After farming and agriculture, the environmental sector is the least diverse in the U.K – positive action can help change it

February 28, 2024

Guest blog
The opinions shared in this article are those of the individual writer/guest contributor and not of The RACE Report.'
"We do not warrant, endorse, guarantee, or assume responsibility for the accuracy or reliability of any information offered in this blog.
By Sotez Chowdhury, director of communities and networks at Friends of the Earth

According to the Race Report by SOS-UK in the U.K racial diversity in the environmental sector is about 7%. Like the way we know the economy or climate won’t correct itself, nor will this.

At Friends of the Earth, well before the statistics arrived, we knew there was a problem.

These disparities occur because of design, not coincidence, therefore the solution is to re-design employment practices intentionally through a series of actions and creating inclusive spaces that are always learning.

Positive action is one way to guarantee diversification of your organisation.

Positive Action is a provision under the Equalities Act 2010 that employers can do voluntarily. So, the third sector which is responsible for most of the volunteering that takes place in the UK really should understand this one.

The action is simple. Recruit people from protected characteristics when a gap is identified and create meaningful opportunities into paid jobs or re-design existing ones.

At Friends of the Earth England, Wales, Northern Ireland (EWNI) we’re about to host our first Muslim intern, a legal campaigner role, through a partnership with the Aziz Foundation.

The Aziz Foundation is committed to nurturing Muslim talent in the UK. This intern, funded by them, will be their first climate-based intern and with us for 12 months learning and developing as a campaigner.

The story of many people of colour, especially those identifiably as Muslim by name, practice or appearance is that they don't get shortlisted or do but don’t get the job or the promotion.

Now this is the experience of many people, but it happens for different reasons.

Muslims often are in a hostile environment, facing a triple burdened situation, for example, a black, woman who is Muslim. And if you are working class, didn’t grow up near a city and don’t have access to the same cultural capital, connections or education to those who tend to land jobs in the environmental sector - it’s just that much harder. Therefore, positive action is a way of not quite levelling the playing field but allowing access to it for both the individual and the recruiting organisation.

As a Muslim and one of the few in a senior leadership position in the environmental sector, I can see that most of this sector was built around particular demographics of white people, most of it was not and is not representative of most white people in the U.K, let along those from minority backgrounds.

We need to reduce the occurrence of catch-22 situations for prospective candidates from marginalised backgrounds as much as possible. Most roles ask for experience that people starting early in their career or those who have been in other careers but desperately want to be in the environmental sector don't have. So, moving to really taking a skills and aptitude approach becomes important.

We also need to be creative in where jobs are advertised. We hit WhatsApp groups, activists' groups, Muslim support groups/organisations, our youth programme alumni's and open calls on LinkedIn for people to chat to us. Through a combination of an accessible job description and creative advertising, we ended up with 94 applications!

This does two things, one challenges the myth in some circles that Muslims aren’t interested in climate, conservation sustainability. Secondly, it agitates us to know that we can’t match opportunities to the amount of interest and appetite out there by ourselves, but as a sector we can. That’s why we have proudly signed up to the Race Report.

Friends of the Earth as an international organisation over the years has really taken a really hard look at itself and made difficult attempts to balance the power globally within our federation, primarily between the west and the global south.

At Friends of the Earth EWNI, we have been developing our youth work through our My World My Home and Climate Youth Society programmes, seeking to engage and develop young people from marginalised backgrounds. We have been doing anti-racism work since 2017, endless amounts of solidarity work throughout our history and have developed a comprehensive Equity Diversity and Inclusion action plan, that will have impact throughout every team in the organisation.

In addition to this internship, we have another longstanding one for legal interns aimed at recruiting those from marginalised backgrounds in this competitive practice of environmental law. We’ve also run apprenticeships before, participated in the kick starter programme, only do blind shortlisting explicitly encourage underrepresented groups to apply for all our roles.

We basically try hard but give ourselves grace to fail.

We also had a bit of stick around this role too, which you should anticipate when taking such actions and never let it bother you.

We received some messages from a few folk, suggesting that what we were doing was discriminatory. Clearly, they never got the memo about the countless years of actually racist employment practices against those from different religions and backgrounds.

And they most definitely didn't read the Equalities Act 2010 which says this is perfectly legal.

My favourite ‘enquiry’ was from a senior member of government, who took time away from their busy day to tell us they had a member of their constituency who would like the role but wasn't Muslim and whether we could still consider them for the role. I’ll leave you to ponder all the things that went on there.

Funny thing there is that one of the best examples of positive action that has transformed our country is Parliament, which increased the number of women in political parties through all women shortlists. More female candidates, more female parliamentarians, more female ministers and more female prime ministers. This completely changed the nature of power and the causes championed.

We’ve offered to speak more to the very small number of people who raised concerns about this internship and are always open to explaining positive action and our work towards creating a more inclusive sector.

You might read this and be like, well it’s still easy for them because they do lots of stuff already, it’s actually the other way, when you do some of the hard stuff, doing more becomes easier.

You do not need perfection in fluency before recruiting, that comes after. The more people from diverse backgrounds, the more fluent you become and the more complex your comprehension and inclusive becomes your practice. We had incredibly giving staff from our youth work, nations and HR teams contributing to the development of this role and the Muslims already within the organisation are wanting to support this intern on a rotational basis too.

In essence the more you do, the easier it is, the more you care, the more you cater.