By Carola Towle, UNISON national LGBT equality officer


Workforce monitoring is now well established across the post-school education sector. There has been some reluctance to include questions about people’s sexual orientation.  But the arguments in favour are stacking up and should not be ignored.

The litmus test is what happens with the results.

It is all too common for personal data to be collected and then … nothing.  Simply counting and recording, or even counting, recording and reporting, gets you nowhere.

It may give the appearance of activity but it does nothing to tackle discrimination or build equality.

If, however, the foundation is solid equality policy, there is proper consultation on its introduction and the findings are the evidence base for action, then – provided safeguards are in place – sexual orientation monitoring is a useful tool.

It can provide evidence of whether an employer is recruiting from across the population, whether LGB staff are progressing at the same rate as others, and whether they are clustered in particular departments, jobs or grades.  This can be checked over time to see if action plans to overcome discrimination and disadvantage are working.

Not including sexual orientation on monitoring forms risks leaving staff or job applicants with the impression that the organisation has no interest in or commitment to LGB equality.

It is common for organisations to work on LGB and trans equality together. There are some similarities between monitoring sexual orientation and monitoring gender identity/gender history, but there are crucial differences and each must be considered separately.  There is currently no consensus among trans groups on whether they support monitoring for gender identity.  Because of the small numbers of transgender workers, the risks of monitoring gender identity may outweigh the benefits.

When sexual orientation monitoring is first introduced, it may provoke a hostile response and low return rate.  Many LGB people keep their sexual orientation private, as is their right.  This is not surprising. Until December 2003, it was lawful to sack someone just because of their sexual orientation.  Results published this May, following an extensive survey of the experiences of LGBT people, showed that a fifth of UK respondents felt personally discriminated against at work in the past 12 months, because of their sexual orientation. Details of the research are here

But in time, if the employer demonstrates they really are committed to building an LGB friendly workplace, data will improve.  It can then be used to identify and act on any ‘no go’ areas, trends towards job segregation or lack of career progression.  It can be used as one measure of the effectiveness of equality action plans, training or other initiatives.

For success in monitoring, it’s essential to consult with staff trade unions and any staff LGB network in advance.  Confidentiality must be in place and be seen to be in place.  Explain how data will be collected, who will process it, how it will be stored and how it will be reported.  If forms are to be posted back, they should go to one central address, such as the head of human resources, not to local HR leads.  Revealing someone’s sexual orientation without their permission can amount to unlawful harassment.

Listen to what different groups of people are saying.  If most LGB people are opposed, the organisation is not ready.  More work is needed to make equality policies effective.  If non-LGB people object, find out what their objections are and see if these can be answered by clear information on the purpose and practice.

The question can be phrased as ‘Do you identify as:

  • Lesbian/gay
  • Bisexual
  • Heterosexual
  • Prefer not to select’

Government actuaries estimate that 6% of the working population are in same sex relationships.  Confidential monitoring may show that 6% of the workforce identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but this is not necessarily evidence of an equal workplace.  It could still be that nobody feels safe enough to be out about their sexual orientation at work.  An additional question on whether LGB people are out at work is therefore useful.

When monitoring small numbers, people may be identifiable even from anonymous forms if there are a range of questions.  This can also happen with large workforces where reporting breaks results down into smaller groups, such as grades or departments.  Reporting that an organisation of 5,000 staff includes 154 LGB people is fine.  Reporting that a small department includes two LGB people could put their privacy at risk.

Lesbian, gay or bisexual workers are not all the same, so it is important to look at findings for each group separately.  If possible, check whether there are other differences, say between women and men, Black and white LGB workers, and so on.

Counting the gays in the village does not of itself tackle discrimination or promote equality.  But it can play an important part in these vital tasks.

Share →