October 24, 2016

Joanna Symes: On ethnic diversity and why it’s time for action

Joanna Symes

Joanna Symes


I was very proud to see Charlene Brown, legal counsel in our London office, winning Rising Star in the financial services category at the Black British Business Awards recently. 

Her win follows recognition for two of our senior leaders, Hani Kablawi and Samir Pandiri, in the inaugural Top 100 ‘UPstanding Executive Power List’ earlier this year, which celebrated the incredible work that is being carried out by the Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) business community in the United Kingdom, Ireland and in the United States. 

It is especially pleasing to see more and more of our talented people from BAME backgrounds at all levels of the company being recognised for their successes and contribution to our industry. 

These accolades strike a personal chord with me as improving ethnic diversity in the financial services industry is something I’m particularly passionate about.

As a woman, I am incredibly impressed with the enormous cultural shifts we are seeing in businesses around the world with more women in senior leadership positions than ever before, each inspiring the next generation of female leaders. 

Whether it is through legislated quotas in places like Norway, Germany or France; or through voluntary targets favoured by the UK complemented by strong influence of Government – like the Davis Report – each approach is succeeding in providing the catalyst for much needed change, and sparking important debate and discussion. 

Yet, while women have taken huge strides forward in addressing the gender diversity issue, ethnic diversity within senior management at Europe’s largest companies continues to be disappointingly low. Whilst a lot is said on the issue, the same political and business impetus for change needs to be accelerated. For people of diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds, the ceiling still seems all too real and high. 

I think European countries desperately need more role models at all levels in business, over and above entrepreneurs. There are many in the sports and entertainment industry already, why not business? 

Research from executive search firm Audeliss earlier this year, suggested that there is just one BAME FTSE 100 CEO for every 2.3 million BAME people in the UK. This compares with one white CEO for every 600,000 white people. I find these figures illuminating. 

Simply put, we are not doing enough. The ongoing effort to increase representation of people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds in the workplace is a monumental requirement, and it needs an alignment of industry, government and civil society to accelerate progress. Currently, there are too many low prolife disparate efforts. 

Now is the time for action. 

We need to see a powerful cultural change in thinking and approach, similar to the paradigm shift we are seeing in business attitudes towards gender – learning from what worked, and what didn’t. 

Senior business leaders have a significant role in taking ownership of this important issue and driving transformational change within their organisations in order to reap the many benefits that ethnic diversity brings.

I also believe it is time for European policy makers to step up and ignite a genuine urgent and actionable desire to drive change – just as they have done and continue to do for women.

Improvements are needed at all stages in their career, from the most senior executives to those coming in as the newest entrants in the graduate programmes.

Ultimately, if businesses want to continue to attract the best talent, they need to be reflective of the talent in the specific market they are operating in, and offer a work environment that employees want to be a part of today and tomorrow. 

Diversity, in all its dimensions, is a business imperative that sparks innovation, fuels transformation and drives sustainable financial and economic performance. So, just as we are succeeding with changes in gender diversity, it is important that ethnic diversity has our full support.

Are you ready to join me? Our executive management team is ready.