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Why are employers leaving Stonewall’s diversity programme?

15 Jul 2021 By Francis Churchill

The charity is at the centre of a debate around trans rights and free speech, causing some big name organisations to part company with its inclusion support service

Since its formation in 1989, following the Stonewall riots two decades earlier from which it took its name, LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall – the largest organisation of its kind in Europe – has been at the forefront of the campaign for gay, lesbian and bisexual rights, and became trans inclusive in 2015. 

However, over the last few months the charity has become the centre of a debate around trans rights. Stonewall is a firm defender of the belief that people should be able to self-identify with the gender they choose, but has also been accused of attempting to stifle free speech on the issue and push companies to adopt policies that some argue could be harmful to women.

A number of high-profile employers, which had been part of its Diversity Champions programme to promote inclusivity in the workplace, have also recently ended their partnerships with the charity. Among them are Channel 4, Ofsted, the Cabinet Office, and the UK’s equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the latter two of which said the scheme no longer provided good value for money.

But what’s behind the argument and what’s the legal position? People Management explores the issue.

What is Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme?

Employers that pay to sign up to Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme receive support from the charity on LGBTQ+ issues. Stonewall says it works with more than 850 employers, offering expertise, advice and best practice to help them develop and implement their inclusion and diversity policies.

On top of this, members of the scheme are entered into the charity’s Workplace Equality Index and Global Workplace Equality Index, where they are benchmarked against other companies. The list is published as an annual rundown of the top 100 employers for LGBT inclusion.

Why are companies leaving the scheme?

Many of the reasons employers are giving is that the scheme is no longer good value for money. There were even reports that equalities minister Liz Truss suggested government bodies should withdraw from the scheme because of this reason. (In a later statement she said decisions on engaging external parties were “delegated to individual departments”.)

However, the charity has also been on the receiving end of backlash for its position on trans rights, concern over which was reportedly the reason for several companies parting ways with the scheme. The charity holds that people should be able to self-identify with the gender that they choose, but has also been accused of attempting to shut down any debate on the issue by labelling anyone who disagrees with this position – for example people who argue that allowing trans women to use women-only facilities or compete in female sports violates the rights of women – of being transphobic. Critics also point out that self-identification is not currently recognised in UK law, and changing gender is governed by the Gender Recognition Act 2004, requiring a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

Stonewall has also been accused of giving advice that misinterprets the Equality Act 2010, claiming it includes protection for ‘gender identity’, and using its Diversity Champions scheme to push employers to adopt pro-trans policies that some are concerned would negatively impact other groups – for example giving trans women access to women-only spaces or enforcing the use of gender-neutral language. Other groups argue that pro-transgender policies do not represent a threat to women’s safety or rights.

This came to a head when a report from the University of Essex, which has also ended its membership of the Diversity Champions scheme, claimed Stonewall had given misleading advice to the university after it banned a gender-critical feminist from speaking.

What has Stonewall said about the issue?

Stonewall denies any allegations that the Diversity Champions programme is an attempt to stifle free speech or debate. “The programme and our staff have no sway over any organisation’s wider decision-making,” it said in a statement. It also noted that a recent judicial review against the Crown Prosecution Service for its membership of the Diversity Champions programme was thrown out after the judge found the case had no arguable claim of success.

“It is completely normal for national charities to engage with national decision makers. It is also normal for the national charities to separately provide services to public sector organisations to directly help service delivery,” the charity said.

The charity also stands by the accuracy of its advice on issues around the Equality Act as being “robust and correct”. It says the Act provides an “expansive definition of ‘gender reassignment’” and that protections under the Act “begin as soon as you ‘propose’ to move away from your birth-assigned gender”.

Of the University of Essex’s report, Stonewall said the claims had “no basis” and that it had “no involvement at all in the decision that was reviewed by the report”. And on the issue of gender-neutral language, the charity said it was not trying to stop the use of the words ‘mother’ or ‘father’ in HR policies, but was calling for employers to use more inclusive terms such as “mother and other pregnant employees/birth parents”.

Stonewall also said membership of the Diversity Champions programme grew by 30 organisations in the year to June – and points out that since the scheme was established in 2001, many larger organisations have developed their own inclusion and diversity programmes.

What should employers consider from a legal standpoint?

The debate over who should have access to same-sex spaces – and particularly women-only spaces – is one of the main points of contention in the debate about trans rights. As it stands, the Equality Act does allow for transgender individuals to be excluded from same-sex spaces if it is a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

However, it adds any restrictions “must be applied as restrictively as possible and the denial of a service to a transsexual person should only occur in exceptional circumstances” – meaning employers should avoid blanket polices and apply any restrictions on access to single-sex spaces on a case-by-case basis.

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