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“The people who have the power lack diversity”

We need a wider cohort of policymakers to make society fairer, says Felicia Odamtten, founder of the Black Economists Network.

By Sarah Dawood

When Felicia Odamtten first joined the civil service she was the only black woman in her team of roughly 40 economists. At university she had noticed a lack of ethnic diversity among academics but was surprised to see it so starkly in the workplace, too.

“It was a culture shock to learn that it was more widespread,” she tells Spotlight. “Growing up in London, I’ve always been around lots of diversity. So going into the workplace, I was like, ‘Where’s it all gone?’ I was just starting out in my career, and I could immediately see there were differences between me and these people, even how we speak and how we look at the world.”

Odamtten, 27, now works as an economist at the living standards think tank the Resolution Foundation. She was born and grew up in Enfield, North London, “on the cusp” between working- and middle-class. Her parents are first-generation immigrants, originally from Ghana, who came to the UK in their early twenties. Her dad is an accountant, and her mum was a care worker but has since retrained as a nurse. Her father instilled a strong educational ethic in her from a young age, says Odamtten, taking her to Saturday school classes and encouraging her to pursue a career.

Still, when she became an economist, she says: “This was all new to me. [At school], I didn’t even know what economics was, I just thought it looked interesting. Then in sixth form, it was literally just the fact that I enjoyed the subject and it came naturally to me.” At university, she says, she “relied heavily on networks”, regularly going to career and recruitment fairs and asking lecturers to explain technical terms.

“[Language can] definitely be really alienating and you can easily switch off,” says Odamtten. “I would literally pester my lecturers to explain things to me, I didn’t just pick it up. I try to advise people not to be afraid to ask for what they need in order to understand something, because we’re all humans at the end of the day, and we’re not going to know everything.”

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After graduating with a master’s in local economic development, Odamtten was fascinated by the real-life impact of economics and wanted to use her knowledge to inform public policy and tackle complex societal issues. She made it onto the civil service fast-stream programme in 2018, starting off in the former Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) (now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), then moved into the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

She was immediately aware of a stark cultural and class difference between her and many of her colleagues. She had not gone to private school and did not know anyone who worked in the civil service or who was an economist.

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Working in government, Odamtten’s mentors were typically “white, middle-class men”, she says. “I thought it would be great to have a mentor with a similar background to me.” This spurred her on to find other economists from black ethnic groups. After posting on LinkedIn and successfully organising a pub meet-up of 20 people, she knew she was onto something.

Odamtten took her idea for a Black Economists Network to diversity leaders within MHCLG. Melanie Dawes, the department’s permanent secretary at the time, and Osama Rahman, the chief scientific adviser for the Department for Education, supported her venture and Odamtten hosted a launch panel event with four black economists.

[See also: Britain’s diversity is much more complex than it seems]

Over the past five years the network has grown into a fully-fledged organisation that seeks to create a “safe space” for black economists and “give them a voice”, Odamtten says. The group has four main aims: to provide a platform for networking; to help black economists progress in their careers; to inspire them to take part in topical debate that deviates from mainstream economic theories; and to challenge the lack of diversity in the field.

Organisations like hers are crucial for fairer policymaking, Odamtten says. She highlights pandemic restrictions and the resulting economic fallout as an example of policies failing black ethnic groups. Not only were black people four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people, they were more likely to work in front-line healthcare jobs and therefore be exposed to the virus. They also felt the economic repercussions of lockdowns more harshly due to lower levels of wealth. According to Bloomberg, for every £1 of wealth a white British household has, Black Caribbean households hold around 20p and Black African households hold 10p.

“It’s not a coincidence that we observe inequalities in economic outcomes on racial lines, and that there’s a lack of diversity in the people who have the power – the policymakers,” says Odamtten. “A policy can change someone’s life. It can either make it worse or make it better. The extent to which it [improves] lives is dependent on the evidence and analysis underpinning it, and whose perspectives are being included. A lack of attention to issues faced by certain communities leads to poor decision-making and policy, and negative outcomes for these communities.”

It was vital, she adds, to create a group specifically for the black community, rather than all ethnic minorities. “The black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) group is not a monolith,” she says. “The outcomes vary across different groups. If you truly want diversity, it’s important to acknowledge that there are differences and to tailor your approaches to get to the root of the issue.”

Looking beyond ethnicity to other demographics is also important to ensure diversity of outlook, Odamtten says – if a workplace has a programme to hire more black people, but they are all Oxbridge-educated, this still exacerbates class prejudice. Generational diversity is also often overlooked despite many major societal challenges disproportionately impacting younger people, such as the cost-of-living crisis and access to decent housing. Policy to address these issues, such as schemes to retrofit homes to make them more energy efficient and climate-friendly, needs to consider how to include young people, especially those with lower levels of wealth. “If the gains of the net-zero transition are only felt by rich people who can afford to decarbonise their homes, a lot of young people will be frustrated by these efforts because they are excluded,” says Odamtten.

“Our chances in life, such as getting on the housing ladder, are really dependent on getting a ‘lump sum’ from our parents rather than on our own efforts. That will continue to drive the wedge between those who can and those who can’t.”

[See also: Race, diversity and 1 May]

Odamtten suggests several ideas for how policymaking could be more inclusive. Alongside more focus groups and consultations with diverse groups to understand their experiences, there should be stricter enforcement of the public sector equality duty, which compels all public bodies to consider how their policies and decisions affect people protected under the Equality Act.

The next step is making a career in policy seem achievable for a more diverse cohort of people by using more accessible language. Better communication from academics and policymakers about how policy impacts people’s daily lives, rather than focusing on political and economic theory, would also help. “The economy isn’t some abstract thing,” says Odamtten. “We live and experience economics every day, so [policymakers should] help people understand what it is and how it works, and how someone can make a difference if they work in it.”

The private sector can play its part to make economics more accessible by producing work that is bespoke to certain groups of people. For example, a bank could examine how rising interest rates impact specific disadvantaged demographics, rather than just the general population. They could then offer tailored finance educational programmes as a result.

As inflation soars, interest rates increase and wages stagnate, it’s time for fundamental change in how the country distributes and taxes wealth, says Odamtten. But wealth redistribution won’t happen without more diverse voices at the podium. “New ideas won’t come from people who are all from the same background – we need new perspectives, and synergy been the old and the new to create something that works for everyone,” she says. “I don’t think inequality can be reduced if there isn’t diversity.”

[See also: Diversity in Britain is more complicated than it seems]