On 14th November, SEEN was invited to participate in the “Navigating Difference Finding Common Ground” webinar, and interfaith and belief event, which formed part of Faith and Belief Week 2023. This was our presentation, given by a SEEN co-chair, as a part of the panel.
We’d be the first to admit that SEEN - the Sex Equality and Equity network - is a strange one.
We’ve been a cross governmental network for a year, and our journey has certainly been unconventional: at times controversial, sometimes even fractious. It’s also taught us something about the importance of a fair and demonstrably impartial workplace, and about how we might find common ground when we profoundly disagree. I’d like to share these thoughts today.
But first: a mystery. We are not the only network underpinned by a clear set of beliefs. The same is also true of both the Gender and LGBT+ networks. These are often stated as ‘trans women are women, trans men are men and non-binary identities are valid’. Conversely, our position can also be stated very briefly as: sex is binary and immutable and matters more than gender. So why were we the ones that ended up as a ‘faith and belief’ network? Well, the answer is because until 2019 you could be fired for voicing these views in the workplace. The now famous Forstater case changed that, confirming that our views are worthy of respect in a democratic society. And so - our belief protected - the rest is history.
I’d like to just repeat something again. Back in 2019 people were being fired for expressing these views. And even now it can still be taboo to state what ten years ago would have been utterly unremarkable. How did this radical shift happen? We see some of the explanation lying in well-intentioned workplace activism, perpetuated through training, webinars, blog posts and even email signatures; an activism which became so prevalent that our members tell us they felt shamed and even coerced into demonstrating a particular set of beliefs.
But does that even matter if this results in a kinder, more diverse and inclusive workplace?
Well, the first question is whether it really does. On the surface such workplaces may appear united, but the veneer of harmony presides over deep discomfort and fear. We don’t think employees should have their thoughts and beliefs policed, or be pushed into demonstrating adherence to an ideology they don’t share. More importantly, we don’t think anyone benefits from this approach.
Our network can also be understood as a pushback against this enforced homogeny: the idea that ‘kindness’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ come via only one set of beliefs and fall under only one flag. We don’t think harmony is achieved by making everyone pretend to believe the same thing. And because we’ve seen these dangers, we have no desire to replace one activism with another. I’ll even let you into a secret about our end-game. What we are aiming for is a return to the impartiality which - at its best - characterises the Civil Service. Then we’ll happily hang up our SEEN lanyards.
But what’s so great about impartiality? It sounds cold and indifferent. But our experience is that in practice it can operate to do something magical. Impartiality is nonjudgmental and fair. It accepts that the workplace can’t be made perfect, it will always reflect our wider, complex society. It recognises that it’s not the role of our employer to forge us into anyone’s vision of what a better human being looks like. The real world and the people within it are subtle, complex and interesting.
There will always be differences between us. But genuine impartiality allows for difference and diversity to flourish. And diversity is a vital part of the Civil Service’s success. Our steering group came together through our shared interest in this issue, but accidentally formed a microcosm of the diversity that we think makes the Civil Service great. Within our small group we have members of four different faiths (and others of none), those from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds, some who are lesbian or gay and – of course – both men and women. There are huge differences between us, in outlook, approach, background and personality. Working with this extraordinary group of people has taught me first hand how true diversity can make a team more than the sum of its parts.
But is impartiality enough?
I think there needs to be something else as well. And so, what?
Well, we are not in a crèche. We can’t expect our employer to solve all our problems. And this is where I think us - employees - have an important role to play.
Here I look for a secular solution, that of humanism and its emphasis on a common humanity. Since forming as a network I’ve talked to many people, and the more I talk, the clearer it becomes that there is more that unites than divides us. If we sharpen the edges of our identities to the point where one aspect of ourselves is all that matters, then the differences between us seem vast and it becomes easy to mistrust and dislike. However I believe it is possible to create a work environment where even the most fundamental differences can be overcome.
Firstly, it’s not always necessary to talk about our differences. I was once in a difficult conversation with a colleague who told me she was frightened I might start talking about my views. I explained I’d much rather talk about our shared love of the same film director. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. However, there are times when difficult discussions are relevant. And then it’s vital to understand that to disagree is not to dehumanise. To be faced with polite disagreement over your world view is not to be rendered unsafe.
Secondly, for all the lip service paid to ‘diversity’ we seem to have lost confidence in the idea that we can all be different – really, profoundly different – and still get on. We seem to have forgotten that, however much we disagree (and even when these are on matters which go to the very core of our being) we can still be civil, maybe even friends. That may sound impossibly idealistic, but we actually do it all the time. Here’s an example.
Some time ago I was on a train. It was hot and the journey was slow. People were being incredibly annoying in the way that only people on trains can; music playing, bags on seats, dogs on seats, screaming children, arguing couples, smelly food, annoying sitcoms played without headphones. Everyone was doing all they could to assert their personal train space and wind everyone else up. Then in came this guy. He was drunk, and slightly dangerous. He started to pick fights and harass the female passengers. Everyone went quiet, watching his progress, hoping he wouldn’t pick on them next. Finally when the train stopped in the next station, the police came onboard and took the troublemaker away. When the train doors shut and we finally moved off, the drunk man had gone but something else had changed. Instead of a carriage full of people who slightly disliked each other on principle, we were now united: conversation broke out, people laughed, talked and had fun.
Now I’m not suggesting the Civil Service would benefit from a drunk maniac with anger management issues blundering through the office chased by the police. But this incident highlighted to me that, as well as our fundamental need for individual communities and personal identities, there is another need which is one of the strongest of all: and that is to connect with those around us.
And for me this is the real opportunity: by demonstrating confident impartiality, our workplace can create a neutral space which allows us - for all our differences - to step forward to work respectfully and civilly together. And I’m optimistic that if we follow the basic ground rules, we may find we have more in common than we think, and thus work can become a place to make the connections that really enrich us. And that is surely a win for us all.