Meet the Leaders: In conversation with David Isaac 29 Jun 2021

David Isaac was until recently a partner in the law firm Pinsent Masons and a well-known advocate for equality in the City of London. He has worked in the equality and human rights fields for over 25 years in various roles including as Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Chair of Stonewall and as a Director of The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. 

To celebrate Pride Month, Kate Hunter, Joint Head, UK Higher Education at Perrett Laver, sat down with David to discuss his career so far, his views on diverse leadership and his imminent appointment as Provost of Worcester College, Oxford.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today, David. First, could you tell me what attracted you to your new role at Worcester College?

I have been a solicitor for my whole professional life and I was keen to find an exciting new challenge as I retired from law. Education was an obvious choice for me: I am the first in my family to go to university and a beneficiary of the transformative power of education. Using my leadership experience and commitment to working with young people, I am keen to work with others in Oxford to give others the same opportunities that were afforded to me.

It certainly is a fantastic opportunity. What are you hoping to achieve in your new role?

I am conscious of the amazing history and reputation of Worcester College and I am very keen to build on these things to create a forward-looking college. I am looking forward to working with students, fellows, staff, and alumni to ensure that Worcester is a college fit for the 21st century. By that I mean, retaining the best traditions and culture of the college but also building on the existing work to date to widen participation in Oxford. I am keen that Worcester College recognises academic potential in disadvantaged students, and increases access for groups that are under-represented in Higher Education.

You have had a very impressive legal career whilst also working with Stonewall and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Looking back, what are you particularly proud of?

I’ve been very lucky to have been involved in some exciting legal cases as well as many other important equality and human rights projects. As a young gay man growing up in the 1980s I was one of those people directly impacted by the HIV crisis. As a lawyer it was a real call to arms for me.  It’s all too easy to forget that it was then lawful to discriminate against gay people - for example we we had no legal protections in the workplace at all. I began supporting friends who were HIV-positive and used my legal skills to begin to advocate for legal rights for people with HIV and AIDS as well as the LGB community more widely. This ultimately led me to become chair of Stonewall, during which time real progress was made on achieving legal equality for LGB people.  A particular highlight was the introduction of civil partnerships. 

I am also pleased by the progress we made in improving diversity in the City of London. Working with others, I was involved in improving awareness by employers that for businesses to succeed in a competitive market, it’s vital that the best talent is appointed and promoted irrespective of considerations of race, gender or sexuality. 

These are very important achievements. Do you think that enough is being done to improve diversity and inclusion in leadership positions?

I do believe that it’s important to acknowledge the huge progress that has been made to improve D&I in senior appointments. However, I think that we do have more to do.  In my view, we need more senior role models from diverse backgrounds. Ironically we have made real progress in relation to LGBTQ awareness but there is still more to do to promote black and female leaders.. We cannot be complacent that we have yet done enough to appoint our most talented diverse candidates into senior positions.

As you rightly point out, there is definitely more to be done to improve diversity and inclusion. What do you currently see as the main barriers to progress?

Time alone will sadly not deliver improved diversity and inclusion. For that reason businesses must commit to regular training for their employees, set ambitious targets and engage in honest dialogue to understand better what will work in individual workplaces.   That means thinking about how we support diverse candidates, what criteria we use in creating our shortlists and how we encourage the best internal candidates to apply for senior jobs.  I am also a great believer in the importance of gender and ethnicity pay-gap reporting in driving change. I saw this first hand with gender pay gap reporting which was monitored by EHRC.

How important do you think awareness months like Pride are in achieving greater inclusion?

Pride is an annual opportunity to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and to highlight our achievements and the contributions of our community to society as a whole.  For my generation, Pride was a political statement about delivering legal equality and so I am sometimes a little concerned that it has become a very commercial affair. Of course, I love the celebrations and take real pleasure in seeing the rainbow flag flying on so many buildings across the country.  However, I’d like all businesses who fly the flag in June to ensure that they support LGBTQ equality across the globe each and every day of the year.

How hopeful are you that we can achieve greater diversity and inclusion in the future?

I do feel optimistic. 25 years ago, we didn’t think that LGB people would secure full legal equality during our lifetimes - and yet we did! Cultural change takes a long time but in my experience meaningful change only comes about when we all engage with the issues.  We particularly need to understand the concerns and anxieties of people who worry that improved diversity will disadvantage them or their families.  As Chair of the EHRC I was always keen to ensure that those fearful of change are able to express their views - as long as everyone engaged  in that discussion does so in a respectful manner.  My strong belief is that when people engage in this way, we begin to understand that everyone flourishes when each one of us has the opportunity to fulfil our potential.

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