Comment: Growing beyond the one per cent

3 min read

The motorsport industry employs over 40,000 people yet only one per cent of its employees are black. This has got to change, says Dr Nike Folayan, co-founder and chair of the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers. 

Over the last year, specifically since George Floyd’s murder and the global Black Lives Matter protests, the world has been in a heightened state of awareness on racial discrimination. Many have responded by issuing statements, social media gestures to show solidarity in support of anti-racism. That said, the systemic challenges around racism are still often misunderstood.

Most company websites now include some diversity and inclusion statement. Diversity and inclusion ,although not new, has gained traction with renewed focus on ethnic diversity. While this is encouraging, it is hard not to be cynical about the sincerity of these expressions, especially when one considers the fact that little of substance has changed in our organisations.

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As the only black driver in the history of Formula 1, seven-time world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton was always aware of the lack of diversity in motorsport, not just on the track, but in the pits, workshops, design offices and R&D laboratories. The fact that Mercedes F1 fluid engineer, Stephanie Travers in 2020 was the first black women to ever be on a F1 podium illustrates this underrepresentation. Most shocking is the fact that despite the fact the motorsport industry employs more than 40,000 people, only one per cent of its employees are black.

Having reached the pinnacle of his sport, Hamilton set his sights on understanding specific barriers to the recruitment into, and progression within of black people in UK motorsport. He reached out to the Royal Academy of Engineering and in June 2020 The Hamilton Commission was launched.

For me, being on the Commission was an important step in AFBE-UK’s drive over the last 14 years to change the status quo. The enthusiasm and real passion demonstrated by all the Commissioners was palpable. The real challenge, as with other research endeavours on ethnic diversity, was the availability of data/demographics and using the data to determine the key drivers to enable change.

Taking at higher education and engineering for example, 14 per cent of the UK’s population are from ethnic minority communities, three per cent come from black communities. Over 30 per cent of entrants into universities were from minority ethnic backgrounds, (higher than the overall student population (26 per cent). Just under a quarter of these minority ethnic students are black. Six months after graduating, black engineering graduates are significantly less likely to have progressed into engineering roles (35 per cent) than their white engineering graduate counterparts (57 per cent). Black engineering graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts and have the lowest proportion in full time work, compared with all ethnic groups, at 45 per cent. These differentials between ethnic groups persist even when considering the type of university the student graduated from and the class of degree they achieved. For those that do gain employment, black engineering graduates in full-time employment earn on average around £650 a year less than white engineering graduates (for minority ethnic engineering graduates the gap is much smaller at £97).

It is no surprise then, that only nine per cent of the engineering workforce is from an ethnic minority background and a much lower percentage are black. In addition, statistically ethnic minority communities represent a large portion of communities considered to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. Where ethnic minority individuals are not impacted by socioeconomic challenges, they still face challenges including microaggressions and representation.

The Hamilton Commission published its report, Accelerating Change: Improving Representation of Black People in UK Motorsport and includes ten recommendations which fall into the following three categories:

  • Support and empowerment - engendering a sense of agency among young black people and supporting progression to engineering careers.
  • Accountability and measurement - accountability of those in authority, evidenced through consistent collection and sharing of data.
  • Inspiration and engagement - enabling young black people to visualise what these careers involve and see themselves in these roles.

Since the release of the report, it is heartening to see the F1 community already responding with apprenticeship opportunities and sponsorships. AFBE- UK is working with Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix on their Accelerate 25 programme, this effort is designed in a way to ensure meaningful impact on the communities most affected. However, to grow beyond the one per cent the route to inclusion is nurturing the talent already within organisations. One of the recommendations of the commission is for F1 to develop a diversity and inclusion charter.

Although diversity and inclusion is still a somewhat uncomfortable subject it is great to see that the industry has begun to embrace the idea that we must look holistically, and not only in terms of gender diversity. Recent world events have also emphasised the need to be introspective. My hope is that the recommendations in the report will be spark the measurable change that will allow all to engage with diversity in a way that goes further than recruitment practices and translates into inclusion, nurturing and retaining talent. Such long-term impact is what AFBE-UK and Sir Lewis Hamilton via this commission aspires to achieve.

Dr Nike Folayan MBE is a chartered engineer and a telecommunications engineering consultant. She is co-founder and chair of the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers