GCHQ has come a long way from the days of Bletchley Park; it now contends with the most complex challenges facing the UK today, dealing with serious and organised crime, counter terrorism, cyber security, threats from hostile states, and the support needs of defence forces. To do so, it needs a diverse range of talented people.
As the director of GCHQ says, 'Diversity and inclusion is at the heart of GCHQ's mission and the organisation we aspire to build. We know if we get this right we will be better at keeping the country safe; there is no more powerful motivation. As such, we are committed to making GCHQ a place where we can all be ourselves at work and better reflect the society we serve. We've made great progress in this endeavour and an excellent reputation for our approach. But we all know there is more to do.'
The head of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agrees with this: 'We have been, and continue to be on, a journey to review and improve how we approach all aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion,' they say.
Diverse and inclusive initiatives
In addition to the fair, robust and supportive recruitment process that the public sector is famed for, it provides a welcoming environment (and has support processes and development opportunities in place) for all of its employees.
Here are just some of the initiatives in place:
- Great value is placed on maintaining a work/life balance. Part-time and flexible working is actively supported, for instance.
- Religious diversity is respected, with an on-site prayer room and celebration of different religious festivals.
- It is a Disability Confident Leader, is happy to make workplace adjustments as required, and has award-winning toolkits in place to support employees with dyslexia and dyspraxia, for example.
- Mental health first aiders are in place and it has signed the 'Time to Change' pledge to remove stigma around discussing mental health in the workplace.
- Leadership training includes bespoke options for underrepresented groups of employees, including those from a BAME background.
- LGBTQ+ friendly initiatives have previously been recognised by Stonewall – it was one of their top 100 employers in 2018.
To help implement these initiatives and to encourage the active participation of its staff, GCHQ has a number of employee networks, including specific ones for disabled, women and LGBTQ+ employees. There is also a faith and belief network and one that focuses on race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.
GCHQ has eight major affinity groups, with several smaller subgroups,' says the head of EDI. 'Each contains hundreds of members and the difference is made when our staff are proactive about creating the organisation they want for the future. For example, over 70 staff, at all levels, from our race, ethnicity and cultural heritage group have recently made videos, sharing their stories and personal items of relevance to their background and identity with colleagues.' They add that: 'EDI is not a race issue, a woman's issue, a disability issue, an LGBTQ+ issue or any specific groups issue. It's a human issue and we are continuously working with staff on finding ways to improve the culture for the benefit of all.'
The head of EDI has been with GCHQ long enough to see real change. 'As someone who is LGBTQ+, I can still recall the lifting of the bar on holding security clearances for being lesbian or gay in the mid-1990s,' they say. 'This led the formation of a staff support group for LGBTQ+ staff that is now very well supported by both LGBTQ+ staff and allies. Hearing our then director acknowledging the hurt that this "bar" had caused colleagues who were not able to be themselves at work during the Stonewall conference in 2016 was momentous.'
This is one of the reasons why GCHQ is particularly proud of its 'profoundly supportive' policies for people of all sexual orientations and for trans and non-binary staff members.
James was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome while working at GCHQ. 'I was encouraged to seek diagnosis by GCHQ's neurodiversity adviser,' he says. 'GCHQ has had a specialised neurodiversity support service for 20 years and has training and detailed guidance available for all staff.'
James points out that behaviours that can come with Asperger syndrome – such as attention to detail and the ability to spot patterns, trends and anomalies; being taskfocused; and logical, science-based decision making – are crucial to GCHQ's work. James says. 'This could be one of the reasons why we have always attracted a high number of neurodiverse staff. My experience could have been a different story if I hadn't found myself working for an employer who saw the positives. It is great to see the department leading the way with education and looking for more opportunities to deploy neurodiverse staff in a way that ensures their skills are best employed.'
All walks of life
The staff at GCHQ admit that they can't reveal much about the exact nature of their work, but it is clear that the more diverse and complex the threats to the UK, the more opportunities there are for a variety of people. 'The reality is that we come from all walks of life and educational backgrounds,' says the head of EDI. 'It's the bringing together of individuals with different points of view and life experiences, and from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, that enables us to be more than the sum of our individual parts.'
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