Learning from Birmingham's approach to workforce diversity - Museums Association

Learning from Birmingham’s approach to workforce diversity

Prioritising the issue is empowering, says Sara Wajid
Diversity Workforce
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Sara Wajid

There are eight people in the senior leadership team at Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT). We range in age from  30 to 50; five identify as people from global majority backgrounds; four are women; four work part-time as job-shares; about half identify as being from working-class backgrounds; half are parents; and some, including me, identify as LGBTQ+. 

Zak Mensah, my co-chief executive, is the second Black director of Birmingham Museums Trust and I am the first British Pakistani museum director in the UK. While I’m not claiming we have reached “peak workforce diversity” at BMT – disabled people are particularly under-represented – there is much for the wider cultural sector to learn from.

So how has this happened and which elements are replicable? First, this culture has been developing at BMT for decades. Rita McLean was the first Black museum director in the UK. When I arrived on a secondment in 2017, the trust had the UK’s most ethnically diverse workforce but an all-white senior leadership team. I saw lots of mid-level staff from global majority heritage, including curators, and found a culture that received the idea of a leadership programme for under-represented people in senior leadership (Arts Council England’s Changemakers programme) uncontroversial and in keeping with the organisation’s cultural norms. 

My experience was crucial in making me apply for the role of co-chief executive. BMT also has a long-term recruitment programme, Career Ladder, which has fostered pathways into museums for local talent and several global majority trustees.

Workforce diversity is a top priority and a passion for Zak and I, as anti-racists. We find it exciting and empowering to excel in this area, so we actively take all the obvious steps to ensure we attract culturally diverse applicants. The well-evidenced factors for inclusive recruitment are non-negotiable. These include not requiring a degree and removing obvious and unnecessary barriers; using appropriate and inclusive language in job adverts; making jobs as flexible as possible, ensuring the process is inclusive of disabled and neurodiverse applicants; and being open to job-shares, remote working and part-time workers.

We put most of our energy into ensuring diverse candidates are well represented at the first round of interviews. If you don’t attract sufficient, credible, diverse candidates to apply and see them at interview stage, the opportunity has already been lost.


The two things that give us an edge in recruiting senior diverse talent are being global majority chief executives ourselves and our market intelligence about the talent pipeline. Zak and I embody visible representation in the leadership team. We take every opportunity to loudly celebrate and broadcast the fact that we enjoy working in a person of colour job-share and have done for three years. We know from our own experiences that being the “only one” at senior levels brings additional stresses that can disincentivise candidates of colour from applying to join all-white senior teams. 

Like all chief executives, we are always talent scouting, even when we don’t have a vacancy because that intelligence can’t be developed in the few weeks that a vacancy is live. Museum Detox, the network for museum professionals of colour, is 10 years old this year, and there are more than 500 people in the network. Museum as Muck, the network for working-class museum professionals, is also well established and Zak is part of this community. These networks are a great help in developing our links with and profile among working-class and global majority people. We take the view that we have to sell BMT to potential candidates, not the other way around.  

We exploit our advantage of being in central England, with senior staff based across the UK. London hoovers up talent, particularly diverse talent, so this flexibility is vital, while ensuring a balance of senior staff who are based in Birmingham.

Developing effective internal career pathways to enable promotion has been another success and has supported diverse talent. We’ve created secondments on the senior leadership team, which has helped close the gap between middle and senior managers. Being bold and experimental, and rigorous in our mission to close the cultural participation gap, means people from under-represented backgrounds hopefully get the message that their lived experience is highly valued in itself and because it will enable us to realise our mission.

Now we’ve achieved this at Birmingham Museums Trust, I hope this proves there are no excuses.

Sara Wajid is co-chief executive at Birmingham Museums Trust

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