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This page was last updated on 20/06/2007 09:20:46

 

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In defence of monitoring
13 April 2006

tick on red background

Sue Scott, a diversity consultant, writes in favour of ethnic monitoring and the benefits to society. She takes Sathnam Sanghera to task for his assumptions and warns that concerns raised by James Kingsland should not undermine the basic principle of ethnic monitoring.

It seems strange, 28 years after the CRE published its first guidance on ‘Monitoring an Equal Opportunity Policy’ and 26 years after its publication of ‘Why Keep Ethnic Records?’, to be asked to write a piece in favour of ethnic monitoring.

The arguments for monitoring haven’t changed much over the years

The arguments for monitoring haven’t changed much over the years, although perhaps now there is less of a need to respond to questions addressed in the early guidance, such as ‘Since we treat everybody equally, won’t ethnic record-keeping be a totally unnecessary exercise?’. Decades of discrimination testing, tribunal complaints and formal investigations have demonstrated clearly that organisations can not take for granted that they ‘treat everyone equally’ (or even that that necessarily equates to treating everyone fairly).

If equality or fairness of treatment can’t be taken for granted, how do organisations know if or to what extent they are delivering them, in their employment practices and in their service delivery? I simply can’t imagine an answer to this question that does not involve some form of ethnic monitoring. As the CRE’s guidance says: ‘To have an equality policy without ethnic monitoring is like aiming for good financial management without keeping financial records’.

This is not to say that the pieces by James Kingsland and Sathnam Sanghera do not raise some valid points. But the concerns they raise do not seem to me in any way to undermine the basic principle of ethnic monitoring.

Sathnam Sanghera’s concerns are about the categories used for monitoring purposes, the variability of a person’s ethnic identity, and an apparent plethora of monitoring forms.

The question of the ‘right’ ethnic categories to use is a thorny one

The question of the ‘right’ ethnic categories to use is a thorny one, and those recommended by the CRE (essentially the 2001 Census categories) strive to find a balance between oversimplification (‘Asian’) and a proliferation of categories that, unless combined, make meaningful analysis impossible, with potentially every individual in a different ethnic category. Sathnam is right to draw attention to the variability of the Asian experience, but this is why the CRE advocates using categories representing the main Asian subgroups. And how would this variability have been identified without ethnic monitoring? The sub-categories of the ‘black’ heading may indeed be insufficient to capture the different experiences of Somali and Nigerian people: in a service delivery context in particular, it may be necessary for organisations sometimes to use a more detailed breakdown under the ‘black African’ sub-heading, although, as the CRE guidance points out this may not be a simple matter (do you then include every African nationality as a separate sub-category, or do you offer the options of ‘Nigerian’, ‘Somali’ and ‘other African’, to the possible offence of, say, Ghanaians?). What is key is that organisations use categories that enable them to assess their performance against appropriate benchmark data (often from the Census), and that recognise the ethnic composition of their clientele, potential clientele, workforce or potential workforce, without being overwhelmed by detail they cannot manage or analyse.

The point about ‘identity’ is an interesting one, and highlights what could be seen as an inconsistency between a system that rightly relies primarily on ‘self-classification’ and discrimination that is determined by another person’s classification. So, sorry, Sathnam, I don’t care how English or Brummie you may be feeling, I just see an ‘Asian’ and that’s why I’ll deny you a job or a rented flat. And, yes, your Jewish-British-south African colleague may feel very different from his fellow ‘white’ French protestant colleague, but the likelihood is that neither of them will be subject to the same discrimination as someone who is not white.

sorry, Sathnam, I don’t care how English or Brummie you may be feeling, I just see an ‘Asian’ and that’s why I’ll deny you a job or a rented flat

But of course monitoring is not just about identifying crude direct discrimination. It serves to alert organisations to a whole range of issues they may need to address: a lack of job applicants from one group; a disproportionate failure rate at assessment centre for another; an apparent under-use of their services by some sections of their local population; an over-representation of some groups among those subject to law enforcement; differences in patterns of symptoms and disease. Without the capacity to identify these disparities, organisations are powerless to investigate, and if necessary and possible, address them.

And what about the plethora of forms? This may sometimes represent bad monitoring practice, a failure by an organisation to obtain monitoring data once and then to keep it linked (with safeguards) to the person it concerns, to obviate the irritating need to ask the question over and over again. Or it may come about from tokenistic half-hearted efforts that really are more of a PR exercise than a genuine attempt at monitoring. Unless the data are collected in a systematic way, with efforts to identify and ideally follow up non-responders, the picture they paint will be at best incomplete and at worst misleading. But this is an argument for doing better monitoring, not for abandoning monitoring.

James Kingsland discusses the question of ‘stereotype threat’, a disturbing phenomenon, well-documented in a stream of research starting with the 1995 studies by Steele and Aronson he describes. The threat lies in the possibility of appearing to conform to a negative stereotype held about one’s ethnic group or sex. A particular concern is about the effects on ethnic minority applicants taking tests of cognitive ability, on which in the UK, as in the US, some ethnic minority groups continue to obtain lower scores than whites. Stereotype threat is posited as at least a partial explanation of the difference, and attempts to reduce the threat have resulted in an improvement in the test performance of the under-performing group. Now, this is an important step forward in dealing with the persistent and quite intractable problem of test score differences. And I question whether this important research could take place without an ethnic origin question being asked of participants at some stage.

The risk of stereotype threat should certainly make us think about when we ask applicants (whether for jobs or for educational opportunities) for ethnic origin information, as it is clear that asking the question shortly before test-taking or interview could increase the threat (although it is likely to be present to some degree anyway). Obtaining ethnic origin data at the application form stage maximises the delay between the question and the taking of any tests (or being interviewed). I believe, given the importance of monitoring data being as complete as possible, that the CRE should stand by its recommendation to seek ethnic origin information again at the interview stage from those who did not provide it with their application form. But it might be advisable for the guidance to stress that it would be preferable to do this after the interview/test/assessment centre process is complete.

In summary, monitoring practices may and probably do need to be improved in many cases, but the words ‘baby’ and ‘bath water’ come to mind.

Sue Scott previously worked at the CRE until 1998, and is now an independent diversity consultant. She co-established Equal Measures (http://www.equalmeasures.com) which carries out a range of equality-proofing and impact assessment work.

3 Comments
We really still miss the point that this system is frequently abused. I have never understood how a company that includes ethnic monitoring in the body of an application form can be a Equal Opportunities employer. Okay, so now most of the companies have it as a detachable or separate sheet. However, until we remove names, addresses, date of birth, etc from forms (in France they are even debating whether names and addresses should be removed from CVs!) prejudice will continue unabated and ethnic minorities will continue to be suspicious of a system they see as stereotyping them and fear descriminates against them.
Robin CG
08 November 2006


I welcome the dicussion about monitoring but I think we need to move beyong the priciple of whether to the detail of how. It is desirable to have a set of subcategories so long ans they can be aggregated inot the 16 plus one. Secondly we need to be clear about what we are monitoring and why, without this monitoring is pretty meaningless. Next we need to train staff on who to ask for and record the information and securly store it; and the most vital issue to be considered when using monitoring information is who will the information be used. Who will analyses the findings an dtake responsibility for remedial action? And finally how will fidnings from the monitoring be published. Without clarity on these, and some other points monitoring will not happen properly or at all.



Linda Bellos
19 April 2006


I have been following this issue with interest as someone who is fairly familiar with many of the arguments about the purpose and effectiveness of ethnic monitoring as part of the fight against discrimination and inequality in society.

I am however unconvinced that this discourse is always being waged on the most important issue. Why is it that policy makers, politicians and the media in the West continue to marginalised a section of the world population that by common consensus comprise of 3/4 of the world’s population? It has even reached a stage where I routinely refer to myself as an ethnic minority! Perhaps I have been smashed into submission by the weight of these debates?

Why is it that White Europeans are not given the label ethnic minority in parts of the developing world? Is it I wonder because these sterile debates as conducted here in the UK is about poor non-whites? I agree that we need to have systems in place as a way of fighting discrimination, but we should not be diverted from the bigger picture, which is around pigeon holing people who do not conform to Eurocentric stereotypes. Before writing this response I looked up the word ‘ethnic’ and found that it is derived from the Greek word ethikos or heathen. We are not the minorities nor are we heathens! I would be grateful if someone can enlighten me on this issue.

Mr Joseph
19 April 2006


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Links

Tracking the tickbox effect: James Kingsland looks at science and stereotypes.

Against monitoring: Sathnam Sanghera complains about the deluge of diversity monitoring forms and the pigeon-holes they try to force him into.

Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

EUMC

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Social policy research and development.

For more links, see our new links page.

Search Catalyst

Search For:


Promote Catalyst

If you are able to promote Catalyst in your workplace, university etc, please download our poster, a pdf which can be printed at A4 or A3 size.

Small print

Contributor and illustrator information

Articles published in Catalyst do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Commission for Racial Equality.

For advertising or editorial enquiries, please .

rss logo | What is RSS?

This page was last updated on 20/06/2007 09:20:46

 

© Commission for Racial Equality 2007

 

CRE 30 years logo