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Is there a glass ceiling for ethnic minorities in the Civil Service?

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 16

Richard Norrie, Research Fellow at Policy Exchange, explains how a new project will attempt to quantify the extent of ethnic minority representation in the Civil Service.

The idea of a glass ceiling is simple – you can see the top, but there is an invisible barrier preventing you from reaching it. In the debate on diversity, this metaphor is commonly used, although mostly its application is in referring to the representation of women in positions of power. 

It is less commonly applied to ethnic minorities, although it is widely understood that this is something affecting them too. There is also little by way of robust research into ethnic minority glass ceilings in academic and policy research. 

At Policy Exchange we are embarking on a new research project, led by Professor Shamit Saggar of the University of Essex, which will attempt to quantify the extent of ethnic minority representation in professions, as well as the extent to which they are represented in positions of prestige and authority. 

We are looking broadly at traditional professions – accountancy, medicine, the Civil Service, etc. – as well as more recent ones, such as computer programming and advertising. We are looking at both private and public sectors. In order to try and understand what is going on, we are looking to speak to people working within the Civil Service and other comparable organisations, off the record if necessary. 

Provisionally, what we are finding is that sometimes ethnic minority people are well represented, sometimes even over-represented in some professions, but that they do tend to be clustered towards the bottom of the hierarchy. An example would be accountancy. Looking at the major firms – the so-called Big Four – we see that around 20% of employees are non-white. However, at associate level between 22-29% are non-white, while only 6-7% of partners are non-white. Boards in general tend to be very white. 

What this might mean is hard to tell. For instance, it could be that people are being passed over, but if the inflow of non-white employees is rather recent then it would be reasonable to expect them not to be showing up quite just yet at the very top. 

A closer look at the Civil Service reveals some of the intricacies involved. Overall, 11% are non-white compared to 12.9% of the population at large, according to the 2015 Civil Service Employment Survey (note that these figures refer to people of known ethnicity only; roughly one-fifth of respondents do not disclose their ethnicity). Not bad levels of representation but within the top levels of the Civil Service, 7% are non-white. When it comes to remuneration though, non-white civil servants are likely to be better paid: 65.4% of non-whites earn more than £80,000 per annum compared to 51.5% of whites. 

Generally, people in the higher ranks of the Civil Service have a greater sense of purpose and efficacy. However, something very interesting happens concerning ethnicity as you progress up the ranks. According to the 2015 Civil Service People Survey, at the lowest rank – administrative officers and assistants – 44% of whites say they are proud when they tell others they belong to the Civil Service, compared to 65% of non-whites. At the highest level – the senior civil servants – 83% of whites say they are proud compared to 80% of non-whites. 

The survey also asked respondents if they believed that senior managers would take action on the results of the survey itself. Among senior civil servants, 84% of whites believed they would, compared to just 67% of non-whites. At the bottom, although faith in senior management is much lower, non-whites have much more belief than whites: 44% and 33%, respectively. 

As you see, the picture is far from simple. While non-white minorities are less represented in the highest ranks of the Civil Service, when they get there they may be getting paid more but seem to have more negative perceptions than whites. Why this might be, we do not know. These are the kinds of things we are looking to explain as we embark on the qualitative phase of our investigation.

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