Iain Anderson, the UK's LGBT business champion, talks data and diversity
Iain Anderson, Executive Chairman at Cicero/AMO, is the UK’s new LGBT Business Champion. He tells Laurence Eastham why investor demand for data is transforming the case for diversity in business
Back in September 2021, the Government Equalities Office and Liz Truss, Minister for Women and Equalities, announced the appointment of Iain Anderson as the UK’s LGBT Business Champion. Aberdeen-born Anderson is best known as Executive Chairman of communications agency Cicero/AMO, the business he founded in 2001 (as Cicero) and sold to billion-pound giant Havas Group in 2020, at which point it acquired its current name. Anderson is still with his business today, but his new (unpaid) role with government is an opportunity for him to bring his LGBT advocacy work, which includes trusteeships at Stonewall and GiveOut, to a global platform.
“As far as we know, this is the first time a government anywhere has put this role in place,” Anderson tells CA magazine. “In the spring of 2021, I started speaking to government about what could be done in this space, particularly to support and shine a light on SME business. In most of my career, I’ve been an SME. And I’ve always thought it’s easier for larger businesses to get involved in this conversation. They’ve got big HR functions and they’ve got diversity and inclusion teams. But one of the reasons SME owners set up their own businesses is because they find it’s easier to be themselves.
“Then I learned about what’s planned for 2022. The UK is hosting its first-ever global LGBT conference – Safe to Be Me – which is about securing some major advances for LGBT people. The government was telling me about the involvement of policymakers, parliamentarians and civil society groups. I asked where business was. The workplace is where people spend most of their time, after all. That’s when I was invited to take on this role.”
The conference, taking place 27-29 June 2022, is a key event in the government’s equalities strategy and will be yet another test of the UK’s soft power in a post-Brexit, post-pandemic world. Lord Herbert, appointed the UK’s Special Envoy on LGBT Rights in May 2021, will chair, while Anderson is responsible for business outreach and securing company and sector commitments to LGBT equality ahead of the event.
“There are three things that I’m doing,” says Anderson of his role. “The first is to create a series of conversations to better inform government policy about LGBT people. There’s not a lot of data, so let’s go get some. And I’m going to be doing a series of sectoral roundtables. The second is creating a mentoring scheme between large and small organisations to launch in the late spring. There’s an awful lot of great material that large businesses have created. And I want to help smaller businesses go faster, rather than having to reinvent the wheel.
“The third thing is related to this global conference, which will have four big commitments. First, international commitments, seeing if we can try to move some countries that are on the wrong side of history. Second, public service and public health commitments. Third, commitments around legislative change, including bans on conversation therapy. And the final one, which I’ve been tasked to do, is to create a business commitment. That means getting more businesses to sign up to the UN standards on LGBT at work. But I want to go further. I want to pack in more examples of best practice.”
State of independence
There will be sceptics, however. The creation of a UK LGBT Business Champion by the Johnson government follows a messy and very public disbanding of an advisory panel established during Theresa May’s premiership. In March 2021, three of its members quit, with one accusing the government of creating a “hostile environment” for LGBT people. The panel was wound up by Liz Truss the following month. And a December 2020 speech by Truss had previously raised eyebrows. “Too often, the equality debate has been dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic, and not by their individual character,” she told the Centre for Policy Studies when launching the government’s Fight for Fairness agenda, generating a flurry of headlines.
“I’m able to do this in an independent way,” says Anderson when queried on the government’s commitment to LGBT people. “I’m not here to speak for the government. And that’s important to me because it allows me to point to the good, but also what’s not so good, in terms of the workplace. I’m not the sort of person who would get involved if I didn’t think it really was meaningful. I’ve been told by the highest level of government that the reason this role exists is because it is part of an economic strategy to make the UK a very welcoming place to do business. That has come directly from the Prime Minister.”
Despite the UK’s freedoms, the statistics show that there’s still much to be done to ensure LGBT people receive equal treatment – and pay – at work. A 2019 study by YouGov for LinkedIn estimated the LGBT pay gap to be 16% (£6,703), nearly double the gender pay gap of 8.9% reported by the Office for National Statistics that year. More recently, a 2021 report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found 21.5% of LGBT employees had experienced a negative or mixed reaction from colleagues. And the proportion of LGBT employees who feel unable to be open about their sexuality or gender at work has rather consistently been reported at one-third.
“The past five or six years has been warp-speed compared to the previous 20-30,” says Anderson. “I came into the world of work in the early 90s. I was out to friends and family, but not at work. You’re constantly thinking: what might it mean? Will people want to do business with me? Do I want to be defined as the ‘gay business guy’? But since I came out, my business is five times larger. The business has flourished – so why on earth didn’t I do it sooner? But there’s still a third of LGBT people who don’t feel they can be out at work. You won’t ever get that down to zero – and I don’t believe in forcing people to self-identify – but we can drive that number further down.
“The past two years has also supercharged the ESG [environmental, social, governance] debate. There’s been a lot about the E part – we’ve just had Cop26. The G part is ongoing and constant. But the S part has been a little sketchy so far. And one of the things I’m trying to do with this role is take the conversation about LGBT people from the diversity and inclusion ‘pocket’ – and there’s nothing wrong with that – to the S part of ESG. ESG is largely moving to where investors are, and that’s where boards are, and boards create change. About three or four years ago, one of the major global asset managers invited Cicero to pitch. In the tendering process, 15% of the score in the first round was based on evidence of action around diversity and inclusion, including real data. And that’s because those are the questions that investors are asking. So, there’s potential here for a powerful virtuous circle to be created.”
Demand for data
Measuring and reporting diversity, and being able to meet this growing investor appetite, is extremely tricky. There is no agreed framework for firms to plug into, meaning a reliance on advisory groups and the best practice of competitors. The lack of consensus over the what, why and how can be overwhelming, particularly for the SMEs Anderson hopes to assist. Progress from the top has been slow, too. Only in 2018 did it become a legal requirement for large firms (250 or more employees) in the UK to measure and disclose their gender pay gap each year.
There are additional complexities with LGBT diversity, too. Unlike gender and ethnicity, data on sexual orientation and expressions of gender identity is less routinely collected by business, frustrating any reporting efforts. There are a few reasons: initiatives often focus on forms of visible diversity, and many see anything beyond that as “overstepping” from professional to personal life. Firms and HR personnel may not feel equipped to approach the topic with confidence and the appropriate sensitivity. And, of course, there is the one-third of LGBT employees who do not feel comfortable sharing their identity, although the anonymisation of data may help.
“Data is one of the things that I’ve asked the government team to start to work on,” says Anderson. “Government just doesn’t seem to have very much in this regard at present. So, in some of the outreach that I’ve been doing, I’ve been asking business, ‘Can you help us with the data on what works?’ I’m going to pose this question to business and see what we get back. We need to go and create the evidence base and then use that to inform great practice.”
The development of diversity reporting will need to move faster if firms are to stay on the right side of the regulators, however. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), in particular, has increasingly expressed an interest in mandating diversity targets and certain forms of disclosure. In October 2021, it closed a consultation on whether UK listing rules should be updated to include ongoing targets for gender and ethnic minority representation on boards, including the disclosure of firm data in a standardised format. But the only two mentions of LGBT in the 61-page consultation paper were simply to encourage voluntary measures around “the wider diversity agenda”.
“I’m a business guy, so I don’t want any of this to be burdensome,” adds Anderson. “But I’m going to see [CEO] Nikhil Rathi at the FCA and ask why the metrics don’t include LGBT. My job as champion is to ask questions and then it’s up to the regulators to go away and reflect on that. In an environment where 33% of LGBT people are not self-declaring, perhaps it’s less easy than gender or ethnicity. But surely we can create a benchmark around the 66%. I want to have that conversation with the financial regulators and use it as a testbed to see how it could apply to other sectors, too.”
And what does Anderson say to those who remain unconvinced of diversity’s role in business and driving business performance? Or those particularly concerned by the promise of increased regulatory intervention?
“Go with the metrics,” he replies. “My business is five times bigger in the last decade because I’ve embraced this agenda. And it’s the reason I’m pushing on linking this to ESG. There’s a sea change in investor attitudes towards this – diversity is getting more quantitative than qualitative. Do you want to be a business which is ahead of the curve? Or one dragged kicking and screaming towards the curve?”
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