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Diversity in the food manufacturing industry

July 3, 2024
Lukas Vanterpool

AS we emerge from a tough few weeks where racism has again dominated the headlines – as has people’s response to this unfortunate and ugly part of society – the topic of race and ethnicity opens up again.

In this blog we are going to look at how age, gender and race fit into the food manufacturing industry, and how prejudice in whatever form or context should not and cannot have a platform in the sector.

Let’s start with a bit of positive news. According to a survey carried out at the end of last year – the UK leads the world in diversity and inclusion (D&I) roles. A surge in demand for D&I roles over the past five years has seen these increase in the UK by 58% – growing four times faster that HR roles during the same time.

According to data from LinkedIn, UK organisations employ twice as many D&I professionals per 10,000 employees than any country in the world and have the second largest number of D&I professionals globally, behind the US.

The attention UK organisations are now giving to improving D&I has also been reflected in a survey by PwC, which found two-thirds of businesses are collecting ethnicity data on their employees, and a quarter have calculated their ethnicity pay gap.

While it is great to read that the various ‘gaps’ are being shortened, there is still some way to go in the food manufacturing industry – which while using the pandemic as catalyst to improve D&I, seems is still struggling to make strides on ethnicity.

The Covid crisis may have been thought-provoking for many organisations, but it certainly hasn’t led to an even playing field.

According to a survey of 30 companies and interviews with senior HR leaders at major retailers, food service providers and manufacturers, only half have put a D&I strategy in place, although more than 80% are talking about the issue at senior level.

45% of firms were yet to take formal steps to address D&I, but only 40% had targets in place to measure their progress.

In addition, half found making progress on ethnicity was their biggest issue, largely due to inaccurate data and the lack of relatable role models in the sector. Some 60% said a lack of diverse role models within their organisation was a significant challenge.

What are some of the challenges?

There have been many reports and studies carried out over the past 18 months, each carrying positive and negative points about the industry when it comes to D&I roles and gender pay.

On the whole, it still does seem that food and drink firms are lagging when it comes to workplace diversity. A report suggests that they have remained “behind the curve” on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, despite recent improvements across the industry.


Some key discriminatory stumbling blocks …

Age : By the nature of the industry, a large number of the roles are filled by ‘older males’, many of whom are loyal members of staff and who have been in the same job for a long time. When it come the subject of age – in our experience, the industry as a whole doesn’t seem to have a huge problem.

Sadly though, for whatever reason, we do still have candidates who feel the need to highlight they are 60 + years old and justify why that shouldn’t go against them.  This is disappointing as it demonstrates a culture in which people are being judged based on age when they can clearly do the job and add a lot of value. Very rarely do I come across someone discriminated against for being too young – only ever too old.

Some people outside of the industry may have the incorrect perception that it is simply all about food packing and productions line. In reality, the food and drink manufacturing industry is the single largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with an annual turnover of £95.4 billion.

The industry employs some 400,000 people – that’s around 13%of the total manufacturing workforce in the UK. With the industry investing heavily in research and development, resulting in around 10,000 new products being introduced to the market each year – there are some amazing career opportunities, which will become increasingly attractive for graduates and youngers employees and could turn the tide.

Gender: The evidence is that throughout the majority of the industry, there are no major areas of concern. However, when we start looking at exec/board level there are clear issues. This also goes for Race, Age and LGBTQ.

It is all well and good shouting that we want more diversity in our business and across our teams, but the issue starts much further back than the workplace. It’s well known that there are less women in engineering and construction as schools don’t steer girls down this route as a matter of course.

In some schools, young girls are being pulled up on the fact they are not wearing a skirt! This is where change needs to start. People are ‘brainwashed’ from a young age into a career/way of life that they ‘should’ be in rather than one they choose. This needs to change; as does the case for LGBTQ individuals.

A 2021 report from the CIPD makes uncomfortable reading; suggesting that LGBTQ+ employees are more likely to experience workplace conflict and harassment than their heterosexual counterparts. 40% of LGBTQ+ workers and 55% of trans workers have experienced such conflict, compared with 29% of heterosexual employees.

Race:  Let’s liken racism to the mentality of a minority of England ‘football fans’.  Everything is quiet and said behind closed doors until those involved become disgruntled.  That’s when true colours are shown. We’ve had some clients request people of a specific race to very much ‘fit’ with what they have. This hasn’t necessarily been White British – it could be Eastern European or Indian ethnicity. While this may not strictly be a case of ‘racism’ it is a discriminatory choice based on image and which in no way reflects an individual’s ability to do the job in hand.

So why is diversity so important?

Well – first of all let’s state the obvious … it is 2021 – and as we have seen from recent backlashes to racism directed at England’s three Euro 2020 penalty takers – the vast majority of the country has no time or tolerance for racism, nor sexism or ageism.

I would like to think that as well as being civilised human beings; the pandemic, the threat of COVID and the ethos of ‘be kind’ should really bring home the fact that we really are all the same – whatever our colour, gender or beliefs.

In terms of brand perception, it is really important to align with the expectations and values of brands and retailer audiences – they will want to work with manufacturers that meet requirements.

In reality, all sectors of commerce and industry can benefit from D&I on a wider scale. Think of your own workplace or that of your friends and family – a productive, healthy, happy and successful team is not based on one kind of person.

While so many organisations have embraced D&I on many difference levels, there is still much work to be done. Although commendable, it is very difficult to change these behaviours just by having a “Diversity forum” once a month or a “Diversity Champion” in the HR department.

What’s next?

The topic of diversity – whether in the context of race, gender or age – still remains a very challenging and emotive one.

Whilst the industry is speaking and doing a lot to show that they are inclusive, we do still have the challenge of how much of this is for show or a box ticking exercise.

Companies are doing what they can to educate as they have to.  However, how likely are we to change the opinions of middle-aged individuals who see derogatory comments about people of a different race, gender or sexual orientation as being normal?

It is a fact that in some cases, they don’t even think their comments are offensive. Companies we work with are doing what’s in their control, making it clear to everyone that all diversity is the new norm, and all are welcome.

The message should quite simply be “We won’t stand for people not feeling welcome”.

Will that change a lot of people’s views? No, of course, it won’t.  However, the more we all drill the message home, the more the next generation of workers being raised and educated will do the right thing.

We need to change the message that is being delivered from a young age to one of strong opposition when it comes to racism, sexism and homophobia. Schools and parents need to be accountable when it comes to the message being delivered and challenge views that are being absorbed from children’s environments. In a nutshell – freedom of speech and ignorant bigotry are not one and the same – and we, in fact, do not need to be respectful of these views. In fact the opposite – we need to actively speak out in opposition and children should be empowered to feel confident in doing so from a young age.

What we must make sure of is that D&I does not just become a tick box exercise to massage an individual organisation’s profile or that of the industry and a whole. Employers need to be sympathetic to employees who feel discriminated against for a whole host of reasons.

If we can start making these changes when it matters, early on, then there will be no need to even discuss D&I and what we’re all doing to make a difference.

In a world where you can be anything – be yourself

I’ll end on this …. Towards the end of 2020, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England research found that a proportion equivalent to 6.5 million UK employees feel they cannot be their ‘real self’ at work and less than half (43%) think their colleagues know the ‘real’ them.

The very best thing that we can be in the workplace is ourselves – carrying out our role to the best of our ability.

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About The Author

Lukas Vanterpool

I started The Sterling Choice with Gareth Whyatt back in August 2013. We’ve always remained true to ourselves and what it is we’re trying to achieve – A great company with great people and great results! This journey never stops, we are always finding ways to support our colleagues and make sure they leave every day feeling fulfilled.

Over the years I’ve always been asked “what’s your USP??, what makes you different from all the other agencies??”. That’s an easy one for me to answer – “Our culture makes our business and our people make our culture”

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