Beyond Suffrage: Project Report (no.1)

Building a leadership pipeline of women from ethnic minority backgrounds 

Scroll down and across to read full report


  1. Foreword

  2. Contextual background

  3. Race, gender and social mobility

  4. Leading with data and research 

  5. Conclusion and next steps

Contextual Background


Precious Sithole, CEO

If we are not having uncomfortable conversations about race and equality –– we are most probably just scratching the surface and not addressing deep rooted systemic issues. Brave conversations need to happen. Most importantly, these conversations must translate into meaningful action. This applies not just to racial inequality, but across all protected characteristics.

In the fight to reduce racial inequality, we must actively work to dismantle societal structures that advantage and disadvantage people based on race, and enact instead structures that promote justice and equality. We must also understand how race interacts with other characteristics including gender, resulting in multiple layers of discrimination.

It is not solely the responsibility of the government to address issues of racial inequality – laws and regulations can only take us so far. Each and everyone has a pivotal role to play in advancing the conversation,

as structures that promote inequality only stay in place due to the status quo being maintained. It is all of us, the collective “we”, that keep these structures firmly in place –– in big ways through our actions and in small ways through our inactions.


In carrying out this research, we sought to shine a light on the barriers and challenges that are placed in front of young women of colour from the point they enter academic institutions in the UK, right through to their journey into employment. The consistent underrepresentation of women of colour in senior leadership positions and at board level across all the sectors in the UK, is more than just an issue of racial inequality, it is also a gender equality issue. We spoke to 144 young women –– who sit at this precarious intersection of both racial equality movements and women's rights movements. This report is their story, Beyond Suffrage is their legacy. Our foresisters fought for the right to vote, we are now fighting for the right to an equal future and a seat at the boardroom table.

Aims of the project and scope of activities

The aim of the Beyond Suffrage trustee development programme is to accelerate progress towards achieving gender equality for women from ethnic minority backgrounds at board level in the charity sector. This research project was carried out to inform the Beyond Suffrage programme design and the scope of activities included the following:

  • Carrying out an in-depth analysis of existing racial disparity data and evidence in the UK, in order to gain insight into current and emerging trends. This included analysing research and data from higher education academic institutions, the charity sector (with a focus on trustees), as well as official government statistics. The following research was especially instrumental in carrying out the review: the joint report published by Universities UK and the National Union of Students 'Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Students Attainment at UK Universities: #ClosingTheGap (May 2019); research commissioned in 2017 by the Charity Commission and the Office for Civil Society 'Taken on trust: the awareness and effectiveness of charity trustees in England and Wales'; the Department for Education's statistics and report into graduate employment 'Graduate Labour Market Statistics 2018' ; the Department for Education's statistics and report into graduate outcomes 'Employment and earnings outcomes of higher education graduates by subject studied and graduate characteristics 2019 ; and, the Social Mobility Commission's report 'State of the Nation 2018-19: Social Mobility in Great Britain'.

  • researching young women’s views of trusteeship, inequality of opportunities and social action. This research was conducted through short face-to-face interviews with 144 young women across London. The interviews were generally informal and unstructured – allowing for themes to emerge organically. A further five in-depth interviews were conducted with individuals who had either set up a diversity network at work or were actively involved in an existing network.

  • developing a programme informed by the research, to organically increase the number of women from ethnic minority backgrounds on charity boards by 2030, and identifying the critical success factors for the programme to work. 

The role of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015 at the United Nations General Assembly, 193 world leaders collectively signed a declaration agreeing to work together to eradicate poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change issues. The result of this meeting was the formulation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a wide-ranging plan of action broken down into 17 goals and 169 targets.

The SGDs are expected to be delivered by 2030 and build on the achievements of the 8 Millennium Development Goals (‘MDGs’) that were set in 2000 and ended in 2015 — also in a bid to reduce poverty levels and fight inequality issues.

​The MDGs were to a certain extent successful and resulted in a 50% reduction in worldwide poverty. The process of arriving at the MDGs however, was heavily criticised due to a top-down approach being applied, which ultimately resulted in a few influential countries being involved in the goal-setting process. This meant that developing countries and civil society organisations were not fully consulted during the initial phase of the agenda. Additionally, the overall success of the MDGs was measured by reference to national averages and failed to reflect the fact that some of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups were not adequately assisted and were effectively “left behind”.The SDGs were therefore set with

the shortcomings of the ​MDGs in mind, in the hope that this time no individuals would be left behind. They offer a significant improvement on the MDGs and take into account issues such as: inequality, poor situational capacity, and environmental concerns - all of which the MDGs failed to adequately address. Furthermore, unlike the MDGs, the SDGs are universally applicable. This means that they apply equally to both developed and developing countries; although, the significance of individual goals will vary from one country to the next.

Building on the fundamental concept of 'leaving no one behind', the Beyond Suffrage programme will aim to accelerate progress towards achieving gender equality for women from ethnic minority backgrounds at board level in the United Kingdom, and will contribute towards Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and Goal 10 (Reduced Inequalities), over the 10 year period to 2030.

Although progress is being made towards achieving gender equality – albeit rather slowly – women from ethnic minority backgrounds are not adequately benefiting from this progress, particularly when it relates to occupying senior leadership positions. The aim of Beyond Suffrage is to shine a light on this issue and to call for the next decade to be a decade of measurable action. 

Section I: Race, gender and social mobility

Minding The Gaps

The issue of the graduate attainment gap requires greater scrutiny and attention, especially given that graduate job prospects are directly affected by academic performance at university. 

The median salary of White graduates in the UK is £35,000 per annum, compared to £33,500 and £25,500 for Asian and Black students, respectively. Furthermore, the unemployment rate of White graduates is 2.2%, compared to 3.2% for Asian graduates and 7.4% for Black graduates.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its First Optional Protocol entered into force in 1976, with the Second Optional Protocol being adopted in 1989. With this came much needed civil and political rights, including equality before the law; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of opinion and expression; and protection of minority rights. From a legal perspective, much progress has been made in the UK and the Equality Act 2010 helps to ensure that each and every individual has a fair chance in life, and an equal opportunity to thrive. Most importantly, the Act protects individuals from overt forms of racial discrimination. 

With that being said, there are still multiple areas of racial discrimination that cannot easily be policed by the Equality Act 2010. One such area being discrimination as a result of unconscious bias, simply because unconscious bias operates at a subconscious level and may therefore result in a more covert form of discrimination, that for the most part goes undetected by third parties. For the purposes of this research, we define unconscious bias as snap judgments and assessments that we make of both people and situations, at subconscious level, that are influenced by our personal backgrounds and the environment that we live in.  A second area of discrimination that the law is inefficient at policing, is where the inequality is systemic. This is particularly the case, as structural inequality is often invisible in of itself – and may covertly manifest in the form of poverty, healthcare, housing or education disparities.  For the purposes of this research, we define structural racial inequality as racial group inequality that arises as a result of systems of public policy, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms,  working together in ways that perpetually disadvantage individuals on account of race. 


A demonstrable example of structural inequality is seen in UK institutions where there is an education attainment gap between White students and Ethnic Minority students, from early years right through to university. At university level particularly, is where the contrast is especially stark. For example, in 2018 only 71% of Asian and 57% of Black students achieved a first or 2:1 degree, compared to 81% of white students, according to the research carried out by Universities UK and the National Union of Students. This is despite having started at university with similar A-Level grades. The data showed that qualifications before attending university did not explain the difference between ethnic groups –– therefore, the simple, but fundamental question that must be asked is 'if the issue is not one of a lack of academic calibre, then what other factor(s) are contributing

towards young people from ethnic minority backgrounds, particularly Black students, being left behind in UK academic institutions' 


Given that the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students attending university is increasing it can be argued that 'diversity' targets are being achieved. However, the growing attainment gap year on year is evidence that the fundamental 'inclusion' aspect is lacking and needs to be improved on. 


The issue of the graduate attainment gap is one that requires greater attention, especially given that graduate job prospects are directly affected by academic performance at university. According to the statistics published by the Department for Education in 2019, White graduates' median salary was £35,000, compared to £33,500 and £25,500 for Asian and Black graduates, respectively. In addition to this, the 2018 graduate labour government statistics showed that the unemployment rate of White graduates was just 2.2%, compared to 3.2% for Asian graduates and 7.4% for Black graduates. There is therefore a pressing need to not only understand the systems at play, but to also actively work to eliminate any discriminatory laws, policies and practices that are giving rise to the attainment gap, and in turn, adversely impacting social mobility prospects for young people from ethnic minority backgrounds. 

There is no immediate solution that may be offered to instantly close the gap; however, public policy rooted in social justice, changing institutional practices, and improving representation of Black and Minority Ethnic students in academic institutions may certainly be steps in a positive direction.

Many BAME students do not feel a sense of belonging at university....part of this is about not seeing their history and their experiences reflected in the content of the courses that are being taught. 

Baroness Valeries Amos

Gender and social mobility: Leaving no-one behind


Whilst one of the most significant factors that contributes towards inequality of outcomes at university is race, gender appears to be one of the most prominent issues once in employment as a graduate. Men out earn women at all stages in the decade after graduation – earning 8% higher after one year, 15% higher after 5 years and 31% after 10 years

As with the graduate attainment gap, the graduate pay gap (difference in salaries paid to men versus women when they enter employment as graduates), has been increasing steadily over the past few years.

According to figures from the government's database of graduate employment and earnings, men out-earn women at all stages in the decade after graduation – earning 8% higher after one year, 15% higher after 5 years and 31% after 10 years.

Likewise, according to graduate labour statistics published by the government, within the working-age population in 2018, males across all qualification groups had higher median salaries than their female counterparts. The difference was most pronounced for graduates, where males earned £9,500 more than females and were smallest between non-graduates at £6,500.  Across all the industries analysed, males had higher median salaries than females in 2018. The employment rate of men was also generally higher than the rate for women, across all ethnic groups. This effectively means that the young women from Ethnic Minority backgrounds that do manage to successfully navigate academic intuitional systems and barriers, are faced with a second barrier of discrimination on account of their gender, once they enter into employment.


Amongst women, those from the Other White ethnic group had the highest employment rate (74%), followed by White British women (73%). In contrast, Asian women and Other Ethnicity women had the lowest employment rate (both at 53%). 

Research carried out into "the State of Social Mobility in the UK" by Boston Consultancy Group (2017), showed that the UK is amongst the worst of 37 OECD nations for income mobility. The research identified issues of "entrenched privilege" in higher education, "opportunity hoarding" through networks, as well as issues of "social bias". In addition to this, the research found that even when students from lower income backgrounds attended the same university as their middle income peers, and studied the same degree –– they went on to earn over 10% less per year than their middle income peers. Furthermore, men are more likely to enter professional occupations than women,  and women from working class backgrounds are paid nearly 40% less than men from more advantaged backgrounds. 




White and ethnic minority individuals from working class backgrounds are equally likely to end up in professional occupations; however, professionals from Ethnic Minority backgrounds earn 11% less than White professionals. This means that ethnic minorities from working class backgrounds face a double disadvantage and even where there is social mobility, this does not translate into equal pay. 

Just based on the statistics alone, it is possible to see how race, gender and class inequality in the UK create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination that disadvantage women from ethnic minority backgrounds the most. Therefore, in order to ensure that all individuals benefit from the successes of the SDGs, it is integral to ensure that new frameworks are implemented that promote the meaningful inclusion of women from ethnic minority backgrounds in the workplace, and that help to ensure the eradication of practices that give rise to discrimination in the first place. 

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Infographic generated by Social Practice ENT using data from Taken on Trust, 2017

The charity sector is not immune to these gender and racial disparities. The taken on Trust research report (2017) for example, highlighted that of the charities  surveyed, men on boards outnumbered women 2:1. Additionally, men made up 68% of treasurers on boards and 71% of chairs on boards. 


Furthermore, research into the largest 500 charitiesby income carried out in 2018, showed that 6.6% of trustees were from ethnic minority backgrounds, 

compared to 8.2% among FTSE 100 companies. 

Women from ethnic minority backgrounds were the least likely group to be on a board and/or senior leadership team, and made up just 2.9% of trustees.

Section 2 : Leading with data and research 

Beyond the moral imperative to ensure equal opportunities for all, is a business case for diversity. In the past decade, there seems to have been an increase in understanding of the advantages of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) in the workplace.

McKinsey’s Why Diversity Matters research (2017) established a positive statistically significant correlation between executive diversity and profitability. They studied 1 000 companies in 12 countries and found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile, and for ethnic/cultural diversity, there was a 33% likelihood of outperforming less ethnically/culturally diverse companies.

Likewise, it is now widely considered that working in a non-homogenous team challenges the brain to overcome its accustomed ways of thinking and in turn sharpen its performance. Heidrick & Struggles for example researched more than 230 senior board members and analysed data sets from the top 400 publicly listed companies across 15 European countries –– identifying six characteristics of dynamic governance each board should develop. ‘Diversity of thought’ in the boardroom (i.e. gender, ethnicity, skill-set, age, cultural, functionally, sectors etc) was listed as a highly important factor. 


There is therefore a growing body of evidence indicating a strong positive correlation between board diversity and board effectiveness. This means that beyond the moral imperative, there is a "need" for diversity on boards, and scope for more inclusion of women from ethnic minority backgrounds on charity boards. As part of our initial assessments, we posited that there would also be high interest to join charity boards expressed by these women, if approached correctly. To test our assumptions, we spoke to 144 young women from ethnic minority backgrounds across London. Over a period of two months, we adopted a grounded theory approach, letting themes emerge naturally as we sought to collect young womens' views on trusteeship, inequality  and social action. The key themes that emerged are listed below.

Emerging themes







Although only 3% were actively involved in the traditional charity sector, more than 78% of those that went to university or were currently at university, were involved in student union activities in some capacity. The Afro-Carribean Society and Asian Networks were particularly popular.


Of those in professional jobs, 95% were either involved in their organisation's BME network or had actively been involved in setting one up.

More than 72% were also engaging in some form of social action through their social media channels, particularly around issues of race, religion and the environment.


The vast majority had clear opinions about the issues that affect them, and more than 90% had strong political opinions around Brexit, their communities and their futures. 

One of the key themes that emerged was a strong desire for leadership development opportunities as well as an interest in volunteering in the sector. All participants expressed an interest in unpaid volunteering in some capacity; however, only  3% were actively involved with traditional charities.   Surprisingly, none of the individuals had considered working in a paid role in the sector as a viable first option. 

When shown a job advert for trusteeship, none of the young women stated that they would consider applying to be a board member due to "not being qualified/having enough experience to take on the role". Amongst those who considered themselves unqualified, were young women working in banking, accounting, and insurance – who with the right support would undeniably make a valuable contribution to the sector as finance trustees. When expressly informed that the sector would benefit from incorporating the youth voice at board level, and that trusteeship training, mentoring and support would be provided, the number of interested participants increased significantly to 91%.


Interestingly, university students and those in non-professional work generally expressed that they felt comfortable speaking up openly on issues of racial inequality. Yet, those in professional work felt that speaking up could have you branded as "divisive or a trouble maker". Those involved in diversity initiatives were afraid of directly calling out racism, opting instead for softer "more palatable" language. Furthermore, the perpetuation of inaccurate stereotypes in the workplace in general, was often reported as having the overall effect of "allowing unfair treatment to seem fair or normal". 


Of those working in professional roles, more than 95% felt that there was an unwritten "code" at work that they had to adhere to in order to fit in. None felt that they could bring their whole selves to work. Diminished confidence as a result, was often cited. The remaining 5% that reported no issues around inclusion, all worked in diverse teams where management actively played a role in creating a welcoming culture.


Participants generally expressed that having access to female role models from ethnic minority backgrounds increased their feelings of belonging.  

Some participants reported being the first to go to university and expressed uncertainty around selecting a career path, stating that having someone from a similar background helping to guide them would be beneficial. Likewise, those in professional roles actively sought mentorship from women in their organisation and in some instances, women outside their organisations.

They all felt that it would be beneficial to have spaces for young women from ethnic minority backgrounds to connect and exchange ideas. 

See My Colour

There was a general consensus that the word BME reinforced a sense of "otherness".

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Conclusion and Next Steps

In order to be fully effective, the programme designed must be rooted in social justice. This involves putting measures in place that help to ensure 1) the identification of women from ethnic minority groups 2) carrying out assessments of why these groups of women experience negative outcomes and the barriers in place, and 3) that power is shared with these groups, in order to satisfy their rights to social and economic equality. 

With much conversation in the charity sector around racial diversity and several pieces of research available to reference, it is possible to say that for the most part, willing individuals and organisations will be able to identify women from ethnic minority backgrounds as one of the main groups most in need of positive action in recruitment, and will be able to engage in meaningful conversation regarding the barriers that these groups of women face. 

The true challenge, however, lies in actually sharing power with these groups of women, for three main reasons. Firstly, in the UK positive discrimination is illegal; however, positive action is permissible. Positive discrimination occurs when a candidate is given preferential treatment because of a protected characteristic, or is employed specifically because of a protected characteristic, rather than because they are the most qualified or equally qualified for a role. It is therefore not possible for a candidate to simply be placed on a board, without some form of open recruitment that meets legal requirements. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as placing individuals simply on account of race, would be tokenistic and unbeneficial to both the individual and the charity. The real challenge lies in the fact that the programme recruitment strategy may effectively have to focus on identifying young women who stand a chance of being either equally or more qualified than a White, male, counterpart from a middle income background – thus making the programme exclusive and increasing the risks of  replicating systems that give rise to inequality in the first place.

The second major challenge is the fact that redistribution of power is a zero sum game. It is not possible to keep privilege intact and still achieve social justice. Even though organisations may benefit from diversity as a whole, there will be individuals within those organisations who will effectively “lose out”. Though there may be an honest willingness to promote social justice,  efforts may be reduced by self-preservation instincts.

Finally, there is the issue of resource limitations. Changing cultures and building inclusive environments takes time and can be costly. Unconscious bias training alone is not enough, and it has been proven to be ineffective, much more is required. Therefore, any organisations with limited resources, particularly limited unrestricted funding, will automatically face a major barrier that will make building diverse teams and boards more challenging. Funders therefore sit in one of the highest seats of power in the charity sector and have the ability to support and facilitate change. 

The research in this report, particularly the young women's research, will be used as the starting point for the programme design. Our philosophical approach will remain "fail fast, build incrementally". This approach involves extensive testing and incremental development to determine whether an idea has value, cutting losses when testing reveals something isn't working, learning from the losses and quickly trying something else instead. The constant interplay between feedback from stakeholders and adaptation creates an environment where speed translates into quality.

Building on the fundamental concept of 'leaving no one behind', the Beyond Suffrage programme will aim to accelerate progress towards achieving gender equality for women from ethnic minority backgrounds at board level in the United Kingdom, and will contribute towards Goal 5 (Gender Equality) and Goal 10 (Reduced Inequalities), over the 10 year period to 2030.