A conversation with Fiona Bartels-Ellis about her background, her work
on equality and diversity in the global environment, and her thoughts on
future developments in the field
Equality Research and Consulting Ltd.1
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview Fiona Bartels-Ellis about
work on equality and diversity. An internationally acknowledged leader in the
field, Fiona was awarded an OBE from the British government in 2005 for her
contribution to equal opportunities, a Mainstreaming Diversity Award from the
European Federation of Black Women Business Owners in 2002, and the
Peter Robinson Award for Equality and Diversity Champions in 2009. The
interview covered her early experiences of growing up in a mixed heritage
family, why she works on equality and diversity, and what approach she takes
to ensure that equality and diversity are integral to the British Council‟s
international cultural relations work.
As the Head of Equality and Diversity at the British Council, Fiona Bartels-Ellis
is an influential practitioner. With 110 offices around the world, she has
thought hard about how to promote equality and diversity throughout the work
of the organisation. A big challenge is to develop ways of ensuring that the
organisation is sensitive to local cultures whilst maintaining a consistent core
message of equality, diversity and anti-discrimination. She is faced daily with
interpreting equality issues in different cultures in Africa, Asia, Europe, the
Middle East and North and South America.
Fiona draws on her training as a social worker, her academic background, her
equality and diversity consultancy work and her practical experience of
working alongside colleagues across the world. Her doctoral thesis looks at
the effectiveness of the British Council‟s Global Diversity Network, which she
Equality Research and Consulting is a spin-out company of Royal Holloway, University of London
Fiona is frequently invited to speak at conferences and seminars on how she
develops equality across a global network. This interview provides a vehicle
for her words to reach an even wider audience.
I would like to ask you to talk about your early influences and when you
began to think about equality and diversity in your life.
I have a background of what I would call difference. I have a white English
father who went to Africa to work. He met and married my mother, a black
Ghanaian woman and I and my siblings were born in Ghana. I grew up
between two distinct cultural influences of Africa and England. So, I have a
background of dual heritage, mixed parentage. African was the predominant
one because my parents were based there. But I also had other influences,
because we travelled quite a lot. As children we experienced schooling in
Ghana, in the Canary Islands, the Caribbean and then in the UK. And so, in
many respects we had a sort of „outsider‟ position. And a mix of cultures and
cultural difference surrounded us and how we lived our lives. We encountered
newness and difference through a lot of travelling and even while we were in
Ghana, because we were a mixed family and that was untypical there at that
time - I was born in the 1950s, so this was late 1940s/early 1950s. I was about
six when we went to the Canary Islands and about seven and a half when I
came to a boarding school in England.
In the context of my growing up years, the coming together and living together
and interacting with people who came from distinctly different cultural roots
and cultural origins was a part of my life. I learnt to speak Spanish and I learnt
to navigate and negotiate difference in all sorts of ways. As I reflect now, I
think about the ways in which my parents‟ different cultural backgrounds
played out at home. In terms of the food they liked, the clothes they wore, the
way in which they negotiated conflict. My father was very respectful,
interested, excited even, by African culture. My parents were incredibly good
role models for us around cultural and ethnic difference. My father told us, he
was always interested in overseas, in the foreign lands. And so he never
wanted to settle back in England. Even when we were in England they moved
around and lived in different parts. So, having had homes around the world
has been a part of my life and I have grown up with difference and have had
very positive experiences of difference.
However, I do know about my mum‟s encounters of experiencing prejudice in
England. She tells us of a time when she was standing outside Selfridge‟s
with my sister and myself and she was called a prostitute because she had
these two mixed race children. And at school in this country I remember
vividly one of the Sisters telling me “you are not in the jungle now, you know”,
amongst other experiences. I think that the negative aspects of those early
experiences of being different really sensitized me. It helped develop my
empathy and my understanding of what it feels like firsthand to be
marginalised, to face hostility, to face discrimination.
Can you say a bit about leaving school and your early working life?
I particularly identified with the vulnerability of children, because I had been at
boarding school from a very young age. And I felt in touch with the
vulnerability of being a child, and with how vulnerable children are to adults.
So, I wanted to do work that actually engaged with children. I considered
several options, including the law, and ended up doing residential social work
and working with young people. In the 1970s, the social work profession was
one of the more liberal professions of the time, although there was of course
racism, particularly in seeing black families as dysfunctional. I recall working in
a school for children who were deemed then as „educationally subnormal‟.
The managers described me as „abrasive‟ although they tolerated this as I
was considered to be very good with the children.
I married young and went and lived in St. Lucia, a country that I had never
lived and worked in. And I remember walking down, walking in the capital and
people saying: „African woman‟ in the street and people talked in negative
terms about me being African. I lived there for another two and a half years. I
then came back to the UK and worked in Islington.
What was your first job in the UK after qualifying as a social worker?
My first job after qualifying was in Westminster Social Services as a Deputy of
a short-term intermediate children‟s home in West London. The Race
Relations Act was being implemented and people were getting more
sensitized through race awareness training. On some levels it was a good
time. You didn‟t feel your colour was a big barrier. And the concept of anti-
racist practice and being active really began to be mainstream. I did an
Advanced Diploma in Social Work, Children and Families, at Goldsmiths
College. And I had to do consultancy as part of that. So, I started to do
training for social workers around working with black children and families.
Then, in the early 1990s I went into the area of training and development. I
was managing professional social work training within Hackney, a very
multicultural borough of London. I worked for the Social Services in Hackney
for a long time. They were very forward-looking around the whole area of
equality and inclusion and I think that the Council tried to respond to the
diversity of the population. As workers many of us were fully engaged in that,
and doing some really innovative work around black perspectives. For
example, they were taking positive action focussed on trying to recruit black
workers. I think they challenged the notion of dysfunctional families and the
nuclear family as „the right one‟ and did a lot of groundbreaking work around
supporting same-race placements and challenging transracial adoption, which
until then had been the norm. I sat on a fostering panel and was contributing
to some of that work. The services that Hackney offered were purposively
culturally sensitive. So, for example, we respected that parents who were
Jehovah‟s Witnesses did not want birthdays celebrated and we did not make
them feel that they were weird or bad to their children for denying them those
experiences, whatever our own personal position was. These are minor
things, but something like that is so ingrained in our culture, that a birthday is
a special time and it should be celebrated. We ran authority-wide awareness
sessions on different cultures, based on fundamental information about the
key ethnic communities that formed Hackney. And we did very small things, at
the time it does not seem like a big deal, but our nurseries had black dolls in
them. When we were doing child protection and we were trying to get children
to talk about their experiences, we used things to support that process that
reflected them and where they were. So, if we were trying to get kids to talk
about abuse that they had experienced, we would use little figurines that were
not white figurines; we strove, when we were doing family therapy work, to
have a black therapist in the pair of case workers, without making it artificial;
we were serious about translating things into different languages and
providing access to interpreters; we thought about the holy days of different
communities and tried to factor that into the casework; we recognised that
different families ascribe different levels of responsibility to children. Context is
everything, but we tried to bring that thinking, of not looking at things through
a narrow cultural lens.
Such was the reputation of Hackney that we did consultancy work with other
social work departments around the country. Much of it in the early days was
co-working and I did this with a guru in the field of social work and child
protection, Margaret Adcock. We did quite a lot of identity work with young
people, and expert witness work in transracial placements. I remember this
black boy who said that when he was young he used to plot how to be white.
And he had come up with a plan. And he said this plan was going to work.
And the plan was to jump in a fire, get burnt all over, and when he picked the
scabs off he would be white. Now, that story illustrates what we were dealing
with in the field of social work around transracial placements. Many black kids
had a very negative sense of their identity. Having said that, some of the white
parents were very sensitive to this. I remember being asked to do a piece of
work with a black child in London. The parents, who were white, had been
short-term foster parents and had fostered this boy and wanted to adopt him.
They expected me to say that actually the placement should be terminated
and this kid shouldn‟t be with them. But I said no, I felt that that they were
living in a very multicultural environment and these were very sensitive
parents. They provided continuity and stability for a kid who had had a very
disruptive childhood, and bonding had taken place. About four or five years
later the woman tracked me down and said: “I don‟t know if you remember
me. You did an assessment on us. And we just adopted him yesterday”.
I also helped other social workers who where having to go and do
investigations. We were doing a lot of work with agencies who were working
with agencies in other countries to find out about the origins of the family
structure of some of the kids. Especially kids who were refugees, the parents
were seeking asylum, that sort of situation. When you are working with people
from different ethnic backgrounds, people who are not born in the UK,
especially, you are taken into their world. You are taken out of this country into
a more international arena.
I was on an adoption panel for three years. That was during a period when
Vietnamese children were coming to the UK. So, that international
professional genesis, if you like, came out of working with people who came
over here who then became clients, whose origins weren‟t here.
What was your personal experience as a black social worker?
Well, it‟s complex, isn‟t it? Because there are positive and negative
dimensions to it. I was doing a lot of inter-agency working. I had a mixed
response. Some of them very positive. But, you know, you encounter a fair
piece of racism from your service users.
And what about colleagues in different departments and their
I think Hackney was very enlightened. The real challenge was when I was
doing this independent work, because you are dealing with whiter authorities,
that‟s the real challenge. That‟s a challenge. And you are going to court and
you are the only minority ethnic person.
Can you describe your move from social work?
It was a natural move, because in doing my Advanced Course I had to do
consultancy and training skills and so I moved into that area, really. And I felt
able, through providing training and development, to influence the knowledge,
skills and attitudes that social workers bring to their work with incredibly
vulnerable, troubled people. People who are strongly socially excluded, who
are in poverty, who have had really, really difficult beginnings. The majority of
whom are women, minority ethnic people, people who are refugees, people
I strongly identify with people who are treated unfairly and I am disappointed
with myself when I am less than fair to others. Fairness is a strong driver,
commitment to fairness is a strong driver. As I have got older, I have become
more political, I have understood you have got to pick your battles, because
you burn yourself out otherwise.
So, you decided to move away from that more hands-on social work?
I moved to higher education, at the University of Westminster as Deputy
Professional Leader, Masters in Advanced Social Work, for the Advanced
Award in Social Work. I missed the hands-on work, however I was able to
combine the academic work with other work, which was more hands-on. I was
an external assessor amongst other things; and I also did some mentoring of
When and why did you move to the British Council?
I wanted to have the opportunity to work at an international level with an
organisation having a global impact. I felt that the British Council was serious
about equality and diversity and these are indivisible from the focus of the
organisation‟s work, which is cultural relations. The organisation was at a
stage where there was an opportunity to build on the work that had been
developed internally in the UK and there was now a chance to internationalise
the work. I thought I was going to be able to play a significant role in that
process and that was the particular attraction.
How did you go about internationalising equality and diversity work at
the British Council?
The equality and diversity related activity was essentially UK-based at that
time. So, my approach was to actually try and initially focus on some
fundamentals that needed to be in place.
Setting the framework
I started by:
producing a revised and up-to-date equal opportunities policy
introducing a global diversity strategy
setting equality targets
In parallel I began to think quite carefully about how to best approach the
inclusion of the British Council‟s global network of offices in our strategic
approach. And I decided very early on that the strategic approach was going
to be mainstreaming this in everything that we do. That then led me to think,
well, how are you going to achieve this? How are you particularly going to
avoid UK-centricity in this? The challenge is to manage equality and diversity
in the UK in a way that it is expected an organisation taking this seriously
would manage it whilst trying to transfer that expectation and those good
practice standards into 110 countries.
I therefore decided that I needed to formally engage colleagues around our
network. I proposed that as an organisation we establish a Global Diversity
Network (GDN) of colleagues who could work with me to mainstream equality
and diversity across our organisation worldwide. Simple as that may seem,
how you actually go about doing this is challenging. You have to think quite
carefully about the practicalities, and the aims and objectives of the network. It
was important to scope that out and to present it to the top leadership to get
Setting up the Global Diversity Network
I began by bringing together a handful of colleagues who represented a
geographical spread across our network, guided of course by the people in
the UK whose work primarily involved engagement with the overseas network.
And, an important dimension of this was to include both UK contracted and
locally contracted staff. Out of which we got a network of what we call
„representatives‟. People with whom the Diversity Unit in the UK can work to
ensure that there is a shared global understanding of our diversity efforts and
there is a shared contribution to our diversity efforts.
The GDN helps us on an ongoing basis to be sensitised to the issues that we
need to take account of in the range of countries in which we work. For
example, just take the area of equality monitoring. This doesn‟t easily
translate across different cultures and contexts. However, sometimes people
think there are barriers when these actually don‟t exist. So, it‟s just great when
you see the quality of engagement around something like that from our office
in Burma, for example. And our colleagues thinking quite thoughtfully about
the benefits and the challenges of introducing what might be viewed
traditionally as UK good practice into their operating context in a way that
supports the rationale for that good practice but is sensitive to the local
context. It‟s important not to slip into a cultural relativist approach. To develop
in parallel clarity about where there truly are cultural barriers that it would be
wrong to try and usurp and where you should assert certain practices such as,
for example, communicating consistently that all our opportunities are widely
available to all sections of the community. It has been important to develop
the clarity about the non-negotiables. We make a decision about what are
going to be organisational standards and open up as far as possible access to
opportunities by communicating a receptiveness to an interest in our jobs and
applications for our jobs to all sections of the community. And sometimes you
surprise yourself. Sometimes there are candidates out there who you would
not have imagined. My response to any resistance is to be quite challenging
and say: actually, there are a lot of assumptions here. I am not saying they
are assumptions without foundation. Because I think, yes, comparatively
some groups in society don‟t have the same educational attainment and we
are unlikely to get numbers of eligible candidates, but nevertheless I think:
nothing ventured, nothing gained. I think it‟s all part of the process of opening
people‟s minds up. And I think we have a moral responsibility anyway. So, the
approach was to broaden the engagement and to establish clarity for the
organisation about what the problems were and how we might respond to
them. To articulate what good practice in this area is and in a way that can be
understood for our different operating environments. And to identify with them
actions that can be taken in support of it, actions that they think are workable.
An exciting innovation is our diversity attachment scheme. Our organisation
has often had a kind of one-way traffic, inasmuch as you get a lot of the UK
people going overseas in various roles and less the other way round, although
the majority of our workforce are based outside the UK and their role involves
promoting the achievements of the UK, so they arguably require quite an
understanding of the UK. I was particularly keen to have opportunities for the
very junior staff to become more familiar with the UK and the diversity
attachment scheme has taken off.
I do think the regional model that we have now developed has significantly
helped. It involves us grouping all the offices in our international network
according to region, so it‟s a clustering of countries within a geographical
region. That was an organisational approach which I think has supported us to
internationalise the work on equality and diversity.
How do you see things developing from here, for equality and diversity
within the work of the British Council?
Well we‟ve got a very useful and very powerful tool called the Diversity
Assessment Framework (DAF). It supports people to incorporate good
equality standards and to exceed these in the normal course of their way of
working and operating. It has really driven performance. I think that
maintaining momentum should not be underestimated. So, I do want to make
sure that our performance does not dip, and the DAF helps us do that. Our
future plans are not just about innovating, innovating, innovating. I do think it‟s
essential to be attentive to maintenance. The DAF provides a health check.
It‟s like a car. If you don‟t make sure that all the components are still going
well and you are just adding a spoiler and then you forget that: oh, I didn‟t
change the oil, or something, then that‟s no good. So, I am very keen to be
sufficiently attentive to the nuts and bolts of all of this which include making
sure that people‟s understanding is at the requisite level and is topped up.
Because our colleagues are very busy. All sorts of things crowd and come
across their radar and actually you can forget, this can fall off your radar.
The UK structure is very different from the overseas structures which are
about offices and programmes and the DAF is not suitable in its current
structure for the UK as a head office. For the future I would be wanting to look
at how we can measure our performance in the UK so that it‟s more
comprehensive. In the UK we have measured performance in reflective
diversity terms, how our staff profile reflects the wider population and
compares with other relevant employers. We set equality targets which are
only for the UK. So, that‟s been the traditional measure that we and a lot of
organisations draw on and utilise. We haven‟t been measuring the extent to
which we are pro-active, which I think our Diversity Assessment Framework
does, and encourages. So, in the UK we will be turning our attentions to that.
One of the things that I didn‟t mention in response to your earlier question was
the development of an e-learning tool. This was developed in consultation with
our global diversity network that we have rolled out. In the UK we have
undertaken more face-to-face training than outside the UK, certainly, in the
initial period and so we need to consider how to keep that going and to
develop the e-learning programme.
We have relationships with organisations in the UK and membership of
organisations, for example the Employers‟ Forum on Disability and the
Employers‟ Forum on Belief. We have a Disability Advisory Panel, which is a
UK-based panel. The organisation gets to hear that this engagement is taking
place and gets to hear the outcome of this engagement. So, for example as a
result of that network we get and share with the organisation updates about
debates and discussions and developments relating to disability, particularly in
the UK. Not exclusively, but particularly in the UK.
What advice would you give to others who are working in an
The advice would be to think about the different ways in which you can create
and sustain dialogue and engagement using the technology at your disposal.
Our global mailbase is one example of that. There is a user-led dimension to
it. So, it‟s not the responsibility of my team to keep it alive. People join it, with
the view to making their contribution when they wish. It means that a wide and
geographically dispersed group are able to have access to discussions and
debates. Those debates have included debates about, for example, Uganda
and proposals to implement legislation that discriminates against gay and
lesbian people and fosters rampant homophobia; about Madonna adopting a
Malawian baby; about the role of the niqab in the workplace. And you get a
wide range of perspectives through that forum. We also have an intranet site
and website so people have access to material and that‟s something also I
would encourage. We did some research on career progression for women
and some research on career progression for minority ethnic people. And they
were specifically UK pieces of research because they were distinct, but not
exclusive issues, but distinct issues for the UK. So, we are creating spaces for
internal reflection and dialogue in consideration of what could be done to
improve things. It‟s a sort of differentiated approach really, recognising some
of the things that are distinct to the UK that need to be tackled and those that
are broader, either regional or global issues.
What do you think some of the emerging challenges are internationally,
in the context of globalisation, changing political arenas, changing
balances of power?
I think that as the world seemingly contracts, because of globalisation and
because of connectivity, virtual or literal through ease of travel, I think you get
the challenge of a loss of identity and what that means for people in terms of a
sense of self and where they locate themselves. I think a challenge is how you
maximise the potential that comes from greater connectedness and yet
balance the sense of dislocation that can sit alongside it and create especial
I think the schism between the „haves‟ and the „have-nots‟ is growing. And I
think we are getting even greater polarisation out of which comes all sorts of
tensions and conflicts for both parties. I think for very rich nations, and the rich
individuals within the rich nations, and the rich corporations in the rich nations
there is an emphasis on protecting their resources and their power that comes
out of those resources. And the poor nations try to access more than they
have currently got and perhaps sometimes use unhelpful means to do so. So,
I think a real challenge is how to more evenly distribute power and resources
for the greater benefit of all of us. Because not doing so means lots of
tensions that bleed into all aspects of society including the workplace. The rich
countries have people from the poorer knocking on their borders. Whereas,
arguably if there were more resources in those poorer countries they wouldn‟t.
be doing that. It‟s all those big, big questions. I think managing inclusion is
very difficult. But in this global landscape I think the big challenge is how do
you reconcile cultural differences? How do you give meaning to human rights
principles and try to use them to best effect to try and effectively address what
they call cultural clashes?
I think demographic changes and managing demographic changes is a huge
issue. We have major concerns about population growth and yet some
countries, like the UK and elsewhere, are facing real challenges in terms of
ageing populations including those that are not replenishing themselves. And
so, the real challenge is how to get things in balance. We know that
unfairness, inequality, lack of transparency creates huge tensions. And I think
a challenge is, how do you reduce tension and conflict by encouraging and
fostering fairness and inclusion? And I think getting people to think beyond
self. We all have a tendency to retreat to self and perhaps not make our
distinct contributions to a more just, fair world by speaking up, by highlighting
things, by negotiating differently. So, I think it‟s the challenge of identifying
what individuals can do. What can organisations do? What can national
bodies, what can governments do? How can we use the legislation to support
us? How can we develop policies to support us? To travel in a direction that
takes us to greater equality and fairness and inclusion, because I do firmly
believe that they are most likely to deliver greater stability and reduce the
I think a challenge is to apply research and data in order to make a difference.
We know that there is a strong relationship between economic disparity and
equal opportunities/equal chances/equal access/equal outcome. We know
that societies where women‟s participation is included are likely to be more
economically successful. We know that access to micro-financing particularly
delivers positive outcomes for women and marginalised communities. We
need to put that to use and translate that into policies and practices which
then deliver different outcomes. We want people, irrespective of their
backgrounds to have a stake in society, to have a sense of being included in
society. Because that will deliver greater stability, greater security, less
tension, less conflict, fewer fractures along the fault lines of ethnicity, class,
I think we live in an incredibly complex world. And actually we don‟t do badly
when you think about the huge numbers of people who occupy it and the size
and complexity of our world. I think you have to wonder and give credit to
human beings that we are managing in the way that we are. I think we can get
really kind of depressed and say it‟s all dreadful, but actually, given the
complexity, given how many of us there are, I think humans have not done a
bad job in many respects. We have got a lot more work to do to make
improvements. And there are huge areas where things are terribly wrong.
Things are terribly wrong in Africa in terms of its development. Things are
terribly wrong in Europe in terms of the values and the attitudes and the
fractures and the fissures. And so maybe I am seemingly contradicting myself,
but I wonder at the order that does exist in society, given the diversity and the
complexity of it. I am terribly conscious of the things that are going wrong, and
I think we have to put a lot more determined, strategic energy using the data
that‟s been provided to us to make improvements and to make this a fairer
more inclusive better world for the next generation.
Bartels-Ellis, Fiona, Franklin, Jane and Slingsby, Magnus (2010),
Internationalising Diversity Management: The British Council‟s Diversity
Assessment Framework, British Council: London
Diversity Unit website, British Council http://www.britishcouncil.org/home-
Article published in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal,
Vol. 30 No. 1 2011