Ajaz Ahmed: Racial equality quotas not the answer to tackling diversity gap in boardrooms

FOR FTSE 100 companies, the stated aim is for one in five directors to be from a non-white background.

Ajaz Ahmed is the founder of Freeserve.
Ajaz Ahmed is the founder of Freeserve.

Meanwhile, Lord Davies’s review into women in the boardroom, which began in 2011, has had some success in increasing the numbers of women in senior business roles.

But is this a good thing? Do we
need quotas? My father’s generation came to this country to work in the
textile mills. Most of them were uneducated, but times have changed. We now don’t think twice when we see an ethnic doctor, surgeon, nurse, dentist, optician, pharmacist, lawyer or accountant.

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We read success stories of ethnic business people and are sometimes surprised when we find out that the well-known brands that we love are owned by ethnics.

Someone recently came to see me at our office in Leeds, and it turned out he was Scottish. The first thing he said to me was “Did you know that your lift has a Scottish accent?”

He was so pleased that he even
tweeted about our lift having a Scottish accent. I would feel the same way if
I met an ethnic person sitting on the board of a company, I would want to tweet about it to the world. That’s the problem, we just don’t have many ethnic people selected to sit on the boards of companies.

If we are to have more diversity on boards, to get our numbers up, quotas must be a good thing, right? Actually, I
don’t agree. Companies should not be forced to take people on just to meet a target, another box that’s ticked. I wouldn’t want to be selected just because a company needed to reach a target number.

Have we got a problem? Yes, we have. Not only are boardrooms unrepresentative of the world we now live in, and the customers that their companies serve, but they
don’t represent the people that spend money with them. Something
needs to change, and we shouldn’t
be afraid to discuss it - it’s a subject that will undoubtedly generate a lot of debates.

I looked at an online article about
the Government’s intention to change
 the rules, it attracted 294 comments. Some had to be removed because they broke the house rules, and many were racist in the way they talked about the subject.

Many people have strong views but only express them when they can hide behind made-up names on websites.
I’ve also noticed that on some sites
the most common name is ‘Anonymous.’ 
I didn’t realise it was such a popular name.

So, if quotas are not the solution, what should we do? The CEOs of companies have got to be more aware of the world their companies live in. They need to recognise the mix of people that work
for them. They can learn a lot from the public sector which is very good at employing people from all ethnic backgrounds.

Is change possible by itself? Can people change? Probably not.

One of the observations I’ve made in my time in business is that people are very good at making well-crafted arguments for why there shouldn’t be any change. They are well-versed at explaining why you don’t understand and why the status quo can’t be changed. Most of the time I just listen and don’t say anything, it’s not worth the argument.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I met a non-white person who
sits on a board. That means there
has to be a problem. We can’t carry on with lots of ethnic professionals in business, but very few sitting on the board.

That change must come from the businesses themselves or the Government will impose quotas. It has the potential to breed resentment and bring only short-term tokenism rather than a long-term solution to this problem.

And if you’re wondering, do I ever get asked to sit on the board of a private or listed company, the answer is no.

Ajaz Ahmed is the founder of Freeserve and is the President of the Yorkshire Ethnic Business Association.