Having honest conversations

Emily Towers and Hannah Jackson took part in last year’s Connecting Diverse Voices initiative to partner senior GCS leaders with colleagues from diverse backgrounds. In this co-authored blog, they share their thoughts and experiences from working together on the programme.


I caught part of an interview with Lenny Henry recently where he was talking about diversity. He said diversity is about fairness and equality for all of us – the majority, not the few. We all have experiences or characteristics which make us different, and realising that and sharing our experiences with others, so that everyone feels included is really important.

There’s one zoom session that I really looked forward to during lockdown, and that was with my Connecting Diverse Voices partner Hannah. We have never actually met in person, but despite that, have formed a close friendship based on openness and trust. I was paired up with Hannah because I had identified the LGBTQ+ experience as an area of diversity that I didn’t feel that comfortable talking about.

Listening to Hannah talk about her experience with coming out to her family, friends and work colleagues was really inspiring, and opened my eyes to the hidden struggles that some colleagues have to go through if they feel different at work.

We considered how we are advantaged compared to other people, and then turned this on its head to think about disadvantage. I identified that my background as white, middle class and having attended a private school has put me in a position of privilege. What I hadn’t really thought about before was what makes my journey different.

In the past five years, I’ve been through a lot. I escaped from an abusive marriage and became a single parent overnight in 2016 when my son Theo was born. Since then, I have juggled full time work with single parenthood, which has taught me a lot about resilience. This year, I discovered that my son Theo is autistic. His needs are complex and have become all the more challenging during this pandemic.

Difficult behaviour, which previously I had thought was naughtiness, is apparently a stress response, triggered by his autism. His head is wired differently from us ‘neurotypicals’, and I have realised that there is so much about him that I don’t understand and have yet to learn. I’ve discovered recently that he prefers bathing in the dark for instance, and you cannot speak to him while he is eating as he enjoys the sensory aspect of food so much.

Taking part in this programme has given me the confidence and space to learn, reflect and discuss sensitive issues like these in a supportive space with a colleague.

I’ve learned a lot from Hannah’s story about what it feels like to be gay in the Civil Service about courage, resilience and standing up for what is right.

It is clear that we all have a long way to go in making our workplaces truly inclusive. Mutual mentoring has an important role to play in contributing to that, by increasing understanding and tolerance.

Emily Towers is a Deputy Director, Communications in the Cabinet Office.


I’d never really talked about being gay much. Other than with my girlfriend. LGBTQ+ themes might come up in mainstream media, which we’ll talk about with close friends, but other than that, it’s not really talked about as much as it should be.

In the last couple of years, particularly following Black Lives Matter (BLM) issues in the news, I’ve come to realise that unless we do talk about it, how else will people be aware and understand better? I’ve had to educate myself on the inequalities that BAME people face, because I’m white and because I’m privileged to not know what that feels like. Listening to people’s first-hand experiences and how it made them feel, really brought it home.

Recognising this, I knew I needed to play my own part in talking about LGBTQ+ matters, so that others can understand what it feels like to be me. So I decided to join the mutual mentoring scheme to use my voice to help. I’m just starting to understand how to use it and recognise that I should use it more, for those who haven’t found theirs yet. To say what’s ok and what isn’t, because if I don’t, who else will? And how can I be disappointed when others don’t understand, if I haven’t tried to help them to do so?

It seemed an easy thing to do; sign up, feel good about myself for a few weeks. Then I got matched and it all suddenly became real. Who was this person I was going to talk to, about the part of my life that I often keep so private? What would they think of me and what if it’s awkward, uncomfortable? What if they don’t like what I have to say?

Session One came and went and Emily was so easy to talk to. She asked questions, wanted to know about me and my life and my girlfriend. She wanted to know how she could make a difference in her own team. She made it so easy for me to open up.

Suddenly I was talking about being gay more than I’d ever done before. We would talk about my personal experiences – where comments or jokes have upset me (and those involved had no idea); my coming out process; experiences like checking into hotels on holiday, and how I still have to come out to new people I meet day in day out because I “don’t look gay”. My family and their journey of acceptance, and also what was going on in the LGBTQ+ network that I’m a committee member of.

I was also learning so much about Emily and her life experiences from a very different viewpoint, with its own benefits but also plenty of challenges, that I wouldn’t normally consider. I also got a unique insight into Emily’s work on COP26, where she walked me through her communications strategy and the stakeholders she was working with. An opportunity that could have only arisen through this programme, to be exposed to such a complex, high level strategy.

The friendship we have achieved in such a short space of time, spent together via screens, is definitely the best part about this, there’s something therapeutic about talking through such personal experiences that has bonded us.

We’ve probably only just scratched the surface over this past year and I think it says a lot that we’d both like to continue the sessions beyond the official programme. I think we’ve both got a lot still to offer, to keep learning from each other, and I’m going to keep talking about being gay – more than I’ve ever done before.

Hannah Jackson is a Senior Communications Business Partner at NHS Digital.

    Image credits:
  • Emily Towers (1)
  • Hannah Jackson (2)