Challenging Perceptions

Added: 2nd November 2021 by Leonardo

As part of Black History Month 2021, Leonardo was delighted to launch the Ethnicity Inclusion Network Group. Network Chair, Folayo Osekita, shares his views on what needs to be done to create a working environment that offers support, guidance and opportunity for black and ethnic minority communities.

What do you see?

“It’s all about challenging and changing perceptions,” says Folayo. “I know if my photo is shown alongside photos for example, of a white male, a woman or someone with a physical disability, most people viewing these photos are likely to have preconceived ideas about each one of us, our education, our politics and our professional abilities. It is very difficult to gauge what we may have in common from the picture.

“Simply adding a job title, a piece of clothing, a musical instrument or any other kind of context can instantly change this point of view, but we have to be honest about where we are. Whether we call it unconscious bias, a lack of understanding, or the natural pull to gravitate towards people we recognise or look like, there is so much more we can do as individuals and together as a business.”

Being yourself

Of key importance to Folayo is to ensure that everyone working at a company such as Leonardo feels comfortable enough in the workplace to be themselves.

“We need to create an environment where everyone can bring their whole self to work. Why should you feel you have to leave half of you at home? How can you ever achieve your full potential if even just a fraction of your time is concerned about how you are seen or even worse, how you may be being discussed? How much energy is wasted pretending to be someone else and trying to get your face to fit?

“Leonardo has a 'dress for your day' approach regarding employee dress code. Why shouldn’t someone feel comfortable enough to wear their culture’s traditional dress to work that day? I am sure HR will rightly say there is no reason not to, but how many people would feel comfortable enough to do so?”

Importance of Allies

For Folayo, this is just one way that cultivating allies with colleagues across the business can help change culture.

“You can’t do it without allies,” states Folayo. “It has to include our esteemed and experienced white males so that they feel safe and empowered to engage in conversation about ways to improve ethnicity balance within our business. We need to relate racial stereotyping to any feeling of exclusion that they may have faced, be it ageism, class or simply not being ‘one of the guys’.”

Part of the challenge may be education, but the other side of the coin is giving people the confidence to speak openly and ask questions. “There is no need to be ashamed or to feel guilty of who we are or where we have come from; what matters is that we recognise that there is inequality in society, we listen to each other without being judgemental and we embrace the benefits that come with valuing ethnicity balance within our business”.

“Our allies shouldn’t worry about talking about issues of colour as this is where change is going to happen,” says Folayo. “Similarly, those from ethnic minorities need to discuss issues with those not from their communities, instead of keep preaching to the converted.”

In a previous role, Folayo sought out a white sponsor for his network group because “in an environment where one race is dominant, people may not feel comfortable speaking freely about race with people of different races, for fear of being judged. By having a sponsor that is not of colour, it becomes easier to talk about it.”

Folayo believes that the honesty and openness with which Iain Bancroft shared his own background of growing up in a predominantly white area of Scotland, and how that may contribute to blind spots, will be a catalyst for change and is delighted to have Iain on board as the network sponsor.

Show your support

In addition to creating a comfortable and open working environment, Folayo strongly believes that any company committed to inclusion and looking to demonstrate its values to a more widely ethnically diverse candidacy, should be leading the public condemnation of inequalities within our society.

Addressing the racial abuse received by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka following their penalty misses in the Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy, Folayo was happy to see Leonardo show their support publicly but believes the business could have gone further in its support for the players and to condemn the abuse.

“It was such a momentous occasion and the opportunity was there to take a lead in how to respond robustly to such behaviour. There is no point in worrying if this is virtue signalling; after all, what is the alternative? Standing by and saying nothing is not an option! Those from an ethnic minority background are going to be looking at our company and rightly asking why we are not saying anything.

“We need to demonstrate to those people considering a career at Leonardo, as well as to all our colleagues, that we as an organisation, as a team, are going to call out such actions and show that this is not acceptable. We need to tell people what Leonardo stands for, and make clear that as employees they can be confident and comfortable to be themselves in their working environment.”

Making Progress

However, such unequivocal public support for inclusion and diversity, and sharing the achievements of our ethnically diverse colleagues, only goes so far. This narrative needs to go hand-in-hand with real change in the organisation.

“If there are too few black people at Leonardo, why is this?” asks Folayo. “Is it just because they don’t see representation in our recruitment campaigns, or also because they don’t see enough role models in our industry, or that our culture has not allowed those who did join to progress as easily as they could? So much of what we do is about networking. If we can only succeed by building networks, it is vital that we go the extra mile to make people who don’t look like us feel welcome.

“To facilitate this change requires leadership at all levels and a commitment of budget and resources that allows those driving these campaigns the time to dedicate to them alongside their day-to-day responsibilities. It also means demonstrating that we are doing what we can to change – reviewing policies and questioning whether long-standing best practices are still fit-for-purpose.”

Folayo believes that the company is going in the right direction and that there has been real change in the business over the last year. This started with the partnership with AFBE-UK which has seen a number of town hall style sessions delivered to Senior Leaders, a Careers Transition event for 35 engineers from ethnic minority backgrounds and taking part in the AFBE Mentoring Programme to support others pursuing a career within engineering. 

What’s Next?

Looking ahead to his tenure as Ethnicity Inclusion Network Group Chair, Folayo is optimistic about the goals he is setting himself and Leonardo. “Over the coming weeks, I will be assembling a diverse steering committee with a view to sharing stories and insights in order to further improve engagement and collaboration on ethnicity balance across the business,” says Folayo. “I am optimistic that the network will provide a safe environment for people to get to be curious enough to get to know each other, discuss race without feeling awkward or judged, address perceptions and exchange insights.”

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