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Spotlight: Next steps and challenges for Civil Service diversity and inclusion

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Head and shoulders photo of Melanie Dawes
Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, and Civil Service Diversity & Inclusion Champion

Recently, I marked 30 years in the Civil Service, and it’s fair to say that a lot has changed since I started. The workplace of 1989 was much more formal; the use of surnames and titles was routine, there were few open-plan offices and it was rare to see women in senior positions. That was obvious to me in every meeting I attended, and for many years I felt that I was noticed as a woman first, and for my skills and expertise second.

We’ve come a long way since then and there’s no doubt in my mind that the Civil Service has changed for the better. We are much more open to ideas from outside, and to diversity of thought and experience. There is much greater equality for women, across all grades, and diversity is improving on other measures too.

But for all our progress, we’ve got much more to do to meet our ambition to be the UK’s most inclusive employer. I’m continually struck by the genuine commitment and energy of colleagues across the Civil Service – you will not allow us to become complacent. Among the permanent secretaries, there is clear support and agreement for our vision and priorities.

Since becoming Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Champion in May, I have been working with colleagues to re-energise our efforts. We’ve agreed we need to hold each other to account with a clearer set of standards for how we run our departments. We need to make better use of the data, so we can compare performance. We need to improve our understanding of cultures. And we must stand by our commitment to listen to those groups for whom the traditional diversity and inclusion agenda hasn’t yet done enough.

If you attended the 'A Great Place to Work' plenary sessions this year at Civil Service Live, you will have heard senior leaders talking about their personal experiences. I’ve invited two more colleagues to share their stories here (see below).

Why inclusion matters to me

For a number of years now, our aim has been to become the UK’s most inclusive employer. There’s no doubt that the scale of this ambition is huge, and progress can only be driven by the hard work of thousands of civil servants passionate about making a difference.

I’m proud that we have increased representation of women in senior roles over the course of my career. What’s maybe less well-known is where we’ve been leaders in other areas, for example introducing name-blank recruitment, gender-balanced interview panels and pioneering work to measure socio-economic background. It’s thanks to these innovations and many more that we generally benchmark well against similar private and public sector organisations.

Measuring inclusion

In recent years we’ve worked to create a cross-Civil Service data pack that reflects the makeup of our workforce and has provided accountability for senior leaders on progress. I’m pleased that we’re starting to open this up more widely – to departmental boards, functions and employee networks. The first step is for everyone to know how they compare with their peers.

But better diversity and representation alone don’t make an inclusive workplace. To become the UK’s most inclusive employer we must pay just as much attention to how people feel about the culture and environment where they work.

The Civil Service HR Diversity and Inclusion Team is leading some truly innovative work to improve our understanding of this. In partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team and the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development, the team has developed an industry-first diagnostic tool to measure how inclusive a working environment really is.

This will give us an insight into how it feels to sit in different parts of the Civil Service – so that civil servants, managers and leaders everywhere can take the actions they need to improve their own working environments.

Recently, over 75,000 colleagues from across the Civil Service have taken part in the first stage of this work, completing a survey on workplace culture. This information is now being compiled with other data sources, including reports of bullying, harassment and discrimination, turnover and retention rates. We’ll be sharing the results early in the new year.

Progress on diversity and inclusion

  • Senior Civil Service (SCS) flow targets are having the desired impact: ethnic minority SCS representation is at 6.0%, up from 4.7% when the targets were set in 2017, and disabled SCS representation is at 5.2%, up from 3.4%.
  • Representation is on an upward trend across the Civil Service, with representation of ethnic minority, declared disabled and LGBO (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Other (non-heterosexual)) civil servants at record highs (at 6.0%, 5.2% and 4.9% respectively).
  • Representation of ethnic minority civil servants and civil servants who have declared a disability has also increased within each grade, with the largest increases since 2018 at HEO/ SEO (+1.0pp) and Grades 6/7 (+1.0pp) for ethnic minorities, and at AA/AO (+2.0pp) and HEO/SEO (+1.9pp) grades for those declared disabled.
  • The Civil Service median gender pay gap, for full-time equivalent staff, has been on a downward trend since 2008, falling from 18.2% to 11.1% in 2019. The SCS is now 45.0% female.
  • At every grade, leavers are less likely to be from ethnic minorities than entrants. This ranges from EO grade, where 20.1% of entrants and 13.6% of leavers are from an ethnic minority, to 15.9% of entrants to Grades 6/7 and 9.4% of leavers.

Alison Ismail, Director of Agri-Food Chain, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Alison ismail
Alison Ismail

I’ve always been able to ‘pass’. More or less. I’m the child of a Bangladeshi father and a White British mother. Whereas my twin brother looks exactly like my dad as a younger man, with relatively dark skin and hair, I happen to resemble our mother, with brown eyes, hair more brown than black, and a much lighter skin tone.

It doesn’t occur to most people that I might be BAME, or dual-heritage, or mixed White-Asian, or whatever you like to call it. And until recently I haven’t spoken much about my South Asian background at work – I’ve found it a bit hard to talk about for a few reasons. While I’m hugely supportive of BAME networks in the workplace and initiatives like Project Race, I can’t imagine putting myself forward for a leading role in them, for some good – and some less good – reasons.

I remember a former line manager turning down the Accelerate scheme on my behalf, assuring HR that I wasn’t BAME. He apologised when I explained, but there was still a lingering question of ‘what problem was I trying to solve?’, being someone who doesn’t necessarily look noticeably ‘different’, whatever my cultural background. I also sometimes worry that by telling people I’m not white, I risk stealing the voice of those who are from wholly BAME backgrounds.

But I’m also a big believer that unless we talk about – and count – those with protected characteristics, we won’t ever really understand how to make institutions like the Civil Service more inclusive. At times that will mean we have to struggle to some degree with questions of self-definition. And yet, the more we can explore the diversity within diversity, deeper and more meaningful conversations will take place.


Iain Bell, Deputy National Statistician, Office for National Statistics

Iain Bell
Iain Bell


For a long time, I disassociated my work life and being gay, and kept my mental health problems fairly private. My views on diversity and inclusion have shifted over the years. The biggest change was my mindset. I felt I had to fight to get where I am and it didn’t make for great leadership. I no longer think people should have to fight to contribute; we should be welcoming them in. The first step I took on this journey was when I started in the Department for Education. My opening statement was: “I am Iain. I live in Abergavenny with my partner Steve and dog Ben.” It made a difference. Voices who were previously quiet came forward. It enriched our debates.

By opening up, I helped senior management realise that not every characteristic is visible. And that’s when I started to talk about my mental health. Blogging about my depression prompted a phenomenal response. I learned that being open about mental health really matters.

For me to really understand, engage, and help others as a senior leader, I need to hear the full story, raw. I can deal with raw. I have spent my life being quite raw. It’s how many of us feel, whether it’s when the invite says “wives and children welcome”, hiding our partner’s gender, or being told we lack resilience rather than being supported. I bring my whole self to work because, if I hide it, ONS and the Civil Service lose out. I encourage you to do the same.


Five steps you can take to help us become the UK's most inclusive employer

The progress we’ve made to date on diversity and inclusion has been the result of consistent action by passionate individuals and groups across the Civil Service, over many years.

Here are five ways you can help on each of our priorities:

1. Making use of data: Remember to fill in your diversity data on staff systems so that we can understand the true picture. Ask your senior leaders for data on how your department compares with others and get curious about what it’s telling you!

2. Consistently high standards: These can be reinforced through simple actions such as asking about panel diversity when you’re asked to speak at an event, or giving candidates an insight into your background when sitting on a recruitment panel. If you’re chairing a panel, make sure you are following best practice.

3. Improving cultures: Help create an open culture by taking a leaf out of Iain and Alison’s book – share your inclusion experiences with your colleagues, and encourage others to do the same.

4. Fostering inclusion: Remember to ask people what helps them feel included; everyone is different and everyone matters.

5. Listening to specific groups: Take a look at active listening techniques and make a conscious effort to understand what people are really saying. Ask questions and be prepared to hear something new, even if makes you a bit uncomfortable.

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  1. Comment by Cara Oladeji posted on

    I love these stories, very different and diverse! People are so interesting and our differences are not always visible. I guess we can chose when we share them or say from the outset. I love when people share from the outset but it's a preference thing and how comfortable you feel. I'm a white woman so I seem 'ordinary' but my husband of 23 years is black and we have 4 'children' together aged 11 to 23. I'm also a Jehovah's Witness, again not noticeable when you see me in the office but it shapes my whole life. Thank you for sharing. We should all be proud of who we are, it would be so dull if we were all the same!

  2. Comment by Karen posted on

    Fantastic blog.

    Thank you

  3. Comment by H posted on

    Great blog! I recently attended an interview and the panel was all female (I'm female too). I felt uncomfortable about this but didn't feel confident enough to challenge it at the time. Can you offer any advice for this kind of situation?

  4. Comment by Alex Swanson posted on

    Melanie, really interested in hearing some advice on how we can integrate this into our interviews, "giving candidates an insight into your background when sitting on a recruitment panel".

  5. Comment by Nicholas Palmer posted on

    The diagnostic tool for measuring inclusivity is intriguing. Are you able to share any more information about that yet ?