The West Midlands is full of diversity but its leadership bodies, public and private, are dominated by white men. What should be done?

Last year the West Midlands Combined Authority set up a Leadership Commission to address the under-representation of people of all backgrounds in leadership roles in both the public and private sectors. In June this year it published a 46 page report, Leaders Like You. [1]  It contains some important data, summarised here:

Where are we now?

A full profile of diversity in leadership in the WMCA area is not possible because of data gaps. Nevertheless, enough information is available to show there is a significant leadership diversity gap.

Women tend to be better represented in leadership in the public sector than the private sector in the WMCA area, particularly in the NHS, local authorities and civil service where they are a large majority of the workforce. They also make up a large majority of the workforce in education too but tend to be poorly represented in leadership positions. Female directors of large, private sector companies are a rare sight.

People with disabilities are underrepresented across the board in the public and private workforce both as a whole and in leadership positions.

The proportion of BAME people in the workforce of local public and private sector organisations is generally significantly below that in the local working age population. It tends to be lower still in leadership positions.

Information is scarcer for other groups, but some is available on people identifying as LGBT. There is a huge gap in information on people from working class backgrounds in leadership positions. (p11. Emphasis in original)

Barriers to diversity

The report states that ‘Barriers to diversity in leadership can be found at different levels – societal, organisational/institutional and individual’. It summarises the ‘Barriers common to most groups’ as including:

  • Lack of self-confidence and self-belief partly as a result of institutional factors;

  • A tendency to recruit and promote in one’s own image;

  • Nepotism and an “old boys club” mentality;

  • Exclusion from informal networks of communication;

  • Stereotyping/preconceptions of a person’s roles and abilities derived from prejudices in wider society;

  • Lack of mentors, role models and appropriate networks of individuals to provide social support and advice. (p12)

What the report recommends

The report makes a number of recommendations for the WMCA and its partner organisations under five themes:

  1. Inclusive leadership to drive inclusive growth

  2. Working in partnership with business to develop inclusive leadership

  3. A step change in recruitment and human resource development

  4. Combatting the evaluation and learning deficit

  5. A route map for the next generation. (p14)

There are 24 specific recommendations, too many to summarise here, but here is one that the WMCA itself could implement:

Theme Two: Working in partnership with business to develop inclusive leadership

Recommendation 2g: The WMCA will play a leading role embedding diversity within its investment and delivery portfolio and its inward investment strategy, incentivising it within its supply chain through its social value policy, it should also expect its partners to commit to inclusive leadership and measure the impact of these policies over a ten year period. (p16)

In other words, the WMCA could use its own purchasing power to make it a condition that suppliers of goods and services commit to plans of action to tackle inequality in their senior staff roles. But this recommendation should have been strengthened: the WMCA should also aim to link up with its ‘partner organisations’ and other organisations, private and public, to combine their massive procurement powers to apply the same conditions: no equality action commitment = no deal.

No critical analysis of the WMCA’s own diversity-blindness

The WMCA Leadership Commission report is a step forward, but it has some crucial weaknesses. They stem from the way the report is framed. The WMCA is notorious for being dominated by a narrow business agenda and excluding meaningful public participation. The report is conceived and written within that framework and its authors, four researchers at the University of Birmingham, with, as Andy Street says ‘Strong academic input from the Universities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Birmingham City, Warwick and Coventry’, don’t question it. It exemplifies what Gerald Grace calls ‘policy science’, research which accepts and operates within the given framework, as against ‘critical policy scholarship’ which subjects the framework itself to critical analysis. [2]

Let me give one example. The first recommendation of the report is that ‘The WMCA must lead by example and will act on an ambitious plan to bring more diverse leaders into its own organisation, networks and governance, drawing on lessons from this research.’ (p15). But the report does not subject the congenitally diversity-blind workings of the WMCA to any critical analysis which would provide the basis of the promised reform. For example, the WMCA Board comprises 28 Members. 25 are men, 3 are women. The large majority are white. At its July meeting there are 17 items on the agenda. All of them are presented by men. The report makes no mention of the fact that Andy Street’s 48-page mayoral election manifesto, with its over 200 ‘pledges’, contains no reference to gender- or ethnically-balanced leadership and representation. Or that the WMCA’s Strategic Economic Plan, the foundation policy of the WMCA, does not contain in its 57 pages any mention at all of issues of ethnicity and racial inequality or of gender inequality – in fact the word ‘gender’ does not appear in the SEP. The WMCA has just published its Regional Skills Plan 2018/19. Its 30 pages make no mention of diversity or equality. The word gender appears once, disability once, and ethnicity three times. In short, uprooting diversity-blindness within the WMCA itself first requires recognising how pervasive and deeply embedded it is.

The report is driven by a business imperative but not a democratic one

How does the report define the problem for which more diverse leadership is presented as the solution? The Executive Summary states

‘its central message – that there is now an economic and business imperative for greater leadership diversity and inclusivity in addition to the clear social imperative. …. The diversity and young age profile of the WMCA area is a huge asset and yet there is a significant leadership diversity gap. This matters as research suggests that greater leadership diversity leads to greater prosperity and reduced marginalisation and disaffection amongst excluded groups.’ (p10).

It is this economic rationale that drives and dominates the report – leadership diversity is good for business. The report’s ‘social imperative’ consists of nothing more than the hope that the sight of some people in leadership positions who are not middle-aged white males will lead to ‘reduced marginalisation and disaffection amongst excluded groups’. It is not supported by any evidence provided in the report and is just tacked-on tokenism in the absence of radical measures to tackle the marginalisation and disaffection resulting from the policies of the Tory government that Mayor Street promotes.

Hierarchical leadership by the few, however ‘diverse’, or inclusive participatory policy-making by the many?

Nowhere is the concept of ‘leadership’ that frames the report examined, let alone justified. This is the fundamental theoretical flaw in the report’s approach. It simply takes the WMCA’s conception of leadership for granted: that organisations are naturally hierarchies, pyramids with a small minority of ‘leaders’ at the top holding the power. It is the unquestioned self-serving common-sense of the world of business. Unspoken is the corollary: the role allocated to the large majority lower down the hierarchy is to be ‘followers’, without effective power or even voice. And this of course is the model of the WMCA itself in relation to the citizens of the West Midlands.

So let us begin with a different social imperative. In the words of Gramsci, ‘In the formation of leaders, one premise is fundamental: is it the intention that there should always be rulers and ruled, or is the objective to create the conditions in which this division is no longer necessary?’ [3] To translate it into our context, if the problem is the exclusion from leadership positions of women, black and ethnic minority people, people with disabilities, people identifying as LGBT, and people from working class backgrounds, then they – all of them, not a selected tiny minority – have to be able to participate effectively in leadership. Which means deconstructing the concept of exclusionary hierarchical leadership by the few, however ‘diverse’ their composition, and replacing it with inclusive participatory decision-making by the many.

This is a discussion that is just beginning in the Labour Party. It was the theme of one of Jeremy Corbyn’s ten pledges in 2016:

Put the public back into our economy and services

We will rebuild public services and expand democratic participation, put the public back into our economy, give people a real say in their local communities, and increase local and regional democracy.

And John McDonnell has subsequently explored alternative models of public ownership, including the nationalisation of key services under the control of workers and users. [4] It’s a discussion that needs to go further.

Whose knowledge counts?

The politics of participatory democracy are in part about the politics of knowledge: whose knowledge counts? In the WMCA is it only the knowledge of local business leaders and elite politicians, together with their selected academic and community advisers, however ‘diverse’ they may be? Or does the knowledge of the users of goods and services, and the workers who provide them, count too? [5]  If it does, where are the participatory structures and procedures that would empower them to contribute their knowledge to the policy processes of the WMCA? Or will their experiences, expertise, ideas and proposals continue to be excluded? (The occasional ‘Mayoral Ask Andy’ meetings ‘where members of the public can ask me any questions they have’ are a token and patronising substitute.)

What the WMCA could do if it had the political will

The WMCA could transform its structures and processes to enable public participation that is representative of the full range of diversity in the West Midlands population, even today under the present government, if it chose to do so. For example, it could set up an inclusive West Midlands Assembly, even if it initially had only an advisory role. And it could set up similar advisory forums for each of its seven portfolios. It’s a matter of political will.

Richard Hatcher

16 July 2018



[1] Leaders Like You. A report from the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Leadership Commission 2018, by Kiran Trehan & Jane Glover, The Business School, University of Birmingham, and Jenny Phillimore & Yanan Zhang, The Institute for Research into Superdiversity, University of Birmingham.

[2] Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart, p144.

[3] Gerald Grace (1984) Urban education: policy science or critical scholarship? In Education and the City, edited by G. Grace, London: Routledge.

The following paragraph summarises his argument:

‘A policy science approach to policy study tends to exclude consideration of wider contextual relations by its sharply focused concern with the specifics of a particular set of policy initiatives. This approach is seductive in its concreteness, its apparently value-free and objective stance, and its direct relation to action. However, what gets lost in this perspective is the examination of the politics and ideologies and interest groups of policy-making process; the making visible of internal contradictions within policy formulations, and the wider structuring and constraining effects of the social and economic relations within which policy making is taking place. All this is the proper concern of policy scholarship.’

(In Grace G (1991) Welfare Labourism versus the New Right: the struggle in New Zealand’s education policy. International Studies in Sociology of Education 1:1 25-42.)

[4] The Labour Party (2017) Alternative Models of Ownership.

[5] The case for inclusive participation can also draw on theories of distributed cognition in knowledge-based organisations. Because the knowledge required to solve complex problems is dispersed throughout organisations, all their members need to be able to contribute to their resolution. We can apply this argument to the WMCA as an organisation of local government whose members comprise the citizens of the West Midlands.


1 Comment

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One response to “The West Midlands is full of diversity but its leadership bodies, public and private, are dominated by white men. What should be done?

  1. Bob Whitehead

    In such advisory forums it could encourage, it not specify, diversity. But that would still leave the flawed structure of the WMCA intact.

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