· Features

Stonewall and HR: why can’t we be friends?

Once upon a time, employers queued round the block to have their inclusivity initiatives recognised by Stonewall. But has the LGBT+ rights charity now gone too far and is it beginning to alienate organisations? Peter Crush investigates

To put it mildly, Maya Forstater has a big problem. And it’s with Stonewall. The co-founder of Sex Matters, a not-for-profit organisation wanting greater clarity about sex in public policy and law, is openly disparaging of the body she thinks hasn’t just lost its way, but is now acting what she labels “dangerously” as the “workplace thought-police”. 

Hot topic: Do employers need to take a stand on pronouns?

Twenty years on: the continuing fight for LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace

Protected beliefs: what’s in and what’s out?

Some might remember Forstater as the former Centre for Global Development employee, sacked for tweeting what was deemed to be gender critical views that biological sex could not be changed. 

In December 2019, Judge James Tayler ruled that Forstater’s belief that there are two sexes, and that people cannot change sex, were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” and that, as a result, those who shared such beliefs were not protected against discrimination.

Forstater appealed against the judgement, and Tayler’s decision was overturned. In early July 2022, an employment tribunal then found Forstater was a victim of discrimination due to her gender-critical beliefs

Forstater's case, which attracted the support of author JK Rowling, has put her on a collision course with Stonewall. 

Since 2015, following extensive dialogue with trans communities, Stonewall began to campaign on gender identity being prioritised over biological sex. According to Forstater, this matters deeply, because she feels Stonewall’s views are perniciously seeping into and infiltrating HR departments. 

She says: “The workplace has now become a battleground. Stonewall is completely obsessed with self-identity and the companies they advise are falling for it too – or at the very least, are not confident enough to say that belief in biological sex isn’t transphobic.”

This ‘battleground’ is most visibly presenting itself around organisations’ provision of single-sex services, such as toilets. 

Sainsbury’s, which became a Stonewall Top 100 Employer for the first time in 2020, provoked controversy last year when it revealed it would allow staff to use whichever toilet they felt most comfortable with.

A global survey of 10,000 employees by hygiene and health company Essity found four in 10 UK workers do not want their employer to introduce gender-neutral bathrooms, far below the acceptance rate in other countries. Nearly a quarter (23%) also did not want gender-neutral language to be encouraged. 

Jane Hamlin, who is transgender and president of the transgender support group Beaumont Foundation, acknowledges these concerns, but argues it should not be beyond the wit of HR directors to introduce gender-neutral toilets.

She is a staunch supporter of Stonewall, arguing people are obsessed with toilets and genitals, and says she is impressed with the way it has given evidence on, for example, reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

She says: “In its early days, Stonewall was actually a bit transphobic; but in recent years it has really taken this issue to heart and I have no complaints. Now is not a happy time for the transgender community. People don’t choose to be transgender and, to me, it seems there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding.”

"Every HRD I speak to says they’re  worried about Stonewall"

Despite this though, what seems to be an issue is Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index (WEI). The charity’s advice that employers should replace the term ‘mother’ with ‘parent who has given birth’ set columnists and social media ablaze with opposition.

Others, however, were happy to see the progress, arguing that the language can help trans and non-binary parents to feel included and represented. 

Critics claim Stonewall’s world view has pushed too far, too fast, with swathes of organisations pulling out of working with the organisation, its WEI and associated Diversity Champions programme. 

In the past 12 months, Ofcom, Channel 4, Ofsted, the Cabinet Office and the UK’s equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), have all waved goodbye. So too has the BBC, The Ministry of Justice and the Crown Prosecution Service. 


So where does the debate leave HR?

“Organisations are indeed pulling out; the problem is they are too scared to say why,” says diversity advisor Sarah Rutherford and author of Women’s Work Men’s Cultures.

She says: “Previously, saying you support trans inclusivity didn’t generally upset people; but more recently Stonewall’s underlying obsession with trans rights has seen the group actually redefine what trans is. I know scores of HRDs who are deeply critical of its view, but can’t be seen to agree with me in public.” 

Rutherford adds: “HR professionals are scared. The mob is vicious, and this fear is absolutely driving a behaviour of HR staying silent on this. HR can’t even say what common sense is anymore – what is a ‘woman’. I’m shocked at how people in my profession can’t be seen to be talking about this.”

The problem, argue opponents, is that membership of Stonewall is forcing HR professionals down a path that is neither compatible with the law nor their plans for genuine inclusion.

Forstater adds: “The commitments undertaken to be a Stonewall Diversity Champion member are incompatible with upholding the Equality Act in relation to freedom of belief.

“HR’s job should be to follow the law, not face a situation where if they or their employees speak up, they are harassed and forced out of their job. I sense that with the whole trans issue, wherever HR people go with it, they feel they’ll be wrong.” 

She adds: “The law might be boring, but it’s there and clear, and protects everyone – even trans people, who are a protected group. What’s been lost is the distinction between gender identity and sex. Demanding trans celebration actually takes away from what the job of HR should be – which is simply non-discrimination.”

Obviously, the person to answer these accusations is Stonewall’s CEO Nancy Kelley. HR magazine spent weeks liaising with her team. A Stonewall spokesperson said it would answer a range of questions, however they then chose to send through a written statement.

It said: “Our Diversity Champions programme simply provides guidance and support to employers who want to make their HR policies inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees.

“We make no apologies for empowering companies to create working environments in which all lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer people can thrive. As with every membership programme, organisations come and go depending on what works best for them at the time.” 

Stonewall said its Diversity Champions programme was continuing to grow and was very proud of the work it was doing with more than 900 organisations to help create inclusive working environments for their lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer staff.

Pulling out of Stonewall could arguably be due to trans activism, but it’s hard to prove and, as is often the case, there are no obvious answers. Multiple HR professionals were contacted by HR magazine, but many seemed reluctant to explain why they had chosen to decouple with Stonewall. 

The CIPD, which pulled out in 2019, said: “We did not feel it [membership] was essential for being an inclusive employer.

“People professionals will need to make their own assessment about inclusion policies, practices and principles to support inclusivity efforts.” 

One of the few that did speak up was University College London, which rescinded association last year. In a statement to HR magazine, it said that it could not remain involved with Stonewall while it took “positions on sex and sex-based rights that could impact academic debate about sex and gender identity”. 

It also noted that alignment with Stonewall had implied endorsement of its positions.

“Every HRD I speak to says they’re worried about Stonewall,” says Stonewall co-founder and HR Most Influential 2022 Thinker Simon Fanshawe, who now disassociates himself from the organisation. 

“Its views no longer chime with what ordinary employees think and I think for CEOs, being linked to it is now brand-damaging,” 

He adds: “What Stonewall preaches is ideological blackmail; it’s sectarianism. It’s saying ‘agree with us or you’re a heretic’. 

“It’s with real sadness that I say these things, because they’ve squandered their credibility, and weaponised what should essentially be kindness to others.” 

So, what’s likely to be the consensus view? In response to being asked about how it works with organisations, Stonewall said: “Initiatives taken by our Diversity Champions are entirely up to them and Stonewall does not seek to influence those decisions – care should be taken not to suggest that we do.

“Our current guidance makes clear it is not necessary to remove terms like ‘mother’ to achieve inclusive policies.” 

One organisation that did talk to HR magazine was Cheshire Fire & Rescue Service, ranked the second-most LGBT+ inclusive workplace in the UK in 2022, according to Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list. 

"It’s helped us refine our policies."

Mark Shone, LGBT+ lead and founder of the service’s FirePride network, said: “We’ve been a Diversity Champion since 2011; accessing Stonewall’s allies and role models training programme.

“We have begun piloting its trans-allies programme because we were already developing a trans-policy, due to an employee transitioning.” 

But what of Stonewall’s direct involvement? Shone says: “It’s helped us refine our policies; there are trans-inclusion questions coming up in the next equality index and, broadly speaking, we are already quite closely aligned.

“It’s more help around language and terminology – like using ‘you’ and ‘your’ in paternity or maternity leave documents, and we’ve certainly not gone down the ‘pregnant people’ language route.” 

Shone also demonstrates the flexibility Stonewall offers with its guidance. He adds: “We’ve actually told them we won’t be taking the word ‘mother’ out of our HR documents, and I’ve never had the sense that they are there with an iron rod. Our inclusion journey has never been about chasing a ranking.”


Is Stonewall a victim of a media witch-hunt?

“No one has a ‘product’ that stays the same over time,” says Stephen Frost, CEO of inclusion consultancy Included, who devised the WEI when he was Stonewall’s director of workplace programmes from 2004 to 2007. 

He says: “Stonewall has had to evolve. Back in the day, gay rights were edgy, but ‘safe edgy’. Now it’s moved to this new area, which is more complex. 

“If things aren’t working, it’s because people are talking past each other. We’ve got to overcome issues through dialogue. Points of tension need civil discourse. We could all deal with chilling out.”

Where the debate leaves HR professionals is uncertain. Not all staff – or all HR professionals – will accept Stonewall’s view of the world and nor does the charity expect them to. 

Many organisations working with Stonewall appear to be sticking firm? Sainsbury’s told HR magazine it wants to be “a truly inclusive retailer where every single one of our colleagues can fulfil their potential and all our customers feel welcome when they shop with us”.

But it’s the narrative some feel Stonewall dominates that may have the most lasting impact, whether companies pull out or not.

Rutherford adds: “What I worry about most is that gender identity [which has no legal recognition in the UK] has become so part of an accepted conversation – especially for younger employees – that even if it’s legally okay to have ‘gender critical’ views, it won’t be tolerated, forcing HRDs into an uncomfortable place.”

Already research finds that the media attention on minorities is skewing people’s perception away from reality. In June, YouGov revealed people thought 5% of the population was transgender, when in reality just 0.3-0.7% of people identify as different to their biological sex. 

Positive and effective HR policies are underpinned by inclusive principles, and whether organisations are a part of Stonewall or not, it’s difficult to deny the impact it has had for LGBT+ rights has been phenomenal. Stonewall is not a perfect organisation, but who can say they work for one of those? 


This article was first published in the July/August 2022 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.