By Aden Simpson

26 Aug 2016

The Border Force's Sara Alexander, winner of last year's Diversity and Inclusion Award for Championing Gender, tells CSW why buy-in from men is vital in confronting the issues faced by women in the civil service

You don’t get much more inclusive than a women’s group for men.

Assistant director of the Home Office's E-Gates Project by day, Sara Alexander volunteered to create a regional women’s group for the UK Border Force in 2014. A year later she collected a Diversity and Inclusion Award for Championing Gender, although by that point the group’s mandate had undergone an unexpected transformation.

The group was originally set up to challenge the underrepresentation of women at senior level and promote a wider understanding of women’s issues, but as the needs of staff members proved resistant to simplistic binaries, so too did the reach of the group.

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“It soon became clear there was a need for somewhere that men and women, irrespective of gender, could go to talk about the things they found difficult,” Alexander explains.

“We actually had more enquiries from men than we did women, which shows how the gender gap is sometimes misunderstood.”

While women came for support with female issues – “from maternity leave to the menopause,” says Alexander – some men in management positions came seeking the “tools and information” to help them approach female issues, “that perhaps they’d felt uncomfortable talking about.” And in the absence of a similar group for men, many others came for support with male-specific problems as well.

“I was welcoming everyone with open arms while challenging the issues head on. That’s the only way I know how to do it, and that’s the only way I’ve found that works,” she says.

“We were focusing on women, but it became clear there were issues around disability, about age, about male-specific issues. It’s a developing approach to diversity, learning and sharing, and not limiting ourselves by working in these silos.”

“The greatest thing I’ve learnt is the importance of the buy-in from men. You can’t improve relationships unless you’ve got everybody on board.” 

The most important aspect of the group’s work, she tells CSW, is in career development – providing mentors and help with job applications – especially for those taking maternity, and increasingly paternity leave. 

“Our work is fluid on the front line – a lot changes in a year, a lot changes in six weeks – especially when you’re working overseas. So supporting people through that is probably the biggest aspect.”

She piloted a buddy support system to make sure those on parental leave are “kept in the loop,” to encourage people to be emailed at home with job opportunities, and to give people time and support to catch up when they get back to work: “To have everything in place so they don’t feel isolated,” she says.

“It’s an area that’s more about gender, than specifically women. It’s about taking everybody into consideration.”

What started with a group of 14 people in 2014, today reaches over a thousand members of the civil service, across Dover, Calais, Dunkirk and Folkestone.

When asked what barrier she encounters, Alexander replies: “I wouldn’t say there are bureaucratic obstacles to what we try to do, but certainly cultural perception is a barrier.”

A large part of her work, both in the group and in an individual capacity, is challenging the stigma of gender issues, and the seemingly harmless and off-the-cuff remarks that reinforce these stereotypes.

“There was a fair bit of resistance from men, which I got personally, when explaining what we were trying to do.

“Some said: ‘Can we set up a men’s group and talk about football and beer?’” she laughs, “And I said, if you want to set up a men’s group that’s absolutely fine.”

“These are precisely the sorts of things I was trying to address. We didn’t set it up as a forum to discuss against men, it was to bring everybody on board for a common theme, and to look at those throw-away comments, and how much they can damage relationships.”

If a line manager tells someone on parental leave - male or female - that part-timers are unlikely to be promoted for example, they may think little of it, but this can considerably inhibit the recipient’s future ambition. 

“People don’t realise they’re saying them, and it’s for us to challenge them, to say: ‘Do you realise what you just said?’ 

“The greatest thing I’ve learnt is the importance of the buy-in from men,” she adds. “You can’t improve relationships unless you’ve got everybody on board.” 

For women who are still routinely outnumbered in board meetings – often 11 to 1, she explains – having even a few men conscious of gender dynamics can make all the difference. If women are encouraged to “feed into” these situations, more women will vie for promotion in future, ultimately leading to more equal board rooms.

“But changing behaviours takes a long time,” Alexander says. “And it’s more than helping people overcome external barriers to career development – there are more fundamental barriers, such as such as not wanting to develop your career.

“Very often it is the person themselves – who holds a perception about themselves – that can be the blocker.”

The shortlist for this year's Diversity and Inclusion Awards has just been announced

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