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EFE ABEBE-HEYWOOD Director of Brand Marketing & Communications at Juul Labs UK&IE

WE NEED MORE BLACK CEOs

UK companies need to make a ‘step-change’ commitment to diversity and inclusion actions at decision-making levels, says Efe Abebe-Heywood, a leading PR professional and Director of Brand Marketing & Communications at Juul Labs UK&IE.  

  

Coupling a sector-wide approach with a drive by companies towards creating inclusive spaces will allow black people to flourish and progress up the ranks. 

 

R is for Recruitment 

 

Racial diversity in the industry can be directly linked to the hiring process. The instinctive behaviour has always been to ‘hire people like you’, which simply perpetuates the same types of profiles recruited into the industry. I’ve been in brainstorming sessions with teams trying to develop creative ideas targeting certain social demographics, yet the room was full of non-diverse individuals who had never been exposed to the culture or behaviours of the audience they are trying to influence. This all speaks to the fact that PR is not sufficiently diverse. The best way of trying to build an understanding of cultures and demographics is by having representation of those people in your business. 

  

My observation is that PR still remains a predominantly white middle/upper-class industry. The pay structure plays a role in this. It’s no secret that entry-level rates are not sufficiently competitive. This attracts individuals that can afford to live and work in London, potentially with financial support from parents. Of course, this naturally alienates candidates from certain backgrounds.  

 

As careers progress, I also believe there’s unconscious bias in personal development. Managers sometimes promote people (at a relatively faster rate) with whom they have a natural bond or rapport with. These bonds are usually cemented through informal social interactions e.g. afterwork drinks, mutual-interest events, etc. I think it’s fair to say that individuals from certain backgrounds that do not successfully build those relationships with line managers or decision-makers beyond the day-to-day dealings could see impacts on their pace of progression. It’s sad that a difference in social or cultural interests can become a barrier to progression, but that’s the reality. Black people sometimes have to work that much harder to fit into certain cultures, when it’s actually the business culture that needs to change.  

 

‘Self’ in the workplace 

  

At a basic level I haven’t always felt like I could be my natural self in different workspaces. The version of yourself that most minorities bring to work is not always a reflection of their true self in other natural settings - down to the way we might style our hair or even express ourselves. You don’t realise that you are suppressing yourself to fit in, and even though I think I did it phenomenally well at the best of times, the point is, it shouldn’t be that way. 

  

One of the main challenges is not having enough diverse senior leaders, which can sometimes leave minorities feeling like the token voice. In some cases, you may subconsciously dumb down your views because you don't feel empowered to speak out on new approaches or ideas. Having more senior black representation in businesses for counsel, confidence-building and mentorship of younger talent would be invaluable.  

 

Mentorship into PR 

  

I come from a traditional Nigerian family so you either had to be a Doctor, Lawyer or Engineer – PR did not exist as a credible career option to them. I had a tainted view of PR because I assumed it mainly centred around celebrity publicity. I had no interest in anything that wasn’t built on an academic route, so after my MSc I chose to focus on pursuing a career in Public Health. Looking back now, it’s a shame that there was – and sometimes still is - an unfair grading of the professionalism of PR, particularly when the industry is heavily routed in both intellectual and creative thinking. 

   

Eighteen years on, when I look back on my journey, I’m conscious that I’ve never really had a career mentor, which is something I feel I’ve missed out on. Of course, there were people within organisations that I worked with who I could speak to and had my best interest, but there wasn’t anyone outside of my day-to-day job that I considered my go-to person. I've made a note to address this gap because you’re never too old or experienced to have a trusted mentor. 

 

Dealing with race 

  

Along the years I’ve had my fair share of racial experiences in the workplace, much of which was always covert in nature. I do however remember once when a senior colleague kept getting myself and another black teammate mixed up and when I decided to call him out, he simply laughed and apologised saying “you all look the same”. I was gobsmacked to say the least and did report the incident. However, I would say that the more disturbing scenarios are always less overt – incidents that aren’t the easiest to report.  

  

Moving forward I'd like to see more representation in businesses. I'd particularly like to see more black leaders at the top – across all C-Suite levels. Representation at those levels will accelerate the change in all aspects from hiring, to career development and in building a more inclusive culture overall. Black practitioners who are already in positions of seniority like me should also always call out diversity challenges and push for instigating change. We should feel empowered to use our voice. 

 

There are amazing initiatives like BME PR PROS, BAME 2020 etc that are working hard to bridge the gap, but I still think the industry needs to come together more cohesively to avoid isolated impacts. We need a well-coordinated ‘step-change’ commitment from companies and industry leaders, publicly outlining their actions to drive the right change. 

 

Building an inclusive Future 

 

Despite the barriers in place, I am optimistic that there is room for more black people to move up the ranks. Following the BLM movement over the recent months we are seeing a shift in conversations and the onus no longer falls on black people to compromise who we are or lead the change conversations. The responsibility now lies with companies to build inclusive spaces, which will make it easier for people to flourish. The role of Allyship is starting to feature heavily in this.  

 

I think there is going to be a better understanding of individual challenges and circumstances, which will mean that black people will be more seen, understood and valued in the industry. This time round it feels like there’s a more emotional connection to the race issue within the industry, which will go a long way in starting to shift the dial. More however needs to be done on how we are tracking progress and the appropriate metrics put in place to measure diversity success.