Public Sector Leadership Summit on Race Equality in Employment that was held by the Scottish Government in March 2021.

4. Breakout Discussion

4.1 Introduction

4.1.1 The interactive item of the summit was the breakout sessions. The sessions centred around identifying a common understanding of institutional racism and the barriers that may exist within organisations; and the reticence that may exist among those in leadership positions to discuss institutional racism. The sessions also sought practical solutions to key barriers identified across the sector.

4.2 Main Themes

There was significant commonality across the breakout sessions, which identified a wide variety of issues. These issues are categorised into the following themes:

  • Better understanding: the need to understand institutional racism and how it can manifest in an organisation, the need for better data to understand the issues in organisations, and the need to use the data to implement practices that lead to positive changes.
  • Systemic change: the need to work on multiple fronts simultaneously and change systems, practices and cultures, not just individual actions.
  • Collaboration: involving the lived experience perspective, both internal and external, to shape and inform corporate action.

4.3 Better Understanding

Common Understanding of Institutional Racism

4.3.1 All groups raised the necessity of sharing a common understanding of institutional racism in order to work together towards a common goal. It was further noted the need to move away from assumption that racist behaviours were always overt, only existed in the minority and were individual issues.

4.3.2 Groups identified that language played an important role in facilitating the understanding and willingness to discuss and admit existence of institutional racism. It was felt a barrier existed which prevented the leap from discussing and admitting structural racism[4] to admitting institutional racism. It was conveyed that one of the largest barriers was the fear that leaders had of opening up and acknowledging the issues that needed tackled, and in particular the fear that the organisation would be branded or labelled a racist organisation.

4.3.3 Delegates recognised the need for an attitudinal shift when it came to institutional racism; from one of fear, defensiveness and denial, to openness, curiosity and positivity. It was noted that a starting point would be to acknowledge the reticence to discuss the existence of institutional racism.

The Importance of Ethnicity Workforce Data

4.3.4 A prominent issue was that organisations had insufficient data and low rates of personal information disclosure. This raised the issue of why staff were reluctant to disclose this information and what engagement/action could be taken to build trust.

4.3.5 It was noted that there was a lack of communication around the value of collecting data within organisations and its role in addressing concerns of individuals and communities. Specific concerns included the notion that the data would be used against minority ethnic staff, or would identify them and lead to victimisation. This was considered particularly pertinent for the disclosure of intersectional data.

4.4 Systemic Change

Recruitment and retention practices

4.4.1 All breakout sessions agreed that how recruitment practices were designed was incredibly important. Similar discussions focused on the need to identify and address specific recruitment issues, with some mentioning that recruitment and selection audits showed that minority ethnic individuals were reaching interview stage but were not being selected.

4.4.2 It was also agreed that equal importance must be given to all aspects of the employee lifecycle, such as staff retention, to enable minority ethnic staff to thrive and flourish. It was clear in discussion that organisations were taking appropriate action, including establishing staff networks, training, facilitating staff discussion and reverse mentoring. However, it was less clear how these actions had translated to outcomes. It was further noted that diversity within employment was often very low despite recruitment and retention policies, and that greater focus needed to be on actions and practices with measurable outcomes.


4.4.3 Culture was also identified as a factor in tackling institutional racism, specifically one which was open, listened to minority ethnic voices, and accepted challenge.

4.4.4 Suggestions to foster the right culture included a visible demonstration of commitment among senior leaders to tackle institutional racism, and by taking an explicitly anti-racist approach. This approach was described as recognising that inaction was still, in and of itself, an action that impeded positive change. Measures within this approach included tackling non response; building trust to get people to respond; calling out the behaviour that limits peoples’ opportunities; and doing so without being confronting.

4.4.5 It was noted the need to cultivate the right culture in organisations and across the policy landscape that would help leaders to have honest conversations about tackling institutional racism. It was agreed that leaders could not do this themselves and reference was made of the need to harness diverse voices; to bring in lived experience to help leaders properly understand the issues.


4.4.6 It was well recognised among leaders that minority ethnic communities were under-represented across senior levels within organisations and discussions raised a need to revise recruitment processes for these roles.

4.4.7 Groups discussed the need for public sector leaders to take ownership; ownership was considered important at all levels within an organisation and leaders needed to take ownership of creating cultures and removing barriers within their organisations. Measures to aid this included, at a strategic level, ensuring that Human Resources and Equalities staff were not ‘the custodians’ of advancing race equality, rather the agenda needed to be driven from senior leaders. At a practical level, measures mentioned included actively ensuring sufficient resources and regular time in calendars dedicated to improving outcomes for minority ethnic staff.

4.4.8 On a similar note, whilst it was agreed that organisations needed to rely on Human Resources and Equalities leads to progress their race equality agenda, it was agreed that leaders themselves must be held to account. Leaders had to prioritise this work, contributing and participating in events like the summit. It was noted the value of having senior level representation at these events as a signal of commitment to change and to inclusion.

4.4.9 It was raised in discussion a tendency for leaders to discuss what they thought the issues were, without learning from lived experience and race equality experts to identify what was working well and what needed to change. Notwithstanding, it was recognised that leaders did not need to have lived experience of institutional racism to advocate against it.

4.4.10 There was further the recognition that leaders needed to be confident in taking action without always needing to gather further evidence. Specifically, it was discussed that leaders needed to be brave and confident to take action and act on the issues that they had already been made aware of.

4.4.11 This aligned with a similar theme around the need to create space to have conversations without being criticised. Discussion focused on the need to support and instil confidence in leaders to enable them to have uncomfortable discussions about the existence of racism in their organisations. This included removing the fear of being perceived or branded as a racist organisation. It was agreed that making their leadership on this issue visible within the organisation would better instil an inclusive culture. Many also recognised the importance of leadership in promoting equality and diversity in workplace as a means of legitimising the work to address racism.

4.4.12 This also aligned heavily with the earlier remarks from Madhu Malhotra, Director of Equalities, Inclusion and Human Rights at the Scottish Government, who spoke about the importance of “choosing courage and vulnerability over comfort”.

Greater Accountability

4.4.13 It was widely agreed the need for better, clearer accountability across the public sector. If public authorities were to be held to account, it would help improve focus on the issues and act as a catalyst for wider societal change. Groups discussed how to ensure greater accountability, including clear, public-facing targets and performance indicators. As mentioned earlier, this also included leaders no longer delegating responsibility, and with it accountability, to Human Resources or Equalities staff within the organisation.

Greater Focus on Outcomes over Actions

4.4.14 It was agreed the importance of not just gathering data, but interpreting the data to effect change. It was made clear that it was not about numbers, but about experiences, measurable positive outcomes and how organisations would understand what ‘good’ looks like or feels like. It was noted that many organisations were doing the right actions or approaches on paper, but equally important was for these actions to have clear and measurable outcomes. Further, it was discussed the need for these outcomes to be data-led and reflective of lived experience The need for specific and measurable targets for senior leaders to help embed equalities into decision making was also discussed

4.5 Collaboration

Importance of Lived Experience

4.5.1 Lived experience was unanimously recognised as beneficial and discussions reflected the need, not just to access lived experience, but to amplify and channel this as a valuable resource in senior-level decision making. Lived experience was one of many resources mentioned as a way to improve outcomes for minority ethnic staff. However, it was made clear that it needed to be elicited in a way that was not exploitative or shifted the onus of responsibility onto minority ethnic staff.

4.5.2 Some senior leaders described uncovering lived experience as difficult; an uncomfortable but necessary tipping point which had to lead them to take action within their organisations.

4.5.3 Groups again discussed the need to create safe spaces and opportunities to have honest conversations about the barriers that exist in organisations; and that this could not be done in isolation, but in partnership with minority ethnic voices, both internal and external.


4.5.4 The latter part of the breakout sessions discussed what support was available and the practical solutions to address some of the pertinent issues identified. Support was discussed in various guises, including financial resource, additional staffing, guidance from Scottish Government, and safe spaces to facilitate honest and open discussions about the challenges within their organisation. This discussion primed questions for the panellists.



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