Talking Diversity and Inclusion for LGBT History Month with Simon Fanshawe OBE

Simon Fanshawe OBE

In an exclusive interview for LGBT History Month, Business Leader spoke with diversity and inclusion expert Simon Fanshawe OBE, author of The Power of Difference and Co-founder of Diversity by Design.

What is your background and how has it shaped you into the diversity and inclusion expert that you are today?

I am a posh boy really. So, when I went to Sussex University in 1975 to do law, suddenly I was challenged, particularly by feminists and people from totally different class backgrounds, to work out who I was in the world. This combined with my mother saying once “Well, the least one can do darling is make marmalade for the fête”, which I interpreted as a patrician way of saying what Sussex also taught me which is that we have a responsibility to the world and it’s no good shrugging and saying “whatever”.

One way and another I became committed to the idea of positive social and political change and when it turned out I was gay, that became one obvious focus. Although I would say, although it describes a bit of me, it has never defined me.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?

This might come as a surprise to those who know me well, but I have battled all my life with self-confidence. I am confident in exploring and articulating ideas, but I have an often crippling sense of insecurity. It has often led me to undermine what I could achieve. It has taken me a long time to calm. I always recommend good therapy, good friends and in my case, a great marriage (which, although it came later in my life, has been a life changer).

The key thing in business and politics is to try and develop an openness to new ideas, an acceptance of change and a realisation that we achieve best in teams and collaborations. So, constantly remind ourselves that we do not know the answers. Leaders do not need answers, they need the right questions and the right people to ask.

How can businesses create an environment where people feel comfortable to speak up knowing that they won’t be causing offence?

YouGov did a poll at the end of 2021 in which 40% of UK adults said they self-censor their political or social views at work “for fear of judgement or negative responses”.

It may be just good discipline not to enter into controversial territory in the office. You might want to set such boundaries, but beware: it has dangerous implications.

A fear of speaking up on wider social issues spills over to create a general culture of inhibition at work. When speaking up, saying what you think, is punished rather than encouraged, curiosity about each other is unexplored, which results in collaboration being damaged, businesses and organisations being prevented from finding the best solutions, innovation being hindered and markets potentially missed. This is because we learn from our mistakes. The best book on this (apart from mine of course!) is Amy C Edmondson’s brilliant “The Fearless Organisation”.

How does the history of gay rights tie into our current crisis of dialogue and what can we learn from this?

If you look back on the first 25 years of Stonewall, we were incredibly successful because we built broad alliances around bigger principles and widening public support.

With Civil Partnerships, for instance, the campaign for them emerged from a wide-ranging survey of lesbians and gays about their most urgent concerns. What transpired with great clarity was that we didn’t have the rights that would flow from our relationships if they were recognised by the State.

Without that recognition, we were not formally next-of-kin. If your partner was ill, or worse actually dying in hospital, you had no rights of access to them, to their doctors or to decisions about their health or end-of-life care. Not least in the context of AIDS, the extreme cruelty of this situation was evident not just to gay men and women, but to their families, friends and colleagues. Similarly, there was no right of inheritance.

However, Stonewall realised that any campaign for equal marriage would face a government nervous about reforming the institution and opposition from organised religion that thought (and still does think) that it owns marriage. Marriage was also highly contested, particularly amongst feminists and lesbians who lacked any enthusiasm for gays joining what they regarded as one of the key elements of the apparatus of patriarchy. A campaign for gay marriage would have been unsuccessful and, more than that, divisive of the broad coalition we had carefully crafted, especially between gay men and women.

So, we campaigned for Civil Partnerships as a way of achieving the results, and therefore the rights, we wanted. We relied on the palpable feelings of astonishment and, even, outrage (my older sister was incredulous when I told her about the situation with hospitals and inheritance) in a very wide range of people.

Through actually winning Civil Partnerships rather than raising a virtuous-sounding demand for equal marriage that we knew we wouldn’t have won at that stage, we managed to enshrine all the rights that marriage would have granted, and at the same time continue to build public support.

Gay politics (or LGBT etc. as it’s alphabetically known now) has gone the way of all politics now – divisive, partisan and seemingly not interested in dialogue to find solutions. And that affects us all as the YouGov poll shows.

Has diversity and inclusion in the UK improved or worsened in recent years? What impact has Brexit and the pandemic had?

It has flatlined really. Of course, there have been significant advances, but if you use as a litmus test the occupants of the top 300 roles in the FTSE 100, you’ll see what I mean.

In 2016, I researched the people in the top three jobs in each of the listed companies, looking at their company website photos and noting their names. This revealed that there were more White men called John, David or Andrew who were Chair, Chief Executive or Chief Finance Officer of the 100 companies than there were women or people from Black or Asian backgrounds.

To get it on the record, my MP asked a question about it in the House of Commons on 14 April of that year. I’ve just done the research again. There’s progress, although it’s not much of a cause for celebration. To make the comparison work this time around, I’ve had to add the Michaels. There are now more White men called John, David, Andrew or Michael than there are women or people from Black and Asian backgrounds in the top 300 jobs of the FTSE 100.

How can businesses go beyond celebrating LGBT History Month, Black History Month, International Women’s Day, etc. to encourage diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Businesses really need to:

  • Recruit into teams and, therefore, value what difference individuals can bring to the group effort – stop recruiting the best person for the job and focus on recruiting to put together the best team for the job.
  • Value what people bring through their personal experience and background as much as what they bring technically – value difference over sameness (The FTSE recruit the White men called John, David, Andrew or Michael not because they are overtly racist or sexist, but because they value what they’ve already got. They think ‘I am good at this, so let’s have more of me!’ What they actually need is more of difference).
  • Change their recruitment processes so they can make this actually happen.
  • Initiatives are just that – they are not a programme of change based on a deep discussion to define what the particular kind of diversity your business needs and why to achieve its goals. Diversity is an approach to talent, not a calendar of token celebrations which allow you to tick the box.

When using the big categories BAME and LGBT, is there a risk of overlooking the distinctive nuances affecting the people who are placed into these groups?

Those categories are only useful when they describe group experience (negative or positive). The acronyms do not begin to express the individual talent, aspiration, ability, backgrounds, or families of those herded into them. See #BAMEOVER and others who object to the alphabet soup.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur who falls on the LGBT spectrum?

I am not sure what the LGBT spectrum means? If they’re gay or lesbian, they will have different experiences and needs from someone who has gone through (or is intending to go through transition). Businesses need to stop generalising.

We gain enormously from telling each other our different stories. Diversity is precisely about difference flowering and combining. It is not a tool of conformity. We speak of inclusion precisely because we are all different. If we were all the same, we wouldn’t need to bother.

If you’re gay or lesbian, tell your own story. Don’t be penned in by stereotypes. Above all though, don’t let it define you. Be the talent you have.

How is 2022 shaping up for you? Any more appearances on GB News lined up?

It’s going very well, thanks for asking. My book is selling well and has become a bestseller on Amazon. Many businesses are approaching us to support them to achieve real change in diversity – not just make gestures. We are automating our de-biased recruiting process, called Recruiting for Difference, this year, which will be a big step forward for us and our clients. And I’ll be back on GB News before Eamonn Holmes can get to his phone to call me!