Cardiff tops Stonewall listings

07 February 2019      Martin Higgs, Communications Officer

With Cardiff University ranked highest amongst UK universities in the recently updated Stonewall listings of LGBT-inclusive organisations, we set out to find out how they did it. Karen Cooke, Organisational and Staff Development Manager at Cardiff (and Chair of Enfys, the university’s staff and postgraduate LGBT+ network), writes on “What engaging in LGBT+ equality has taught me.”


Rankings, league tables and charter marks are such common topics of conversation in Higher Education. I suspect many of you have heard the same comments that I hear on a regular basis, why do we bother, do they mean anything and do they really make a difference?

For all of the challenges that come with engaging with this type of work my personal experience has also been the huge impact and cultural shift that can happen when you work with a well-structured framework.  For the past ten years I’ve had the privilege of chairing our staff and postgraduate LGBT+ network Enfys (Welsh for rainbow). Through this role but also as part of my role of working with equality, diversity and inclusion for staff here at Cardiff I’ve seen the impact that work with Stonewall and our engagement with the workplace equality index has had.

I believe strongly that everyone should be able to benefit from our experience (both good and bad!) so I’ll share the key headlines of what I think has made the difference here at Cardiff.

The difficult news…

It’s taken ten years to get to the point we are now and we certainly haven’t finished. Consistent commitment right across the University to ensure that LGBT+ equality can be sustained has been critical to changing the culture and environment. This isn’t and shouldn’t be a quick fix, certainly if you want it to be sustainable it can’t be. You will inevitably start off small, have disappointments and feel that you aren’t making the kind of progress you would like - but persevere.

What’s your story?

I grew up at a time when the local government legislation of section 28 was in place. I remember the suffocating feeling of not being able to be who I knew I was and the impact it had on me from an educational and social perspective. In our universities we support thousands of staff and students and a percentage of those people will identify as LGBT+. Surely we want to create the most open, inclusive and supportive environments where our university community can perform to the best of their ability and feel comfortable in being themselves? That’s our story at Cardiff – we want our staff and students to be proud to be themselves. It makes good organisational sense if everyone is doing the best they can.

Have a structure

The LGBT+ community has a clear calendar of events throughout the year which is so useful whether you’re starting out to improve LGBT+ equality and visibility or looking to do more advanced work. If you then layer the structures from organisations such as Stonewall on top of that you can work on your policies, benefits, staff and student lifecycle, procurement and your community engagement to name just a few. LGBT History Month has a theme every year so follow that and start to organise a couple of events to tie in with that theme. Use your internal expertise – we have an event this February run by our School of History, Archaeology and Religion on Alexander the Great – Boy Friend, Gay Warrior and Porn King – I can’t wait!

Collaboration and partnership

You’ll probably find that your first few events are small unless you can get a ‘big name’ that will draw people in. Collaboration both internally and externally is critical. We have teamed up with other local employers to run events and socials, we’ve teamed up with other staff networks inside the university, we support local community groups and for the past 6/7 years we’ve had an LGBT+ Working Group that brings together staff and student LGBT+ officers to discuss what still needs to be improved across the university from a student perspective. In more recent years I’ve attended a number of University staff LGBT+ networks to talk about what we’ve learnt and to share that good practice.

Multiple identities

This is a huge area of work for us and reflects the continuing change in our staff and student population. People don’t fit into nice neat boxes and the support that we offer shouldn’t either. We’ve supported a local community BAME LGBT+ group called Glitter Cymru over the past two years and are about to team up with them again for an event in LGBT History Month. I’ve learnt so much from that group and we want to do more by really looking at how identities intersect and doing what we can to ensure that our LGBT+ equality work is truly inclusive – a lot still to do!

Representation and visibility

In a recent all staff newsletter for National Coming Out Day we profiled a range of staff and students who identified as Bi, Trans masculine, BME+ and gay, people of faith and lesbian. I often reflect on how the importance of that diversity has changed over the past 10 years.  Staff need to feel they are in a comfortable and safe environment to be able to share their story. Getting the basics right cannot be underestimated here, can colleagues use the pronouns they want, do policies use gender neutral language, and can family leave be taken by everyone who needs access to it? Does the organisation give a strong clear message on bullying and harassment? Do you give everyone the opportunity to show their visible support for LGBT+ equality through an allies network? All of these things matter for prospective and current staff and students.

Biggest fear

In a word, complacency. There is always more to do and the nature of change in our staff and student community from identity to expectation means that there will always need to be different ways of doing things, different groups to work with and challenging ourselves to do the best we can with limited resources which is something we can all relate to across the sector. To quote a well-known civil rights leader, my dream is that no matter where you go to work and/or study in the UK HE sector you can be yourself and don’t have the fears and worries that I had in my teens.

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