PLSA AC 2020: Pensions industry needs to ‘break the taboo’ and talk about race

The pensions industry needs to ‘break the taboo’ and normalise conversations about race, BlackRock head of LGPS, Gavin Lewis, has advised.

Speaking at the PLSA Annual Conference 2020, Lewis cited one of the barriers to ethnic minorities progressing within the pensions and asset management industries was the “unwillingness” of people to have conversations about race.

He attributed this reluctance to a lack of familiarity.

“I realise that for many people in the industry I am one of very few black people that they know. So questions about race can be awkward or uncomfortable, such as the confusion about what terminology to use. There is discomfort with addressing the issue,” he said.

“Whereas compared to discussions about gender, most people know women and have discussions with women, so discussing gender feels a lot more familiar. For that reason the gender movement, which still has some way to go, has been to the benefit predominantly of white women versus black women.”

This leads into the wider societal issue that the UK has not had an honest conversation about race, Lewis said, with UK black history not widely taught at schools and people thinking racism in the UK is not as severe as the US. “But it is just different in the UK. It exists within the industry and the UK. Until we have that discussion it will always be seen as taboo.”

He also cited socio-economic factors, educational challenges, the industry’s perceived unattractiveness and lower rates of progression once in the industry as other causes of ethnic minority groups’ underrepresentation within the pensions and asset management sectors.

Lewis stressed that racism is not only acts of physical or verbal aggression but may occur through ‘micro-aggressions’ in the attitudes displayed or the words used. He gave the example of having regularly been subject to extra security checks while entering the workplace.

As co-founder of the Talk About Black initiative within the Diversity Project, which aims to develop a pipeline of black leaders in the asset management industry, Lewis highlighted its efforts to improve representation of black people within the industry, such as after school programmes, mentoring circles and social media discussions.

However, describing the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in the industry as “an industry issue that needs to be tackled by the industry”, Lewis suggested ethnic pay gap reporting, similar to the gender pay gap reporting currently in existence as one beneficial action.

He also highlighted the importance of not considering ethnic minorities as one homogeneous group, stating that, for example, the challenges facing black people is different to that of Asians, and that within these groups there are differences.

As black people are particularly underrepresented within the pensions and asset management industries, Lewis recommended organisations actually speak to their black colleagues about their experience, “without putting the onus on black people to solve the issues”, and for companies to gather data.

Lewis warned that any company initiatives to tackle this underrepresentation is likely to be met by indifference by the majority of staff, so instead of framing efforts to address this as ‘the right thing to do’, organisations should instead “reconcile this with the purpose of the firm and business strategy”.

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