50 years on from the Race Relations Act: can behavioural insights help solve inequality?


October 25, 2018 Allegra Chatterjee, Robbie Tilleard and Hannah Burd

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Race Relations Act 1968. The groundbreaking legislation made it illegal in the UK to discriminate against people based on their colour, race, ethnicity, or national origins, and refuse them housing, employment or public services. It wasn’t until the 1968 Act that the infamous ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were banned.

Importantly, the legislation also sent a clear signal to the public that discrimination was unacceptable. From the Vagabonds Act 1572, under which parish money was collected to pay for the care of the poor; to the British Slavery Abolition Act 1834; to the Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted (some) women the right to vote, history has shown that legislation can drive positive social change.

Of course, many of these laws came into force years, and sometimes decades, after activists first called for them. Nevertheless, they play an important role in endorsing and normalising progress.

Are there limits to legislation?

For laws to make a difference to people’s lives, they need to translate into changes in behaviour. This is where the reach of legislation is sometimes limited. In fact, the 1968 Act has been criticised for having little impact, notably by Geoffrey Bindman QC, one of the authors of the original Act, partly due to the difficulties of enforcing it. To address this problem, the 1976 Race Relations Act was later introduced.

Today, although progress has been made, racial discrimination is still prevalent in the UK, painfully demonstrated by the recent racist abuse on a Ryanair flight, and Home Office statistics showing a surge in religious hate crime. More subtle forms of discrimination occur on a daily basis. Several studies find, for instance, that a person’s name can have a big impact on their likelihood of being hired.

Can behavioural insights help?

Legislation can set the standard, but careful policy and implementation work is required to fully effect change. Here, behavioural insights can help. Evidence suggests, for instance, that behaviourally-designed solutions can be used to combat inequality. One of our favourite examples is of US orchestras switching to ‘blind’ auditions. This small change increased women’s chances of being successful by 50%.

At BIT, we’ve been working hard to find more practical actions to reduce discrimination. This led to the creation of Applied, a recruitment platform that helps organisations de-bias hiring decisions, which has now been used by its 50,000th applicant. Other BIT work has found that timely messages used in recruitment processes can help improve levels of diversity among new recruits to police forces on both sides of the Atlantic.

We also recently began a collaboration with the Government Equalities Office (GEO) to build the evidence-base on what works to improve gender equality, as part of the Gender and Behavioural Insights (GABI) programme. This partnership was born out of GEO’s 2018 legislation requiring all large companies to publicly report their gender pay gap (GPG); the first of its kind in the world. The GABI programme recognises that legislation is only one part of the solution, and in order to turn the ambition of the law – to reduce pay inequality through increased transparency and accountability – into reality, it must work in tandem with other approaches, including behavioural insights.

What next?

So far, GABI has found a number of interesting results – and published the What Works guidance to help companies make changes to improve gender equality. More experimentation is needed to grow the evidence-base, and determine the best methods for increasing diversity and inclusion in organisations and society.

Many are now calling for mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting to help tackle BAME inequality, and a Government consultation is being held. The UK has come a long way in the fifty years since the 1968 Race Relations Act, but the Ryanair incident this week is a stark reminder of how much work there is still to do when it comes to changing attitudes and behaviour in relation to race.

Policy makers face difficult choices when deciding whether new or updated legislation will do the trick, and when other approaches are needed as well. At BIT, we believe that in order to find what works, experimentation is key. The secret to improving equality likely lies in a combination of groundbreaking legislation, real-life experiments, and attention to the design of practical, evidence-based solutions which we hope will drive positive social change.


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