Laurence Gouldbourne talks to workingwise.co.uk about his working life, from working in job centres and the Crown Prosecution Service to leading equality, diveristy and inclusion initiatives and being part of the writing team behind TV sitcom Desmond’s.
Laurence Gouldbourne has had a long and varied career – in organisations ranging from the Crown Prosecution to universities – and alongside all of that he has had a successful comedy writing career, including for the BAFTA-nominated TV sitcom Desmond’s. Now Interim Head of Diversity and Inclusion at DEFRA, there has been one guiding principle throughout his career – the need to open up the workplace, and society generally, to a broader range of people and experiences and to ensure that nobody is excluded or held back.
Laurence’s first job was in a job centre. There he came face to face with employer discrimination when he was trying to match a Black jobseeker to a role. The employer said ‘they wouldn’t have the right type of role for them.’ “It was code, but it was clear what they meant. I was outraged that an employer could turn someone down based on the colour of their skin,” says Laurence. His boss explained that there were laws to protect against this happening and introduced him to anti-discrimination legislation. That was a turning point for Laurence. He became more and more interested in that side of the job. “The rest is history,” he says. “That sense of promoting equity, fairness and justice has been a strong tenet of my career.”
After five years he was promoted to job centre manager in Peckham. At the time the civil service had a special benefits package for anyone who had worked in the service for five years. Laurence decided it was a good time to go to Jamaica where he had family roots. He wasn’t allowed to work in Jamaica, but he stayed for around a year until his mother told him to come back to the UK and consider university.
Laurence returned and applied for several jobs. He started working on the youth training scheme, working with the job centres and supporting the employer-led side of the scheme. That involved working closely with the Windsor Fellowship, which helps young people from diverse backgrounds navigate pathways to educational and career success. Some of the employers were using the scheme to get access to cheap workers. At one scheme, for instance, Laurence could see that the young people were learning almost nothing and recommended that it should be shut down. “It was one of the first times in my career that I stood up and would not be cowed,” he says. He also worked with others to develop a complementary programme linked to particular work skills.
Laurence then moved jobs a few times, working for local councils in south London, until he got what he describes as his most memorable job at the Crown Prosecution Service. He had a wonderful manager and when she left Laurence took over her role managing the team. Two things stayed with him from that job. He ended up writing the first CPS public policy statements about how the CPS prosecutes religious and racist crimes. For that he travelled up and down England and Wales from Devon to Cumbria to understand people’s views and how the system worked. “It was great. I learned so much about myself and about the criminal justice system,” he says. At the time only a handful of the 6,300 staff – in total, six – were women acting as chief crown prosecutors, and just two Chief Crown Prosecutors [CCPs] were from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The CPS at the time had 55% women and 22% Black Asian and minority ethnic [BAME] staff. Laurence worked with the Director of Public Prosecutions to review how they were recruited, assessed, tested and interviewed. This resulted in members of the public becoming part of the interview panels.
Following an annual staff survey that included questions on morale within the CPS, it became apparent that in some parts of the CPS a job might be posted at 4pm on a Friday which was then closed by 9.30am by the Monday, meaning only those in the know could apply and many people missed out. Laurence persuaded the CPS to email all members of staff to tell them that if they came across any instances of this happening they had permission to contact the Director of Public Prosecutions directly in secret so that the CPS could stop that kind of behaviour. In just a year CPS morale rose from 43% to 71%, largely as a result of this change. “It was gratifying to be involved in this change, but it seemed something that was so patently obvious,” says Laurence. “It’s the 21st century! It just made sense.”
He adds that one of the things he learned from his time at the CPS is that you don’t have to win in a particular way at a particular time. Sometimes winning can be a slow burn and proper transformation takes much longer than a simple knee-jerk reaction. When he moved on he felt he had left the CPS in a better place.
After the CPS, Laurence worked as senior Equality, Diversity and Inclusion manager at London South Bank University from 2014 to 2016, as Head of Diversity and Inclusion at the National Trust from 2017 to 2018 and as Interim Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Queen Mary University from 2019 to 2021 and laughs that he finally ended up at university years after his mum told him he should go. He says both his experiences of higher education were very rewarding, but he feels there is a lot of snobbery in higher education, particularly when it comes to funding between the research-intensive universities of the Russell Group and others.
Yet even though he had a positive experience he noted a level of resistance to change, for instance, around gender equality at higher levels of some institutions, with self-interest sometimes making leadership teams close ranks. He wonders if they realise what the impact is lower down the ranks and on students. The gender equality issues were exacerbated during Covid with women taking on most of the childcare with a knock-on impact on their research and career progression.
Laurence thinks many equality initiatives are still seen as nice-to-haves rather than being central to how organisations operate. However, he saw signs of progress at his employers. Black Lives Matter made a difference and he thinks genuine efforts have been made at Queen Mary where around 40% of the students were from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and the study body is strong. Fifty five per cent of the staff were women and they made up just under 40% of senior appointments when he was there, but there was an almost equal gender balance at the top of the university.
In his position, Laurence was often lobbied by student activists. He tried to get them to understand senior management’s position so they could be more persuasive at influencing them and negotiating with them. He told them what he had learned – that they didn’t have to ‘win’ immediately and that there were different ways to achieve the outcomes they wanted.
Laurence has twin daughters, now in their 30s, and says his experiences at work and the debates his work has engendered have made them more political. “It has been a wonderful career and I have learned a lot. I realise my daughters are much more political as a result and I have learned a lot from them too, particularly about their experience of being mixed race,” he says.
But being a diversity and inclusion specialist is only one of Laurence’s jobs. Alongside all of that he has had a successful parallel career in writing. It all started with an advert in The Stage for a comedy writer. Laurence wrote in and was told that his writing was great, but it wasn’t funny enough. Could he have another go? He talked the funniest friend he had into joining forces with him. Together they became members of the writing team on the groundbreaking Channel 4 comedy sitcom Desmond’s. The 1990s series centred on a barbershop in Peckham that was the hub of the community’s social scene, with the majority of the cast being Black. “It was a wild experience to see your words performed in front of a live audience,” says Laurence. And, although his dad was not impressed at first, he later attended a screening and said he was very proud of his son. “I learned a lot about comedy through that experience,” says Laurence.
But despite Desmond’s success, there is still much to do to make British comedy more diverse. Laurence now works with organisations like Euroscript, an independent script development organisation, and teaches members of the Black community how to write comedy. “There is nothing that is more difficult in writing than to be able to make people laugh,” he states with feeling, having learnt from his own experience. He thinks a lot more has to be done to make tv and film more diverse, particularly when it comes to behind the scenes roles. Laurence is still continuing with his writing and is working with his wife and a former colleague from Desmond’s on a screenplay.
In all of his jobs Laurence has sought to move things forward, to tackle discrimination and to push for greater inclusion. He says one of the things that he has learned is the need to be constantly on the alert for things to move backwards as well as forwards and the importance of ensuring that change is sustained. “As soon as you take your eye off the ball that is when all the advances you have made may be lost,” he states. Speaking about the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, he says that many of today’s debates around sexism and racism are similar to what was happening decades ago. “A colleague once told me that if you live long enough you will see everything come back to the start, but just repackaged,” he says.