“The process is the punishment”: the policing of feminist thought in the workplace

Lisa Mackenzie

The policing of feminist thought in the workplace

Almost two years ago, I quit my job because of my belief that women are disadvantaged and discriminated against on the basis of sex. These views had provoked a breach of contract investigation and an intrusive attempt to police my private activities. This is ironic given that my then employer was a trade union whose aim is to represent the interests of its predominantly female membership.

In October 2017, I took up a role as a policy officer for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). It was a part-time position, and I worked the equivalent of 2.5 days per week alongside a job share partner. It was always my intention to seek other paid work to supplement my part-time role, but initially I was pleased to be able to concentrate on getting to grips with my new role.

Proposals to reform GRA spark interest

By the middle of 2018, I had become interested in the burgeoning debate about women’s rights and proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which allows individuals to change their legal sex. I first became aware of this topic from my time working as policy and public affairs adviser to the penal reform charity Howard League Scotland. I had received occasional press calls asking about the League’s response to transwomen prisoners being held in female-only prisons. My newfound interest in the gender debate prompted me to seek out the Scottish Prison Service’s (SPS) policy on transgender prisoners. First published in 2014, it states that the prison authorities must consider accommodating male prisoners who identify as women in female prisons and that female prison officers should undertake body searches on transwomen prisoners.

The SPS website carried no equality impact assessment (EqIA) of the policy, despite there being an otherwise exhaustive list of EqIAs for many other policies. So I submitted a freedom of information request for sight of it.

When I received the EqIA, I was shocked: it was absolutely clear that SPS had not considered female prisoners or female prison officers when developing the policy. They had consulted no women’s groups and a feminist campaigner later discovered that the document metadata identified its author as the manager of a leading LGBT campaign group.

The Census Bill (Scotland)

Shortly after that, in the autumn of 2018, the Scottish Government introduced the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, which sought to enable the inclusion of two new, voluntary questions in the 2021 census: one on sexual orientation and another on gender identity. Reading the draft bill, I was struck that it conflated the concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘gender identity’. It was obvious to me that this had potentially detrimental impacts on the ability to gather robust, high quality data on sex – fundamental to measuring and remedying the disadvantage and discrimination experienced by women.

The beginnings of Murray Blackburn Mackenzie

By now, I had begun to discuss these issues with Lucy Hunter Blackburn and Kath Murray. We had met five years previously, via our work on different elements of criminal justice policy, and got together regularly to discuss our shared interest in Scottish public policy.

We had considered the idea we might come together to research the wider issue of gender self-identification and women’s rights. Once we had read all the material on the census bill, we decided we would submit written evidence to the Scottish parliamentary committee charged with scrutinising the legislation.

At this point, I spoke with my manager and we concluded that it would be appropriate for me to complete a declaration of interest form, detailing the work I would be doing outside the RCN. With the benefit of hindsight, I am no longer sure that there was in fact any conflict of interest. In any case, this disclosure prompted no response from the RCN Governance team. I took this to mean that the RCN viewed this other work as unproblematic.

Kath, Lucy and I continued to scrutinise the census bill as it passed through the Scottish Parliament and in March 2019, Kath was approached by the editor of the journal Scottish Affairs, who asked about her current areas of research and agreed to take a piece for the August edition about the wider issues raised by the census bill and prisons policy.

The three of us worked up a draft paper and submitted it to the journal in late April. It went out to peer review and was accepted for publication, with a few suggested changes.

“Never in more than 25 years of going to political meetings have I felt the intimidation that I felt then”

On 5 June, Lucy presented some of the findings in our paper to an event on women’s sex-based rights at Edinburgh University. That event itself became the focus of vociferous objections by some students and staff on the basis that they claimed, without offering any evidence, that the six speakers were transphobic.

The event attracted a large protest, and the University put in place a heavy security presence, with audience members being subjected to bag and ID checks. One of the speakers, feminist campaigner Julie Bindel, was subject to an assault by a trans activist as she left the meeting, and her assailant was later charged by Police Scotland and subject to an unspecified penalty by the prosecution service.

The event was attended by seven MSPs from four of the five political parties represented at Holyrood. One of whom later remarked that “never in more than 25 years of going to political meetings have I felt the intimidation that I felt then”.

Staff complaint to Edinburgh University Press

Two days later, the editor of Scottish Affairs informed us that a member of staff in the journal’s publishing house (Edinburgh University Press) had raised a complaint about our article. In an email, the contents of which were shared with us, our views were likened to anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. This prompted a senior EUP editor to share the draft paper with lawyers at the Edinburgh University, on the basis that Kath and Lucy were affiliated with the university and subject to its ‘dignity and respect’ policy. The university lawyers replied indicating that this was a decision for the journal editorial board. The editor confirmed his decision to proceed with publication, with some minor textual changes agreed by us, explaining in more detail the issues and choices around the use of language. (A fuller account of this experience was reported in The Sunday Times last year.)

Whilst I considered that the Scottish Affairs paper was a very dry analysis of a policy process, I decided that I would inform my managers at the RCN about my authorship and the forthcoming publication. I shared a draft with my line manager on 13 June.

RCN investigation

When I returned to work on 20 June, I was asked by my manager to attend an urgent meeting to which I was invited to bring my union representative. At that meeting, I was told that I was being investigated for potential disciplinary action as a result of breach of my contract and for failing to adhere to the RCN’s declaration of interest policy.

I was deeply shaken by this, particularly as I had explicitly gone through the conflict-of-interest process. I barely slept for days and felt extremely anxious. I had been told I could not discuss my investigation with anyone other than my partner. However, I felt unable to offload on him because his mother had been hospitalised and placed in an induced coma following a severe stroke two weeks before.

Fearful of losing my job, I decided to establish whether it was too late to remove my name from the paper. At that point, the proofs had not been submitted to the publisher. Without being able to explain why to my co-authors, I asked the editor whether it was possible to remove my name and he confirmed that it was. In an effort to mitigate the RCN’s concerns, I duly removed my name from the paper. This was a decision I later came to regret.

The day before I finished work for two weeks of annual leave, I was interviewed by someone in the RCN’s Governance team in London via Skype. I was questioned extensively about the work and activity I undertook outside of my part-time role at the RCN, and hoped I had given a good defence of myself.

When I returned from holiday, I met with a senior manager and I was again accompanied by my union rep. I was informed that the investigation was not being progressed to a disciplinary action but that I was to enter discussion with my line manager about how to ‘manage’ my external work.

Circular conversations

I spent the next six weeks in a succession of meetings with my manager to discuss how the RCN expected me to approach my work researching sex and gender identity. These were frustrating meetings. I continually asked what guidance had been given to RCN staff who I had witnessed working on other contentious issues outside of their role in the organisation, but none was forthcoming.

But what frustrated me most of all was that the fact that no-one could tell me which of my views were problematic from the RCN’s perspective, despite my asking repeatedly. The paper I had co-authored concluded that two public bodies had failed to uphold their duties under the 2010 Equality Act and I had stated clearly that my work in this area was shaped by my strongly held belief that women are disadvantaged and discriminated against on the basis of sex, and that sex matters in law and policymaking.

The conversations went round in circles, as I struggled to understand how I might continue with my work in order to avoid being subject to further investigation. At what turned out to be our final meeting, my manager suggested that the best way forward might be for me to reflect on my ‘values’ and to consider whether my values were compatible with those contained in the RCN’s equality and diversity policy.

I was upset and furious. This was a tipping point for me: both the implication that my ‘values’ were somehow defective and the attempt to ‘manage’ my external work in a way that would undermine my ability to pursue it that was well beyond the bounds of what was necessary or reasonable.

“The most stressful experience of my working life”

The two and a half month period during which I was under investigation and then subject to a vague and intrusive process to ‘manage’ my external work was the most stressful experience of my twenty year plus working life. In early September, I concluded that I no longer had any confidence that the RCN would treat me in a way that was fair and reasonable with regards to my external work. I handed in my notice with immediate effect.

Over the last two years, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on my experience, not least because I know that many other women have had similar problems with their employers. I am deeply concerned that women are being harassed in their workplaces or hounded out of their jobs because of their views on women’s rights. As Maya Forstater’s successful employment tribunal appeal has made clear, this is unacceptable.

That it should have happened to an employee of a trade union 90% of whose membership is female was a bitter irony. I have always valued my own trade union membership and through this process was well supported by my local representative. However, when I asked my own union about their position on gender recognition reform in late 2018, I was told that “the proposed reforms will have little impact on the working lives of most members”, with no analysis or impact assessment to support that.

Whilst the investigation never proceeded to full disciplinary action, this episode profoundly shook my self-confidence, even beyond the point of my resignation. In the end, the process was the punishment, and the prospect of remaining in post without knowing what my ‘crime’ was was beyond the pale. It was only with the support I received from my two colleagues, Kath and Lucy, my family and other feminists caught up in this debate that I managed to hold fast to my view that my beliefs were entirely legitimate, uncontroversial and indeed ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’.

Lisa Mackenzie is an independent policy analyst and former civil servant. She continues to research and write about women’s rights with Kath Murray and Lucy Hunter Blackburn, with whom she founded MurrayBlackburnMackenzie.

June 2021

WPUK submission to Scottish census consultation

We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.