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The colour (and gender) of power

The colour (and gender) of power

🕔12.Oct 2017

As a blogger, I see myself as a kind of Middlesbrough in the Premier League: beigey, writes Chris Game. Not significant enough to attract the serious detestation of a Chelsea or Man United, but nor with the widespread likeability of a Bournemouth or Burnley.

It means any feedback I receive is rarely obscene and generally supportive or constructive – an example being my recent blog on the West Midlands Combined Authority, whose initials, I’d suggested, could stand for “the (almost) Wholly Male Combined Authority”.

Someone from Localise WM, the not-for-profit organisation that promotes local trading, tweeted that the initials “could alternatively stand for White and Male Combined Authority”.

And they’re quite right. The figures are identical: one woman member and one (different) BAME member on the currently 33-member WMCA Board.

In this respect, the nearly all-male photo of WM council leaders that headed the blog is misleading, as it includes Sajid Javid, who was there as Communities Secretary, rather than as a Board member.

I had three reasons for omitting any discussion then of the minority ethnic dimension. First, space (the editor word-counts!).

Second, I wanted to record not just the statistics of women’s under-representation in the elected Combined Authority world, but the efforts to improve that representation in, for example, Greater Manchester and Liverpool, prompted by local women’s campaign groups.

I was aware of – and another response to my blog, from ‘Birmingham Against the Cuts’, drew attention to – a superficially similar body in our region, ‘West Midlands Women’s Voice’.

Indeed, I recalled, way back in March, a bunch of them tweeting about “working with the #WMCA #Birmingham to promote the role of women in a changing economic climate”. And jolly pleased about it they looked – though that possibly owed something to their being in Cannes, rather than, say, Castle Vale.

The Birmingham Against the Cuts respondent reckoned this Women’s Voice – less reliable even than the PM’s – was simply “an organisation for privileged businesswomen who can afford to go to international property investment events”, and so “further evidence of the WMCA’s exclusive business-dominated regime and culture”.

Personally, not having heard anything since March – even whether they’d returned from Cannes – I decided that, unable to say anything positive, I’d say nothing.

My third reason for omitting the ethnic minority material was that it so obviously demands at least a blog of its own – or, rather, a second one, given Waheed Saleem’s recent contribution to these columns – and I was aware of a project on the point of publication that would almost certainly furnish the data to enable one.

Not, as it happens, this week’s delayed launch of the Cabinet Office Race Disparity Unit, intended to monitor how public services discriminatorily treat people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

I had in mind the Guardian newspaper’s international Inequality Project, a small but important part of which is The Colour of Power’ (CoP) study undertaken by Operation Black Vote and the business management company, Green Park.

The CoP website suggests that “when we embarked on this journey, we did not know exactly what we would find”.

Commendably open-minded, but my guess is they actually had a VERY good idea of what they’d find – that “in 2017, pathways to the very top jobs for Britain’s black and minority ethnic communities are almost non-existent” – and wanted to use an obvious but still highly effective means of quantifying and publicising it.

They found that “for over 1,000 of the most senior posts in the UK, only 3.4% of occupants are BAME [30 men, 7 women], and less than 24% women”.

Shocking as such statistics ought to seem on their own, pictures are harder to ignore or refute – one reason why the BBC presenters gender pay gap row took off so instantly: we knew what most of them looked like.

And it was why, following the similar 2016 #Oscarssowhite furore, the New York Times produced its famous ‘Faces of American Power’ feature, actually picturing the faces – and genders and colours – of the ‘Power People of America’.

That’s precisely how ‘Colour of Power’ have presented their data. There are 37 sets of pictures in all, from the CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, public bodies, advertising agencies and top charities to editors of women’s lifestyle mags and Premier League football managers – a selection of which, mainly from national and local government, I’ve summarised in my table.

As even those readers who know me will not be aware, I recently celebrated my beard’s 40th birthday, which did make me contemplate adding a facial hair column. But it turned into a version of the even older Peter Cook sketch, about it being only his lack of Latin that prevented his becoming a judge, rather than a coal miner.

It became apparent that my becoming not just a Supreme Court Judge, but a Chief Constable, Permanent Secretary, or CEO of a top bank, was effectively stymied from the outset by the beard. My best chance by far would have been, like Jeremy Corbyn, to become a party leader, with three of the eight male leaders unvictimized for their full facial hair.

More seriously, I chose as an illustration the politician and officer leaders of the 36 councils with which most Files readers will be most familiar – the metropolitan boroughs.

A few of the leaders were apparently camera-shy, but the contrast between the M/F balance of leaders and CEOs – here particularly, but in councils of all types – was more of a phenomenon than certainly I had realised.

And the clear majority of women CEOs in the Meantime Mets was the only such figure apart from the MDs of media agencies and editors of women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines.

Which would have been quite a positive note on which to close, but also a slightly false one. For the main message of the CoP exercise – the almost complete absence of BAME faces, here and throughout the local government tables – is simply a positive embarrassment. The more so, considering that these metropolitan councils have a collective BAME population of approaching 2 million or 15%.

Yet these are the people responsible, even accountable, for many of the services producing the disparities and ‘burning injustices’ that the PM and her Disparity Unit are pledged to eradicate. Quite an ask.

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