What does diversity and inclusion mean in the history of the United Kingdom, and how has the status of social and workplace equality changed over the years? Among other topics, we discussed these questions with Paul Fox, His Majesty's Ambassador to Hungary, in an exclusive interview conducted during the 2023 OPEN Conference. Ambassador Fox provided insight into his country’s lengthy and complex journey in inclusion and diversity, also showcasing how these changes are reflected across the varied aspects of modern British society and business life.
Diversity is not a new concept. It has been instrumental in helping many countries navigate through numerous difficult times. How do you perceive the role of inclusion and diversity throughout the UK's history?
As you've suggested in your question, diversity isn’t a new thing. We must be clear about our definition of diversity and understand the role it currently plays. Particularly in the last 60 or 70 years in the UK, the role of diversity in sectors like business has largely been a response to social and economic change. Especially in Britain, as our society evolved and became more multicultural, there emerged a need to acknowledge the role, place, and value of people of color. Similarly, societal recognition that women could play a more substantial role became evident. Additionally, there was an enhanced acceptance of a range of lifestyles, which had previously been criminalized, such as those of the LGBTQ+ community. Diversity not only reinforces societal change but also reflects it.
However, you're entirely correct; it's not a new phenomenon. In a speech I delivered, I mentioned the case of Alan Turing, a brilliant, visionary mathematician and pioneer of computer science. He utilized his skills to assemble a diverse team—diverse in background, thought, and visible diversity—and harnessed those talents to crack the Enigma code, thus contributing to ending the war. Tragically, Turing was persecuted in the 1950s because of his sexual orientation, subjected to horrific practices like chemical castration, and ultimately took his own life. This historical example illustrates that diversity isn't a new buzzword. It has always been present, but I believe changes in British society, particularly since the Second World War, have necessitated a more profound contemplation and recognition of the need to acknowledge and protect diversity.
In 2010, we passed the Equality Act in the UK. Among other things, it brought together a variety of previous legislative pieces and prohibited discrimination against people based on age, sexual orientation, gender, gender reassignment, and maternity and pregnancy. About seven or eight characteristics have been protected because it was deemed necessary to legislate the need to prevent such discrimination.
Moreover, how do you perceive the progress the UK has made in terms of gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights throughout history? Given the UK's quite colorful history on this topic, with its negative and positive traces, what do you think the future holds for these issues in the UK?
I think things started to come to a head in the 1950s when there was a growing tolerance of homosexuality and a recognition of it, which culminated in the decriminalization of homosexuality in the 1960s, evidenced by legislation in 1968 and 1969. Then, during the '70s and '80s, we witnessed the expansion of the LGBTQ+ community, which by the 1990s, had accumulated a fair amount of economic power.
It's about greater tolerance, greater acceptance, and individuals recognizing their worth and realizing their convening power. It's by no means a done deal because there's still a huge amount of intolerance and prejudice. I'm specifically referring to the LGBTQ+ community here, but it's not confined to that. And I believe the debate has shifted. It's moved beyond mere toleration and acceptance because that's largely established.
In the 1980s, a minority of people accepted same-sex marriage; they found it something with which they were uncomfortable. Now, over 80 percent of British people are quite comfortable with same-sex marriage. So it's still moving forward. And I think we just have to go in the same direction. Furthermore, we have to guard against backsliding. So that's where the debate is. We're no longer arguing whether we should do this. What we're arguing is: we have done this, so how do we maintain it?
Workplaces play a crucial role in our society because that's where people meet each other, converse, and formulate impressions about how individuals are developing or how our society functions. How can a country or government actively assist in promoting diversity and inclusion in workplaces?
In several ways. I've mentioned legislation, which can outlaw any form of discrimination or, to put it more succinctly, acknowledge that discrimination is detrimental, while looking at certain characteristics that need protection. But also through practice, through their corporate policies and issues. In the private sector, I think a considerable effort has been made to address a variety of diversity issues, whether it be related to the gender pay gap.
And in the organization I work for, the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, we have implemented a variety of new policies over the last 15-20 years, designed to encourage diversity, equality, and above all, inclusion. Though these concepts overlap, they are separate entities. We have not adopted affirmative action. We're different from the States in that respect. However, we have embarked on the path of, I believe, equality of opportunity. Achieving equality of outcomes, on the other hand, presents quite a challenge, I would say. That's quite a challenge.
Inclusion has emerged as a global trend, particularly in the corporate world. Many people believe that this kind of inclusion and diversity is beneficial for women, non-binary individuals, and LGBTQ+ people. However, sometimes, people don’t realize that this kind of inclusion is advantageous for everyone. But how can these changes in workplace dynamics benefit everyone, not just those directly involved, such as the LGBTQ+ community?
You make a crucial point there. We just heard a speech at the conference by a consultant who specializes in these issues, asserting that we have to strive to explain, persuade, and demonstrate that diversity and inclusion benefit everyone. It's not about granting preferential treatment to certain groups; it's about creating an environment where everybody can thrive.
In my speech, I referenced a McKinsey report that essentially stated that companies with more diverse leadership are more likely to be profitable enterprises. That's going to benefit everyone.
I think that is a big debate we need now, which is, for those who feel uncomfortable with change, for those who feel they might, in a way, be excluded — they might be described as majority groups, but I don't think these individuals perceive themselves as such. They view themselves as individuals under pressure, individuals who don’t benefit from change. We have to elucidate to them that these benefits are for all, not just for a select few.