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Diversity in the UK's Intelligence Agencies

Daniel Lomas
Commentary, 5 March 2021
UK, Intelligence
The UK’s intelligence agencies have been criticised for not reflecting the ‘makeup of modern Britain’. But significant improvements have been made.

Diversity and inclusivity remain top priorities for the UK’s intelligence agencies. In February, The Times reported that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) was relaxing its rules to allow applicants with dual UK nationality, or with one parent being a UK national or having ‘substantial ties to the UK’, to apply. Sources told the newspaper it was just the latest move to access a ‘larger talent pool’, adding: ‘We want a diversification of thought, a diverse workforce, not people who all think in similar ways’. The UK’s intelligence agencies have been much maligned for the largely white, male stereotype, but how are efforts to widen diversity going, and what can be done to improve? There are certainly grounds to be optimistic, even if there has been criticism.

Identifying the Challenge

In July 2018, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) reported that the UK’s agencies were not gender balanced at senior levels and did not ‘fully reflect the ethnic make-up of modern Britain’, concluding that the agencies needed to ‘reflect the society it protects’. The ISC’s report followed another from March 2015 that found just 38% of total staff and just 19% of senior officials in the intelligence agencies were women. In July 2012, the ISC had also referred to senior leadership as ‘largely white, male-dominated’. Certainly, the ISC’s findings made difficult reading for the agencies, especially when compared to Whitehall. By 2018, 54% of civil servants were women. Of the civil servants who declared their ethnicity as of March 2017, 11.6% were from an ethnic minority background, up half a percent from the year before.

SIS’s Chief Richard Moore tweeted in January his service’s commitment to ‘flexible working’ and ‘diversity’. ‘#ForgetJamesBond’, he added. Weeks later, marking LGBT History Month, Moore released a short video statement apologising for the historical treatment of gay officials, officially banned from serving in SIS until 1991. The rules were ‘wrong, unjust and discriminatory’. And he is not alone in pushing a new image for the UK’s agencies. GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming has said diversity was ‘core’ to his agency, even if in October 2020 he admitted that change had not gone ‘far enough’. In his first address as Director General, Ken McCallum told journalists that MI5’s strength lay in its ‘diverse, talented people, and their ability to be brilliantly adaptive’.

Assessing Progress

Judging the performance of the UK’s agencies is difficult, given the lack of regular and reliable data. In contrast, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence releases yearly reports. But the data that is available on UK agencies shows growing female and Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation, even if the trend remains behind that observable in the Civil Service generally. Data released by the ISC in March 2015 showed 41% of MI5’s workforce were women, 35% of GCHQ's 36% of and SIS's. Two years later, there was some, if small, growth: MI5 (42.2%), SIS (38.9%) and GCHQ, having the smallest increase, of 35.2% (in 1995 it was 28%).

Historically, BAME recruitment has always been a challenge, partially due to perceptions, recruitment and nationality. In 2016, the BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘GCHQ: Minority Report’ found a ‘trust deficit’ and a general misunderstanding of what GCHQ did among some ethnic minority groups. ‘I think if people found out that someone was working for the security services, people would be wary of that person’, said one interviewee – a view that applies to all agencies. Nikesh Mehta, a former Deputy Director at GCHQ, admitted there was at times a mistaken belief intelligence ‘was a career for “them” and not for “us”’.

GCHQ ethnic minority recruitment has been stubbornly low, and a significant proportion of staff across the agency do not report their ethnicity in surveys. Just 3.1% of GCHQ’s workforce in 2016/17 were BAME, similar to the 3% in 2015/16 data. Just over 8% of MI5’s workforce were BAME, and SIS saw a significant rise from 6% (2015) to 7.7% (2017). Similarly, an accurate picture of LGBT inclusion is undermined by low declaration rates, even if the agencies have well established staff networks.

Diversity among senior civil service (SCS) grades is also problematic. In March 2011, the ISC reported that just 21% of SCS grades were filled by women in MI5 and GCHQ. SIS had just 12%. Figures on BAME were unreliable, with a large number ‘undeclared’. Overall, the situation has seen an improvement, albeit an uneven one. Four years later, the ISC reported a drop in female SCS grades at GCHQ (just 18%) and MI5 (21%), while SIS enjoyed a significant increase to 27%. Matters are not helped by the small number of SCS grades across the agencies, resulting in anomalies. According to the latest figures, 31% of MI5’s management were women, 27% of GCHQ's and 24% of SIS's. The number of BAME officials in SCS grades remained stubbornly low, with just GCHQ having any officers in this category. MI5 and SIS failed to record any BAME SCS officials.

Prospects and Context

Such figures might seem disappointing, yet hopeful signs are emerging.

As the ISC’s 2017 report noted, agency recruitment had become increasingly representative of the UK’s population: 46.8% of MI5’s recruitment and 45.2% of SIS new entrants were women, though GCHQ remained far behind at 30.1%. BAME recruitment was also up: 11.9% of MI5’s recruits and 9.1% of SIS came from such backgrounds, GCHQ at 6.5%. Of course, these figures remain behind the Civil Service generally and UK demographics. In 2018, about 13.8% of the population came from ethnic minority backgrounds, and 51% were women, yet the agencies have come a long way and things have started to change.

MI5 was named best employer of the year by Stonewall in 2016 and has remained in the charity’s top 100 LGBT employers. MI5 was also listed in The Times ‘Top 50 Employers for Women’ in 2018. GCHQ joined Stonewall’s list and achieved ‘Disability Confident Leader’ status in 2017.

Naturally, the intelligence agencies should reflect the makeup of ‘modern Britain’, yet the disappointing figures from the ISC’s 2018 report need to be placed in context. For GCHQ especially, the shortage of women taking science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at university is a factor. According to data from UCAS and HESA – agencies which collect information on higher education in the UK – just 35% of STEM students were women. Representation in ‘Computer Science’ and ‘Engineering and Technology’ was just 19%. For BAME candidates, working in Cheltenham, GCHQ’s headquarters (described as ‘less diverse’ by the ISC), was another negative factor. One remedy to the location dilemma should be the recent opening of the new Manchester hub, first announced in October 2019, at the heart of a thriving tech sector and one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK.

The agencies, only officially acknowledged to exist a few decades ago, are also prisoners to the past. As GCHQ’s official historian Professor John Ferris acknowledges, ethnic minority inclusion remains ‘painful and incomplete’. Nationality rules and security vetting saw only small numbers of BAME officials enter the agencies, even in the 1980s. Nationality rules and delays in vetting also disproportionality impacted BAME candidates.

On senior leadership objectives, it is clear that achieving diversity will take time. Today’s statistics are a reflection of agency recruitment two decades ago. Now there are undoubtedly examples of women in SCS grades who will be able to get to the top in future. But it is the current recruitment and talent management programmes which will make it unremarkable to see a diverse leadership in the future.

New recruitment methods and advertising have brought the UK’s agencies to a new audience. GCHQ joined Twitter in May 2016, bringing a new audience to the agency. SIS launched it’s ‘Secretly We’re Just Like You’ campaign in May 2018. The first advert, aired during the Channel 4 evening news, featured a young mother comforting her child. The aim was to ‘challenge the status quo’. A follow-up ‘Barbershop Advert’ was released on YouTube and Google Display in January 2019. Initiatives such as GCHQ’s CyberFirst have challenged women to join areas traditionally dominated by men. Internally, there’s also been significant progress on flexible working arrangements and the development of BAME, LGBT and neurodiverse staff networks.

There is still work to be done, especially around BAME recruitment and demystifying the work of the UK’s agencies while preserving the necessary secrecy of their core business. Even if they are still behind the general trend across Whitehall, there is much to be positive about, particularly around the acceptance from leadership that change is necessary and that the agencies need to reach out to new groups of people. Change takes time, but the UK’s intelligence agencies have come a long way.

Dan Lomas is programme leader of the part-time Distance Learning MA in Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Salford. He is currently writing a history of UK security vetting for Bloomsbury.


The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Noorunissa Inayat Khan, 1914–1944, Special Operations Executive agent in Occupied France.

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