Equality of opportunity has been one of the stratas of the North East’s business landscape for generations. We have always wanted the best for our families and our businesses - but we will always stand up for anyone, anywhere, who has ambition and potential.

But true, heartfelt diversity, equity and inclusion is still a challenge - to turn it from a box-ticking exercise into the keystone of our businesses.

Our Level Up partners work across so many sectors, and provide a microcosm of the region.

People in key decision-making roles like Hilary du Randt, partner and head of the North East Employment team at Womble Bond Dickinson, who told the event: “In order to motivate and retain, there are all sorts of really critical reasons why as an organisation and an employer, you ought to be invested in ensuring that you have a workforce and a culture that seeks to avoid discrimination.

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“It brings greater possibility for ideas around the table, and more opportunity for thought. And I think there’s really an imperative to do it now to help to build resilience in business. It cannot be ignored.

“At Womble Bond Dickinson, we are very invested in it. So we appreciate that it’s a path that we’re on but we have come a long way. And I think the sector as a whole has come an enormously long way in promoting it and genuinely trying to have a culture of diversity and inclusion.”

Mark Dias, Human Resources Director for Employee Relations in Europe, the Middle East & Africa at Cummins, said getting the buy-in of all staff across his business was important.

“We truly believe that we’re winning with the power of difference that is right at the heart of who we are. And we’re going to open up our whole organisation to diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said.

“Part of that is how we reach out to young people to tell them about what makes a good career at Cummings, so we are going out to schools, and we’re talking to them about our engineering and what we do.

The Northern Echo: Sarah Slaven talks at the meetingSarah Slaven talks at the meeting

“We’re also working on a partnership with Unite, really trying to get the great diversity work that we do with a lot of our office and professional based environments, and make sure we can get that into our shop floor employees as well.”

For younger and smaller firms the challenge - and opportunity - is to instil the right approach from Day One. Ryan Battle, Managing Director of broadband supplier YouFibre said his company was still forming, but would be built around diversity.

“We are that young at the moment that we’ve only just got a HR team in two months ago. So we haven’t done enough to get to where we want to. But as a young company we’ve got people from all around the world pulling together in different roles, leading to a very good split in YouFibre across men and women. That has come around very naturally, but what we need to do is reinforce that to make sure that these opportunities, as we grow as a business, are still given out fairly to everyone.”

From small to enormous, and with bp at the table the chance to talk about scale was important.

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Kate Matthews, Head of DE&I for the Eastern Hemisphere at bp, told us: “I think the most important thing is tone from the top, and we’ve got an amazing CEO, who is enormously human, and has people at the top of his agenda, I feel really privileged to be in this role at this time, because equity is actually embedded in our strategy. We’ve got 20 aims that support our strategy to move to net zero and 14 relate to equity.

“We’re delighted that our senior executive committee is now six women and five men and that we are the first energy company to be in that situation.

“I also think that role modelling is amazing. So our Head of Technology is a woman, as is our head of HR, and we have really senior women across our operations, and roles within our production operations. So our head of Gulf of Mexico, and head of North Sea - both women.

“We have an ambition to get to 50-50 because we believe based on data, and empirical evidence that that’s possible. The talent is there, we have to make the effort to give that talent access to the opportunities that we have, and they will show themselves to us.”

The Northern Echo: Nagma Ebanks-Beni at the round table discussionNagma Ebanks-Beni at the round table discussion

Amy Harhoff, Corporate Director Regeneration, Economy and Growth at Durham County Council, said it was important to recognise the barriers that were still present in some organisations.

“What is it that creates exclusion? It’s about gender, it’s about economics, it’s about ethnic diversity, it’s about that quality of opportunity,” she said.

“So what are the barriers - because they won’t be the same that they are to an upper class woman as they are to a woman who’s from a really working class background. Our actions have really got to be quite clear to what the market failures are as to why we don’t have diversity in it.

“I’m the first woman to ever take up my role in the county, but a our management team of seven is actually two men and five women. For me, that’s not about saying we’re going to have positive bias in terms of having prescriptive targets, but actually understanding the cultures and behaviours, and making sure that the environment, for example, for a woman visiting a construction yard is experienced exactly the same way as a man.”

“How do I behave? What assumptions do I make when I go in a room? How do I make sure that everybody around the table is included?”

Nagma Ebanks-Beni is Commercial Director at Prima Cheese and also the Chair of the Race, Ethnicity and Discrimination Commission for the North East England Chamber of Commerce. So her views were important and she said for her, it was ‘a no-brainer’.

“For me, this situation is a little bit different in that we are a family-owned business, and being a woman coming from a Muslim background, there are lots of different areas that I identify with.

“So for me, it was a no-brainer - it was just like living. There should not be any discrimination against women, there should not be any discrimination against people because of their race, ethnicity, colour, identity - it was just never a consideration. It is absolutely as simple as that.

“We were dealing with a lot of different countries in the Middle East, where we had to be sensitive of cultural changes, cultural differences. Where we might start off a conversation here about ‘what did you do with the weekend - did you go out for some drinks?’ These things are not appropriate, so that was a case of changing people’s mindset.

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“We will make sure that certain individuals who are observing Ramadan are able to have their breaks at that time, that their colleagues are aware that these people are fasting for long periods of time. So be considerate if they may be a little bit temperamental, or if they get tired. And that goes for the management as well to be aware and to be empathetic of people’s situations.”

The job of helping to make sure the region overall has the right character and approach falls to the North East England Chamber of Commerce. Its Senior Relationship Manager Tom Warnock said: “As an organisation, we don’t get everything right - we’re learning like everyone else. But we did a survey last year which highlighted that there’s an appetite from businesses to improve, and that’s the first step.

“But there is uncertainty around even the basics of what kind of questions are acceptable to ask employees or potential candidates around culture, heritage and their beliefs. There’s a nervousness around getting it wrong and some would rather do nothing than instead of putting our foot in it, but that’s all about giving people the right information.”

Samantha Gravells, Communications Manager at Cummins, has been with the Darlington business for more than 15 years, and says that she has always felt ‘comfortable’ at work.

“I came in as a graduate, new to engineering, but have always felt comfortable. For me, employee resource groups are really important in inclusivity and diversity. I got involved with the women’s affinity network about ten years ago at Darlington and it was fantastic for me. I had like-minded colleagues - with men and women involved - and we really push the agenda and work together on issues in the business.

“We had a conference last year with about 150 employees from across Europe who spent two days talking about the challenges and how we feel about diversity, equity and inclusion, the tools that we can use and how we can be more inclusive across the board. We’re at the point now where we are rolling all of that out as a toolkit to all Cummins employees.”

believe housing are community-builders, so can they make a difference to how people behave?

Alan Smith, Executive Director of Investment, Growth & Performance said: “We’ve invested an awful lot in understanding our customer base, their needs and their expectations which are very different if you think we have customers whose ages range from 18 to 100.

“In doing that, we are understanding the power of a diverse workforce, but maybe more importantly, the power of an inclusive workforce, looking at the culture of our organisation. How do we create an organisation where people feel they can contribute, that they are part of it, they do have opportunities?

“So we’ve gathered the data and looked at how we better understand what we do out there in the community on a daily basis. And I think our view is that we are there to support wherever we can communities which build themselves.”

The Northern Echo: Tom Warnock of the NEECCTom Warnock of the NEECC

Netomnia is a national company providing the infrastructure for broadband services. Its business development director Sophia Koopman told us: “Our CEO grew up in French social housing, so we’re on a mission to provide diversity and inclusion. We have done some outreach school careers days, focussing on an under-served area and it was a gold score, extremely well received and the girls were completely engaged.”

Tom Ward, head of External Affairs for bp, said the company’s growing influence in the region would mean more opportunities.

He said: “I think pretty much all of us have mentioned today offering that access to opportunity. We want to create the skills for the future, but at the same time, we want to make sure that we’re creating the opportunities for everyone to access those skills for the future.

“In pretty much every country we operate in, it is about opportunity regardless of what the culture is, what the background, what the history of the community is, it’s all about creating opportunities from the grassroot level, then being able to succeed in the new technologies that we’re developing.”

Sarah Slaven, Managing Director of Business Durham, added: “I’ve been involved in business support in the county for a long time, and I see really positive progress that’s been made. Just thinking about the meetings and events you go to, the diversity of participants that are getting engaged has really seen a shift over the last ten years, which is really positive.

“I think one of the challenges we’ve probably got in a county like Durham is a lot of our businesses are small and micro businesses, and I think it’s a real challenge.

“There is an awareness of the need to do it, and a willingness to, but sometimes it’s the practicality about being able to do it that is the challenge.”

Ryan Fenwick, Sales Director for LocaliQ at the Northern Echo said all this work was to ensure the next generation had the options they deserve.

“As a father of two young daughters, it’s inspiring to see the change that’s coming. One of the biggest takeaways from this session is around that appetite to make a difference and to shift what have been some fairly negative views on things previously, to a far more open and inclusive environment for the future. And that gives me hope. I’m passionate about the North East but equally so passionate about there not being any barriers in place for the success of my daughters.”


To get involved with our Level Up campaign, contact pete.noble@localiq.co.uk