What we might learn from the business world about gender equality and diversity

We often hear from the Bishops and those at the centre of the Church of England, that we have much to learn from the business world. Many of us have questions about some of these assumptions. But there is, I think, one area where I would like the Church of England to learn from the world of business and that is gender equality. In the world of work beyond the church, organisations and businesses are learning to take seriously their public sector gender equality duties outlined in the 2010 Equality Act. Some are better at this than others. But, those who have taken this seriously have good news to tell and advice which we could learn from.

One of the things they would say is that if you want a diverse workforce, then you need to really listen to those who are under-represented and make changes. These changes need to happen in recruitment; the language of adverts and the way people are interviewed. They need to happen in senior appointments in similar ways. Appointment panels need to be balanced, so that those applying can perform at their best. If the systems for recruiting and promoting people are left unchanged, then the likelihood is, the same type of people will keep being appointed. Many organisations take seriously the reality of implicit bias. We cannot eradicate the assumptions and stereotypes people bring but we can help people question them, challenge them and make adjustments because of them.

Organisations have realised that those who take time out on maternity leave may well need support when they return. They have learnt that child care is not only a female responsibility and flexible arrangements for parents benefit men and women, as well as their children. They have also learnt that Tom is happier if he can openly acknowledge that he shares his life with Colin. Above all they are learning that diverse work places, in which people feel respected and judged on how they do the job rather than on their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion, are good and productive places for all to work. It takes time and it takes focused effort. Simply saying women are welcome, or that we don’t discriminate, or that this is a place friendly to minorities is not enough. The structures need to change to make such statements reality.

Meanwhile the Church of England seems to want to learn from the world of business about target setting and action plans, but not in this area. Our exemption from aspects of the Equality Act seem to feed a culture that is disinterested in learning how things could be different. The Church of England appears stuck in an anthropological and theological worldview, in which men are the ‘normal’ form of humanity, made in the image of God – and everyone else is, at some level, a ‘problem’.

The Church of England has been wrestling for decades about how to deal with the problem of those who just simply are not men. What can they be allowed to do? Having reached a position which says that in fact women can be admitted to all the ranks of church orders, little has actually been done to look seriously at whether this requires changes to the recruitment process. So we simply wring our hands at the lack of young women coming forward. Nothing has been done to alter the senior appointment system. What does it feel like for women entering the process, knowing that in the name of balance they will be interviewed by some individuals who do not think they should be considered for the post because of their gender? Such women face both the institutionalised discrimination we have agreed to allow, as well as the implicit bias we have not even begun to address.

And now we have the latest bishop’s report about those who are men but do not behave like normal men when it comes to sex. These people clearly make the men at the top feel uncomfortable. And, let’s be clear: this is about men. Yes, lesbians are included in the report but it’s clear from any of the churches official documents about sex that women’s sexual behaviour, in heterosexual or lesbian relationships, is not really on the agenda. The Bible doesn’t have anything to say about lesbians but they need to be included in order to make statements about the group who really disturb the men. These are the men, who are men, but do not behave like men when it comes to sex and they need to stop it.

The message is quite clear. Just stop doing the things that we do not want to think about, and then we will be as kind, welcoming and supportive of you as we can be. We can even become good friends. Indeed, we might even develop a “theology of friendship” to help us think about these “other” relationships as friendships, rather than as anything involving sexual relations. But please don’t expect us to read or engage with any of that queer theology.

The people in the wider world of work are learning to treat people as humans with diverse backgrounds, questioning traditional assumptions and finding that all of this can be good for business. There is a long way to go but, at least the process is happening. Here in the church women are meant to be grateful for being allowed in; to be gracious to those who think that they should not be there. (After all they are the minority and of course the church is concerned with protecting minorities!). Those in the LGBTQI community are meant to kindly climb back into their closets.

Meanwhile, we are meant to be telling the good news of Jesus to those beyond the church. Jesus, who had nothing to say about sexuality. Jesus, who treated women with respect and included them amongst his trusted followers. Jesus, who had quite a bit to say about hypocrisy and religious legalism. Jesus, who had plenty to say about welcoming the marginalised and loving one’s neighbour. How sad that many of those beyond the church, especially the young, cannot hear this message. Instead they are baffled by an organisation that tolerates women but cannot unequivocally celebrate what they offer and refuses to bless the loving partnerships of gays and lesbians.

If the church is really going to learn from business models, then let’s learn about how to really change the tone. Changing the culture to one which rejoices in human diversity takes commitment. There is good evidence form those organisations which have put in the effort that the benefits are for all. So alongside all of the mission action plans and strategic targets we could add our own equality and diversity plans, learning from organisations like Athena Swan (www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan) which is changing the culture in the world of Higher Education. We might well find that, if we are a church which practices a real welcome to all people, that treats women and LGBTQI people as equally valid, then our preaching and proclamation of the love of God may be listen to by the wider population. Many of whom currently do not understand why we preach love and practice discrimination.


Revd Canon Dr Emma Percy

Chair of WATCH

Feb 2017