Women and equalities minister: Government must do better on D&I asks

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Speakers at the Stonewall Workplace Conference said organisations need to focus on power and intersectionality to create more inclusive workplaces

The government has much more work to do on co-ordinating D&I 'asks' of employers, according to Penny Mordaunt, the secretary of state for international development and minister for women and equalities.

Speaking at the Stonewall Workplace Conference, Mordaunt said: “This work isn’t remotely joined up or co-ordinated and I want to say sorry to you for that. I want us in government to be better at the asks we’re making to you in business.”

Businesses can expect more pressure from the government to create equal workplaces over the coming year, she said. “The government is making a series of equality asks of business, not because we want you to bear the cost or do more work but because it will create happier more effective workplaces – and that means Whitehall has to walk the walk,” said Mordaunt.

She explained that the aim isn’t to “overburden HRDs”. She acknowledged that, following an audit, the government is asking a lot of businesses; including gender pay gap reporting, CEO to worker pay ratio reporting, and charters such as the Race at Work Charter. However, she conceded that the government itself has much more work to do.

Mordaunt pledged a number of commitments to promoting inclusion in the workplace: “I’m pleased to announce that this Autumn the GEO [Government Equalities Office] will convene a series of events to gather views, share expertise and experience. Most of you in this room have the knowledge and the skills to contribute, and we will shortly be setting out more details about how you can get involved. Please do so, and please continue to do the right thing.”

She also highlighted the recent migration of the GEO into the Cabinet Office as a significant mark of progress to help better integrate the GEO’s work on equality in the government's agenda. “We will be able to do more work, joined up, and take an intersectional approach rather than presuming that people only need to be thought of as having one diversity characteristic. It will help us tackle and have a sustained cross-government effort to combat inequality using all of Whitehall’s expertise, energy and power,” she said.

Mordaunt also urged employers not to become complacent on LGBT+ inclusion: “We know that it can still take immense courage to be yourself. While many battles have been won, complacency is neither a desirable nor a commercially-feasible option.”

She pointed to the UK government’s 2017 survey about the experiences of LGBT+ people in the workplace, which found that 23% had experienced negative or mixed reactions from others and 11% had experienced a negative reaction due to someone 'outing' them. Mordaunt described this as “sober reading”: “Behind every statistic there’s a human story and behind every story there’s a missed opportunity.”

Also speaking at the conference, Stonewall chief executive Ruth Hunt shared how the charity works with big and small organisations at different stages of LGBT+ inclusion.

“What’s happening in organisations is they’re finding out why they’re interested in D&I,” she said. “Lots of people do D&I because they feel they have to… they don’t link it to the mission.”

Diversity and inclusion is about power, she explained. Sharing her own experiences of power, she pointed to her role at Stonewall as a time where she’s had it. However, at an event at Buckingham Palace she said she “stood on [her] own and had no power”.

“When we understand that people have different power in different situations we can start using our power differently,” Hunt said, calling on the audience to “open your power up to other people”. “If we think about power differently, then D&I will become a natural part of our culture and ways of thinking. True inclusion is about getting out of the way so other people can find their voice and power.”

Hunt also spoke of the need for all employers – including Stonewall – to focus on intersectionality rather than segment people into one group.

“Stonewall can’t do what it does if it’s just a white organisation – we can’t support LGBT people of colour if we don’t employ LGBT people of colour,” she said.

Hafsa Qureshi, who works for the Ministry of Justice and is Stonewall's 2019 Bi Role Model of the Year, shared her own experiences about the assumptions made about her sexuality.

“I’m often perceived to be heterosexual because I’m Muslim – my existence as an openly-bisexual Muslim woman is a challenge to stereotypes,” she said, adding that “LGBT people don’t all look a certain way and act a certain way”.

“Being BAME, LGBT and disabled I’ve been told and internalised at many levels that I couldn’t do things, and that standing up for what I believe in would damage my career.”

Speaking to HR magazine, Qureshi admitted that “time will always be a constraint”.

“Intersectionality is such a powerful thing but we can’t always have the time to say ‘OK we can talk about every marginalised community', and feasibly you can’t. But I think at least talk about it and be an ally. So even if you say 'this year you’re focusing on gender', you can have smaller events that break down the intersectionality around gender and not make it a single issue.”

Qureshi advised that good communication in the workplace is key to taking a more intersectional approach.

“It needs to be cascaded down at every level. It’s easy to have all these meetings and say 'this is what we need to do – we need to have more BAME, more LGBT'. Then when I see those meetings a couple of months later they’re still not getting the numbers as they haven’t spoken to people. They may have reached out to networks but have they actually spoken to employees at the ground level? I feel like there’s a massive disconnect there,” she said.

The problem is, Qureshi explained, that the “average person” in the organisation doesn’t necessarily know there are dedicated diversity and inclusion champions. “It can be difficult for everyone involved as although we do need a role like that it needs to be visible, and the problem is that with much larger organisations it’s hard to be visible to everyone,” she said.

“But D&I is part of everything we do at work and it can’t be ignored because ‘the D&I team will handle it’; because that’s separating things and doesn’t lead to anything. It just leads to meetings where people have tea and cake and say 'we’ve solved everything' and it’s not good enough.”

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