Lewis Hamilton is right about diversity. But the issue goes way beyond motorsport | Chi Onwurah
I was delighted to receive an email from Lewis Hamilton last year, asking that I join his newly created commission on diversity in British motorsport. I accepted because Hamilton has become a champion for social change through the platform sport gives him.
After 10 months of research, including in-depth interviews, surveys and literature reviews, the report was published this week and is a testament to his leadership and persistence, alongside that of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which co-chaired it.
Our conclusion is regrettable – the motorsport industry has a structural and cultural problem with diversity and inclusion. Only 1% of the 40,000 employees within Formula One and the various organisations engaged in the sport are from Black backgrounds. And problems are pretty stark even for those who do make it. Launching the report, Hamilton said: “While I have enjoyed a successful career in motorsport, it’s been a lonely path as one of the few Black individuals within Formula One and, after 15 years of waiting for the industry to catch up, I realised I had to take action myself.”
Sadly, I can relate to many of the personal accounts and much of the evidence we gathered. It’s been 34 years since I graduated from Imperial College with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering. As a working engineer, I was so often the only Black person, the only woman, the only working-class person, or the only northerner in the room – that is quite a lot of difference to own.
Facing the reality of being stereotyped, both implicitly and explicitly, was tiring, upsetting, frustrating and lonely. From my experience in the 1980s and 1990s, I know too well the barriers faced by minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem). Was English my first language? Was I really a qualified engineer? Was I just after a rich husband?
It is saddening to know that many decades on, minoritised communities are still being denied either the opportunity, or their right to belong in the workforce, of one of the most vitally important British sectors.
I’m chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in Stem, and next week I will be publishing a new report on the workforce in these professions. More than 150 institutions, businesses, networks and individuals have contributed to this report. We are building on our previous work into inequities in the education system by looking at the reality of the working world, and acknowledging that the problems aren’t restricted to education or recruitment.
Throughout the last 18 months, Stem workers have played vital roles in heroically steering the nation through the pandemic: from government advisers, to doctors and nurses, to vaccine manufacturers, to data scientists.
However, while the pandemic has proven the importance of this workforce – almost one in five of all British workers – and their skills, it has exacerbated the systemic disadvantages faced by all minoritised communities. Evidence submitted to the report published next week shows that if you are from an ethnic minority, identify as LGBTQ+, or are female or disabled, you are more likely to have had your life severely disrupted by the pandemic, including the loss of income and career or economic opportunity.
These two reports are extremely timely. As much as the pandemic has been so devastating, it also represents a golden opportunity for the government to work closely with a crucial economic sector and address recurring historic issues. We know how recruiting and nurturing a diversity of talent will not only help to address skills shortages but create a more innovative and productive sector.
But the need for diversity and inclusion goes further than any skills gap or economic imperative; it is our obligation as a nation to create an equitable society, free of systemic discrimination for our future generations.
Chi Onwurah MP is shadow minister for digital, science and technology, and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in Stem