Students and activists have expressed disappointment and frustration at the way two major newspapers covered the news that four Scottish universities are not applying to Stonewall’s workplace equality index this year.

Stonewall’s workplace equality index is a ranking of the best employers for LGBT+ inclusion across the UK. Each year, numerous organisations – including public bodies – apply to the ranking, and the 100 top performers are celebrated publicly.  

Organisations that apply are given a score by Stonewall and are advised on where they need to be focusing their efforts to improve LGBT+ inclusion in their workplaces.

The University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, the University of West Scotland and Robert Gordon University have all applied to the equality index in previous years – however, all four universities have decided not to apply this year.

The news comes after a difficult few years for Stonewall. The charity has been repeatedly attacked and labelled as “controversial” by media outlets and commentators because it campaigns on behalf of trans people in the UK. 

Those attacks have led to various organisations, including the BBC and University College London (UCL), quitting Stonewall’s diversity champions programme. That programme, which is a separate initiative to the workplace equality index, helps employers become more inclusive and welcoming for LGBT+ staff.

The news that all four universities had decided not to apply to be on the workplace equality index was first reported by The Times and The Telegraph. Speaking to PinkNews, students and staff at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow accused both newspapers of misrepresenting the story.

However, other students – including one student at the Robert Gordon University – expressed disappointment with the decision, saying it pointed to wider issues with the approach to LGBT+ inclusion in higher education.

Universities’ decision doesn’t reflect wider support for LGBT+ rights

Jonathan MacBride is co-chair of the University of Edinburgh’s staff Pride network. He told PinkNews that he understands the university did not apply to the index this year because of staffing issues.

He believes the university is “fully supportive” of Stonewall and its LGBT+ community – and he says inflammatory articles in The Times and The Telegraph which suggest the university is distancing itself from Stonewall are “not true in the slightest”.

“On one hand, I understand that, particularly with COVID, workplaces don’t necessarily have the same time to do things they did pre-COVID,” he told PinkNews. “While understanding that personally, I was disappointed that they didn’t [apply].”

Jonathan points out that the University of Edinburgh is still signed up to Stonewall’s diversity champions programme.

“The Telegraph didn’t focus on that – they chose to focus on what they wanted to focus on. They chose their own journalistic line, as did The Times,” Jonathan said.

LGBT+ students at the University of Glasgow echoed that sentiment. In a statement, the university’s GULGBTQ+ Society said The Times‘ article was “deliberately misleading in its representation of the university’s commitment to the LGBTQ+ community on campus and of Stonewall as an LGBTQ+ charity”.

“The university has previously submitted to the [workplace equality index] twice before but also, as stated on Stonewall’s website, it entails submitting information voluntarily every year and the work needed to make a submission can be intensive,” the students said.

“In addition, The Times article purposely confused the voluntary Stonewall [workplace equality index] with the Stonewall diversity champions programme – of which the university has recently renewed its membership following consultation with ourselves and other members of the university’s LGBT+ Equality Group.”

The students said the university’s decision to not apply to the workplace equality index was “not an accurate reflection” of the institution’s commitment to LGBT+ inclusion and to Stonewall.

The University of Glasgow also defended itself on Twitter, saying recent reporting on the issue was “misleading”.

The university said it does not apply to the workplace equality index every year and insisted that it has no intention of quitting Stonewall’s diversity champions programme.

“We fully support our LGBT+ community,” the university tweeted.

Decision ‘does not represent the spirit of our community’

However, other students have expressed disappointment at the news that all four universities did not apply to the workplace equality index this year.

Jaime Prada is liberation officer for trans and non-binary students at the University of Edinburgh. They work to ensure that queer people are respected and celebrated on campus.

“Our community at Edinburgh is one of the most welcoming places to queer people in the UK, and we are fierce defenders of trans rights,” Jaime told PinkNews. “The decision to not take part in the index this year is very disappointing and does not represent the spirit of our community.”

It is “unfortunate” that the university’s decision not to apply to the index has coincided with “wider, politically-motivated attacks on Stonewall”, Jaime said.

“This past year, university officials showed their support for our community and even demanded accountability for those promoting transphobia on campus. This decision does not send out the same message they have previously defended.” 

The University of Glasgow is one of four universities that did not apply to the workplace equality index. (Getty)

Like Jonathan, Jaime is of the understanding that the University of Edinburgh decided not to apply to the index because of staff shortages, which prevented them from completing the application process.

“The fact that they did not prioritise our commitment to Stonewall’s work is disheartening, despite the university continuing to work with the organisation in other contexts like the diversity champions programme.”

They are now calling on university officials to “immediately clarify” that they will continue to support Stonewall and Edinburgh’s queer and trans communities.

“I firmly believe that the university should seek to rejoin the workplace equality index for the coming year,” Jaime said. “In addition to their firm stand against transphobia, this change would send a clear message to LGBTQ+ students and staff that we are welcomed and celebrated in our university.” 

When approached for comment, a University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “The university is committed to LGBT+ equality and continues to proactively promote LGBT+ inclusion.

“We make decisions about the various equality charters in the context of our overall equality, diversity and inclusion work and the resources available. The university is still a member of Stonewall’s diversity champions scheme.”

Robert Gordon University students were ‘not surprised’ by Stonewall decision

The situation is very different at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, according to Joe, a student and activist at the institution. Their name has been changed to protect their identity.

Speaking to PinkNews, Joe said they weren’t surprised to hear that the university had decided not to apply to the workplace equality index this year. They accused the university of engaging in “performative activism” instead of engaging with meaningful change that would benefit LGBT+ students.

“When I heard about the decision not to apply to the equality index, I was not shocked whatsoever,” Joe said.

Joe and other students are hoping the university will provide answers on why they decided not to apply to the workplace equality index this year – however, they’re not holding out much hope that they will get a full explanation.

“It’ll probably be a bulls**t answer like ‘we don’t have the resources just now because of COVID’. I know very, very well that when we were trying to push for gender neutral bathrooms, they gave us the absolute bare minimum.”

The university’s decision not to apply to the workplace equality index has left students feeling “disheartened”, according to Joe.

“They were afraid that they chose the wrong university,” Joe said. “Some students are mad at the university because they’ve tried so hard over their degrees to show how important it is to put time and resources into LGBT+ safety.”

None of the LGBT+ students Joe has spoken to were surprised by the decision.

“What’s most annoying to me is that the university is very much aware they’re not doing enough for trans students because I’ve raised it multiple times,” Joe added.

“Very many of my trans friends have dropped out of university, one of the big factors being that they weren’t getting enough support for their trans identity, including the lack of gender neutral bathrooms. Some of my trans friends aren’t getting the education they deserve. You would think they would correct that mistake and take the opportunity to work with an organisation that could help them support trans students. Unfortunately, they’re not, and that’s making me very sad and very mad.” 

When approached for comment, a spokesperson for the Robert Gordon University told PinkNews: “The university is in the process of reviewing its overall equality, diversity and inclusion strategy and our ongoing participation in the index will be considered in line with that.”

The university did not provide additional details on why it decided not to apply to the workplace equality index this year.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the University of the West of Scotland said: “The workplace equality index was delayed by Stonewall due to the pandemic, and since then the charity has developed a new framework and structure for the index. We have not cut ties with any organisation and are undertaking an exercise to review all of our external affiliations and charter marks, and this remains ongoing; however, work to advance equality for all protected characteristics is and remains an absolute priority.”

When approached for comment, a Stonewall spokesperson said: “More than a third of LGBTQ+ staff (35 per cent) hide who they are at work, while one in five (18 per cent) have been the target of negative comments because they’re LGBTQ+. All LGBTQ+ people deserve to feel safe as themselves at work. That’s why we created the workplace equality index, a free and voluntary benchmarking tool, which helps organisations reflect on their LGBTQ+ inclusion journey and understand what more they can do to support their LGBTQ+ staff.

“As with any voluntary resource, organisations can enter – or not enter – depending on what works for them at the time.”

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