Racial equity needs all of us
The Association for Corporate Racial Equity (ACRE) was formed last year in response to the historic and present underrepresentation of black Bermudians in international business in Bermuda.
Its mission is clear: as the global market is more competitive than ever, it is essential that Bermuda attracts and retains the best from its full, diverse talent pool and leverages this natural advantage.
ACRE’s four executive leaders are themselves senior re/insurance professionals—Noel Pearman, SVP and cyber product line leader at AXA XL; Marlon Williams, senior property underwriter at Hiscox Re & ILS; Jasmine DeSilva, SVP of ILS strategic initiatives and business development at Artex Capital Solutions; and Deshay Caines, VP of colleague engagement at Marsh McLennan.
Although the re/insurance sector in the UK and the US may have a similar lack of representation for black professionals, particularly in senior roles, black Bermudians are uniquely disadvantaged, Pearman said.
“Bermuda’s population is 65 percent black and, while there may be similar race issues in countries where black people are in the minority, having a lack of participation and a lack of success in Bermuda, given our country’s demographics, is especially problematic.
“Therefore, our vision at ACRE is to enhance the international business sector by ensuring that it becomes truly inclusive and equitable, and to maximise black Bermudian success within that sector.”
ACRE’s formation reflects the significant progress the industry has made while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go, he added.
“It was a common experience to be in a DEI discussion as the only black professional and the topic of race wouldn’t even come up.” Marlon Williams, Hiscox Re & ILS
A big umbrella
ACRE fosters engagement with the industry and supports black professionals across three pillars of action: advocacy, education and community.
Williams, who leads ACRE’s work on advocacy, described how race is often overlooked in discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
“Black people have been waiting a long time for a conversation around race and certainly long before diversity, equity and inclusion were strung together as an acronym, but we’ve found there’s elasticity in the definition of diversity—with gender, sexuality and age also placed under that one umbrella,” he said.
“It was a common experience to be in a DEI discussion as the only black professional and the topic of race wouldn’t even come up. ACRE was launched to provide a voice and to elevate black issues, specifically with industry leaders.”
ACRE’s research found that qualitative data mirrored the anecdotal, collective experience of black professionals on the Island. One stark observation is that just 17 percent of entry-level roles were occupied by white Bermudian men but they held over 60 percent of executive positions. The reverse is the case for black Bermudian men.
Another eye-catching fact is that black Bermudian women account for the majority of all university degree holders in the country, but have the least opportunity for promotion in the international business sector.
“These data are not something that we use as a stick to hit the industry with,” Williams stressed. “We’re just highlighting the current state of affairs so that we can progress the conversation and say: ‘How can we ensure the data look different in five years’ time?’.”
ACRE’s objective in its discussions with industry leaders is not to “boil the ocean” of all the DEI issues, but to “speak to the black experience”, Williams said. As well as holding panel discussions and engaging with industry organisations, ACRE has closed-door, one-to-one meetings with industry executives.
“Advocacy is about creating a safe space for people to have a real conversation on this issue, and to have tangible takeaways to move us forward,” Williams said.
“Having black employees is not the same as having black decision-makers.” Jasmine DeSilva, Artex Capital Solutions
Having such a conversation can be challenging, especially when there is a lack of understanding that an issue with race even exists in Bermuda’s business community.
“We at ACRE have even encountered statements such as: ‘There are one or two black Bermudian executives, so what’s the problem?’. We recognise there is some opposition to this discussion and a potential professional downside to what we’re trying to do, but we’re taking it on anyway because it’s the right thing to do and it needs to be done,” Williams said.
“At one time in Bermuda, black people had to sit at the back of the bus. That was until people said ‘that’s not right’. We don’t even talk about that any more and we’d also like the conversation about black professional success to become obsolete. We all need to challenge ourselves to engage with one another and recognise that we have a common humanity.”
DeSilva, who is responsible for the community pillar of ACRE’s work, said they meet “more well-intentioned people than not”. The conversation then is more about addressing a lack of knowledge, she said.
“We don’t focus on ignorance but on the heart of the well-intentioned people who approach us to learn about the issues faced by black individuals.”
“Ultimately, it’s about moving the dial on this issue so that our children don’t need to have the same conversations that we are having now.”
“I sometimes hear that this doesn’t matter, but it does matter when it comes to pay, total compensation and lifestyle.” Deshay Caines, Marsh McLennan
An educated team
Caines is responsible for the education pillar at ACRE, which is an extension of her work on colleague engagement at Marsh McLennan.
Her task is twofold: educating the industry on the nuances around racial issues in terms of DEI, and educating black talent on the Island.
“It’s about educating people in how to have conversations that can help them effect positive change at their organisation. They need to be ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’ until we get to the stage where we don’t need these types of conversations any more,” she said.
The first thing a company must do is “assess its culture”.
“We can want black Bermudians to get jobs in our industry and be promoted, but if there isn’t a culture that is accepting of them, then that ambition is counter-productive. It can’t be just checking a box for a DEI strategy—it has to be a culture that is conducive to black success and black excellence,” she said.
Caines admits she sometimes encounters “pushback” in the industry against the need for an additional strand to DEI for black Bermudians.
“I sometimes hear that this doesn’t matter, but it does matter when it comes to pay, total compensation and lifestyle.”
Williams described the gap that often exists between a CEO’s intent on bringing about change and a hiring manager who has no authority to help achieve that change.
“Those initiatives get stuck in what we call the ‘frozen middle’, where middle managers aren’t challenged to execute on the CEO’s vision with their hiring and promotion decisions. That company’s culture won’t be conducive to black progression. What works very well is when a human resources department is publicly empowered by the CEO.”
Caines agreed, saying that she regularly collaborates with leaders on learning from the “behind the scenes” stories about DEI. These include understanding “racial nuances and microaggression” and explaining why certain things can be “extremely offensive” to black people.
DeSilva cautioned against the idea that if a company “looks” racially diverse, then that means it has racial equity.
“Having black employees is not the same as having black decision-makers. We at ACRE stress that the question is not only: ‘What do your company demographics look like?’ but also ‘What does your leadership look like?’.”
ACRE’s work on education includes educating Bermuda’s black community, Caines said, with items such as resume writing and interview skills, connecting them with diverse mentors, describing confident body language in a work setting, etc, “thereby minimising some of the barriers we had in the past”.
Until there are more black people in senior roles, however, it will always be difficult for young black professionals to “envision themselves in those positions”, she added.
“They need to see more people like Marlon, Noel and Jasmine in leading roles to be able to say: ‘Someone has done that before me, so I can do that too’.”
“We applaud and support all companies making genuine efforts in this area.” Noel Pearman, AXA XL
To help foster a sense of belonging in the industry, ACRE has a third pillar for action on community.
DeSilva said it is crucial for black professionals to socialise together so that they can talk about their shared experiences and not feel they need to “overexplain” a racial nuance they have encountered at work, “because we all understand exactly and immediately what they mean”.
This pillar of ACRE is “for us, by us”, she said, and includes coaching new talent and holding social events for black professionals. Simply having that attention and sense of occasion to and for themselves is “energising and empowering”, she said.
White professionals on the Island, both Bermudians and ex-pats, have a large network, through which they and their families socialise, DeSilva noted. From those connections come professional links and therefore advantage: “Naturally that leads to knowing who they should hire and it’s a nuance that’s hard to understand unless you live here in Bermuda.”
“It’s up to us Bermudians, and not just the black community, to educate ex-pats on our culture,” Caines said. “I know that when I was working in other countries, I wanted to know about the place where I was living and to interact with people from there. It should be the same for everyone who approaches our shores, especially if they come here to work.”
In her native Bermuda, Caines explained that her interests might not always chime with those of non-Bermudians.
“I’m not going to celebrate Christmas Day on Elbow Beach because that’s not my tradition, but a guest worker might because their professional community here becomes their ‘family’. It’s at the weekend and at those gatherings that they improve their networking opportunities.”
“There’s a lot of education about Bermuda by non-Bermudians to non-Bermudians, and they’ll pass on broad ideas or skewed perceptions about life here,” Williams said.
“They get indoctrinated into that and included in a club that tells them: ‘That’s where you’ll eat, that’s where you’ll hang out, these are your friends’. As a black Bermudian, you don’t understand the importance of a network until you don’t have one in an industry where everybody else does.”
Black professionals on the Island “live in two worlds on a daily basis”, he said.
“Outside the doors of work, you’re part of a majority but inside you’re in a significantly small minority. It’s very jarring because you feel that pressure to fit into each of those worlds.”
ACRE would not consider providing a “seal of approval” to companies for their work in fostering success for black professionals, and explained some of the risks.
Williams said: “If they got a seal of approval from ACRE, would that last forever, even with a change of leadership which might not continue that good work? With a change of CEO could come a change of culture and a change to whether HR is empowered.”
DeSilva added: “We wouldn’t want to be so busy accrediting companies that we forgot our main focus, which is our community, and our mission, which is to advance black success.”
Pearman explained: “We applaud and support all companies making genuine efforts in this area. The fruit of that work, especially in a business community as small as ours, will speak for itself.”
All four ACRE leaders agree that their overriding message to the international business community in Bermuda is that racial equity is a collective responsibility.
Williams concluded: “We don’t expect companies to have all the answers and we certainly hope that they don’t expect us to have all the answers either. However, if we think collectively and work together, we can push racial equity in Bermuda international business forward.”
ACRE has more than 300 members and is growing all the time. To find out more, contact: email@example.com