Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Friday, 20 March 2009

Watershed moment for British business

By Sandra Kerr,
Director, Race for Opportunity

Tidjane Thiam
Tidjane Thiam is the first black person to head a FTSE 100 company

Tidjane Thiam's appointment as chief executive of Prudential is, we believe, a watershed moment for British business and should be widely celebrated.

From my experience, you cannot underestimate the importance of an inspirational leader and the impact of an advocate at board level.

I hope that Tidjane Thiam's achievements will inspire ethnic minority teenagers, entry-level workers and current employees to stand-up and be counted in the race for leadership.

However, it should be remembered that Tidjane Thiam was born and educated outside of the United Kingdom.

His success should not be claimed as a success for the promotion of ethnic minorities from classroom to boardroom in the United Kingdom.

Urgent need

Ethnic minorities in management remain shockingly underrepresented in our workforce and, as has been demonstrated by research undertaken by Race for Opportunity, without concerted effort from business and government this situation will not change.

Sandra Kerr
If we take our eye off the ball, fair representation for ethnic minorities in our workforce will slip even further out of reach
Sandra Kerr

Although I believe some progress is being made to achieve racial diversity in our workforce, there is an urgent need to address the overwhelming lack of ethnic minorities on UK company boards.

If no action is taken now then the problem will not just remain, it will get worse and ethnic minorities in management will never be in line with their representation in the overall population.

The stark reality is that 33 years since the passing of the landmark Race Relations Act there is still a colour bar to jobs in the UK.

It is vital that the UK has boardrooms with a cultural mix that mirrors both the marketplace and the communities in which the businesses operates. To achieve this, businesses need to unlock the wealth of leadership talent we have in the UK.

If we ever want to reflect the multicultural society in which we live, it will mean shattering the last glass ceiling and having male and females from ethnic minorities as prime ministers and on the boards of FTSE 100 firms.

Inspirational examples

But without admitting that we have a problem, how can we work towards a solution?

Ten years since Macpherson published his devastating report about the failings of the Metropolitan police in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder, the term institutional racism has been officially laid to rest.

However, both Race for Opportunity research results and recent findings from the Runnymede Trust contradict this. In fact, if we take our eye off the ball, fair representation for ethnic minorities in our workforce will slip even further out of reach.

There are some inspirational examples that should be shared - well done to Prudential for creating a culture that encourages the best talent to rightly progress to the top.

While Tidjane Thiam's success gives me hope that the UK is starting to reflect the diverse image we aspire to, I urge business and government to acknowledge the crucial steps that must be taken to achieve a diverse workforce we can be proud of.

Sandra Kerr is director of Race for Opportunity, a Business in the Community programme that focuses on race equality in the workplace.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated.

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