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Tackling racism in business through data analysis

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 26 Feb 2020

Businesses can measure and analyse racial disparities, taking practical steps to change behaviour.

We need to move beyond trying to fix racism via thoughts and feelings (“defective hearts and minds”), and start measuring and changing patterns of behaviour, explains Dr Phillip Atiba Goff, a social psychologist specialising in racial bias and discrimination.

Through his work helping police forces in the US to eliminate racial bias, he has found that measuring behaviours and taking action can benefit businesses within their marketing, recruiting and hiring processes.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Annual Meeting in Davos, (which ICAEW’s CEO Michael Izza also attended) Dr Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity explained the importance of goals. When the “objectionable outcome” is racial bias, businesses need to find a way to predict it by working backwards.

It is also critical to listen to those most affected by discrimination, and not try to be a voice for the voiceless. Businesses are very familiar with measuring finances and performance, but in this time of “stakeholder capitalism”, they need to measure values as well.

If a business “hasn’t figured out how to measure the ways it facilitates racially disparate impacts on the communities it touches, it’s at both moral and financial peril,” warns Goff. “If you care about racial bias in the organizations you run, measure racially disparate outcomes. It doesn’t mean that when you find them, that you’re bad people,” he continued. “Sometimes, like in any relationship, we don’t ask the questions when we’re scared of the answer.” 

Research has yet to reveal the true extent of the problem. But the Guardian’s 2018  survey on everyday racial bias in Britain found that “43% of those from a minority ethnic background had been overlooked for a work promotion in a way that felt unfair in the last five years – more than twice the proportion of white people (18%) who reported the same experience.” 

The survey is “believed to be the first major piece of UK public polling to focus on ethnic minorities’ experiences of unconscious bias … amid wider concerns about a shortage of research capturing the views of minority groups.”

The statistics surrounding racial bias in economic fields are jarring and should serve as a clarion call to businesses globally. Research comprised of a voluntary survey completed by 9,000 people in 2019 (current and past members of the learned society in economics, the American Economic Association (AEA)), found that “nearly a third of nonwhite respondents said they had faced racial discrimination, compared with just 4% of white respondents.”

“It’s bad for economics,” Ben Bernanke, former Federal Reserve chairman told the New York Times. “We appear to be dissuading talented people from entering the field.”

Dr Goff’s work on using data on behaviour may help companies eliminate racial bias. Applying measurements and considering business goals when it comes to beating racism will be more effective than the amorphous aim of changing “hearts and minds”.


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