Championing gender diversity at the GDS

Not long ago, the team overseeing digital transformation in Whitehall was in need of some significant changes itself. Zara Farrar, leader of the Government Digital Service’s women’s group, tells Rebecca Hill how GDS reinvented its attitude to women.

Zara Farrar leads the Government Digital Service’s women’s group – Photo credit: GDS/Zara Farrar

Walking into the Government Digital Service you are confronted by streams of colourful bunting, post-it-note-covered walls and signs over desks that are reminiscent of those above supermarket aisles.

Tasked with spearheading the government’s drive to digitisation, GDS is championing agile working across Whitehall and the staff love to emphasise its open, accepting and laid-back work ethos. It certainly isn’t somewhere you would expect sexism to be commonplace. But as recently as 18 months ago, it was.

“The atmosphere here wasn’t great,” says Zara Farrar, a creative producer at GDS and the leader of its women’s group. “There were a lot of women that felt bullied in their teams, and not just because they felt excluded or as if they were stuck in a boys’ club.”

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Farrar, who joined GDS around two years ago, has been involved in the group since its inception in early 2015. She says it was started by three women who became concerned about the stories they heard about attitudes about GDS.

“They were hearing all this noise from various women, as well as being on the receiving end for a little bit of it,” she says. “They wanted to get all this information together, find out what was going on and set out a case about the problem.”

‘Sexism was rife in some teams’

What started as a small grassroots effort soon gathered momentum when the extent of the problem was realised.

“Sometimes it was people not realising they were being sexist, but sometimes it was more targeted,” Farrar says, adding that in some cases it went as far as women being passed over for work because of their gender.

She is quick to stress that not all teams suffered to the same degree. “I was lucky, my team are amazing, because we had a 50:50 split between men and women we didn’t get the same level… but some teams were absolutely terrible for it; it was rife.”

While they were gathering the evidence to back up their argument, the group decided to make a women’s group a permanent feature, for which they needed senior level backing. They wrote a paper based on their research and pitched their ideas to the board, including the then-leader of GDS Mike Bracken.

“Mike was shocked by what he read. He was completely and utterly horrified,” Farrar says, still sounding surprised by the emphatic reaction of the board. They immediately accepted the group’s proposals and asked what other resources they wanted to tackle the problem.

“We weren’t expecting such a quick reaction,” she says. “I think it was it was seeing all of it together in one place.”

After that, things moved quickly. “The next month at our all-staff meeting, Mike stood up and shared some of what horrified him, and that’s what paved the way for the group,” she says. “Then it filtered down. And we started to get a bit more vocal, and do more things in GDS.”

Among the group’s requests was unconscious bias training for all line managers, which Farrar says has made all the difference, partly because it helped people rethink their behaviour without feeling personally targeted.

“People don’t want to think they’re sexist or racist, so it’s pointing that out in a way that doesn’t make them out to be a bad person,” she says. “It’s so much better to have the education so you can spot things and self-correct.”

The difference, she says, is “unbelievable”.

“It’s masses of different things, tiny things, like the fact we have rainbows on the windows for Pride. We really go out of our way to celebrate our differences in ways we didn’t before. It’s a much more diverse, happy workforce.”

A new era

But the organisation is also in a very different place from the time when the problems were at their peak. The team was bigger – more than 700 people compared with around 600 today – and it was at the height of the push to launch GOV.UK. Is she concerned that if busy times return, the old problems will too?

“No, I think it’s different,” she says with confidence. “The way we approach things is different; we’re thinking about how we transform government from end-to-end and we’re working in a different way.”

And the shift in attitudes appears to be infiltrating all aspects of GDS’ work – its chief operating officer Alex Holmes recently told PublicTechnology it was trying to shed its “arrogant” image within Whitehall.

“Yes, it’s the new era of collaboration!” Farrar says in response, smiling as she acknowledges that it does sound a bit cheesy. “But we are in a different phase of work – it’s all part of it.”

Now, the group is working on upping the numbers of women working at GDS. At the moment 39% of staff and 40% of the board are women, but their work seems to be paying off, as 60% of all new junior developers hired since the start of the April have been female.

“There’s a huge focus on investing in talent at junior level roles,” Farrar says. “There’s such a big problem of getting mid-career and senior developers in, because there aren’t as many of them. So we want to grow new talent, develop them and offer them opportunities.”

The group is also working to make sure that job descriptions are gender neutral and linking their work with other agencies across government, as well as establishing a work experience programme for young girls interested in technology.

Farrar is also keen to stress that, despite its name, the women’s group isn’t just focusing on women’s issues – it wants to encourage diversity across the board. “The group was founded to look at a very specific issue facing women at GDS, but since then we’ve expanded on the work we do and who it is for.”

Having that diversity in people’s background, experiences and views, she says, means people will think differently about problems and come up with better ways to design and improve services.

“We don’t want to be a group of middle-aged, middle-class white men all agreeing with each other and patting ourselves on the back,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with being a middle-aged, middle class white man, but we don’t want the whole of GDS, or indeed the whole civil service, to be made up of them.”


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