Event report: the impact of intersectionality in the civil service

Written by Alanna Reid on 30 September 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Alanna Reid, a policy adviser at the Cabinet Office’s public appointments policy team, reports on an intersectionality event held by the Cabinet Office LGBT+ Network and Gender Equality Group as part of national inclusion week

Photo: Alanna Reid

Before summer 2019, I had no idea what intersectionality meant. I don’t think I was alone; many colleagues and friends seemed to draw a blank when I started enquiring on the topic.

It’s funny though, because the concept, or some form of it, has been around since the 1960s. Intersectionality as a term was first coined by the civil rights activist and feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989.

Intersectionality is a concept that helps us understand how social problems such as racism, sexism and classism ‘overlap’ to create multiple levels of injustice. Back in 1989, Crenshaw was trying to give voice to black women mistreated in the American justice system who were ‘falling through the cracks’ of both male-dominated civil rights activism and the white-led feminist movement of the 1960s.

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Once I had a better understanding of what intersectionality meant, it helped me detect why, as I gay woman, I can still feel a little out of place in my professional life, even when, overall, the civil service employs more women than men. But more than this, it got me thinking about corporate efforts to increase diversity. Within the civil service, we have committed to be the most inclusive employer by 2020. This is an exciting ambition and we should be proud of it. But I wonder if we don’t understand more of the complexity and nuances behind what being diverse means, will we make it? And if we do, will the numbers be truly reflective?

This is why, as part of national inclusion week, the Cabinet Office LGBT+ Network combined forces with the Gender Equality Group to run an event centred on intersectionality. We invited six panellists from a variety of grades and departments, who are LGBT+ identifying but also intersect across a variety of other identifiers (such as disability, age, socio-economic background and faith) to have an open discussion about the impact of intersectionality on our careers as civil servants. We were grateful to be joined by our senior allies: the Cabinet Office’s Gender Champion and First Parliamentary Counsel, Elizabeth Gardiner and No.10’s Diversity and inclusion Champion Helen Lederer.

We were privileged to have Jacqui Gavin kick off the discussion on the panel. Jacqui has been part of the Civil Service since 2009 but is currently seconded to the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion. Jacqui identifies as a lesbian with a trans history and hails from the east coast of Scotland.

Encouragingly, Jacqui shared how she had found the civil service to a safe and supportive place to share her trans history; mostly thanks to efforts and encouragement of key senior colleagues. What was surprising about Jacqui’s story however, was that she still felt uncomfortable with her Scottish accent, in an organisation known to be dominated by south eastern dialect.

We also chatted to Ameet Gadhoke, who identifies as a gay, Indian male. Ameet spent 14 years with the Ministry of Defence before joining government shared services at the Cabinet Office. He spoke passionately on his training as a Stonewall role model, the importance of role models and allies, and how he has longed to see more senior leaders that look more like him. Sadly, Ameet shared how he held back from promotion, for fear that his experiences across his career made him feel that was “too queer to be a Grade 7, yet alone more senior”. We wondered together what it was about senior civil service leadership that appeared incompatible with a ‘queer’ personality.

George West also joined the panel from the Stabilisation Unit. George identifies as a queer woman and explained how this identity informed her career background; working in nightclub management and the freedom of expression this allowed. George explained how she felt her C.V. would lead people to make assumptions about her behaviour or doubt her professional capacity to progress. Rebecca Mitchell, currently private secretary to the head of the prime minister’s implementation unit, agreed with George on this. Identifying herself as a bisexual, high-school only educated woman, Rebecca agreed that although she had started life in the civil service as a 16-year-old apprentice, she often felt the pressure to ‘play the part’ and ‘pass’ with the educated elite majority. 

Scott Ellis, joining the panel from the Quality Care Commission, courageously shared his experiences as a HIV positive gay male and challenged us on how this disease is still discussed and viewed within our organisation, despite the progress in treatment. And finally Rikesh Nagamah, who is only a few months in to his role within the Education and Skills Funding Agency, shared that it was within the Department for Education that he encountered other LGBT+ colleagues for the first time and was bowled over by the support and acceptance of his immediate team.

I was excited to finish on Rikesh’s story. Despite the challenges we all discussed as a group, it was a relief to see a new generation of civil servants joining the organisation because of their identity, not in spite of it.

A final question from the audience asked the panel whether data collection could be used to help understand the types of intersection that exist in our organisation. For me, this is exactly the ‘what’s next’ we need. We need new qualitative data, gathered through the lens of personal conversations like these, to help us understand our challenges and develop more sophisticated methods of inclusion and ways of working.

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Alanna Reid
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Alanna Reid is a policy adviser at the public appointments policy team in the Cabinet Office

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