Saturday, 17 March 2012

LGBT Careers Un-conference: Part one - Why do LGBT people need specific careers advice?

Last week, I attended careers development ‘un-conference’. Initiated by our own organisations LGBT Network, the first question is probably ‘Why do lesbian women, gay men, bisexual or transgendered people need their own careers development workshop? Here are some stories and views from our within our own organisation.

“We don’t want short-haired lesbians in dungarees running the organisation.” [Heard from a manager. It inspired the creation of our own network back in 2005]

"When I came out, I went from a star-rated performer to failing my annual review. My manager stopped sending me to meet customers. I was seen as an embarrassment to the organisation and to my team."

“I applied for a job as a team leader. I was told that as I didn’t understand what it was like to have a family, I wouldn't be suitable in the role as I’d be managing people with very different lives to mine.”

“As far as my colleagues are concerned, I’m lesbian. I would never tell anyone I was bisexual. I couldn’t cope with the constant questions. I was previously in relationship with a man. Colleagues thought it was OK to be homophobic in front of me because I was ‘one of them’.”

“There is a prejudice against bisexuals. Bisexuals are flaky. We can’t make our minds up. We’re viewed as being dishonest – We’re gay really, we’re just not admitting it. Why would you promote someone who can’t make a decision to a management role?”

I’ll start off by saying that I think I work for a great organisation that has worked hard to address some of the issues above. The people are passionate and enthusiastic about their jobs. I had arrived from a working background where I had been sacked in one job for being gay (It was 1997. It was still legal) and had to leave another job, due to homophobic bullying. (2003) This is the first job I've had where I've been confident enough to be me at work, right from the start. When I queried the policy around taking Paternity Leave to look after my newly adopted son, my line manager replied ‘I can’t give you time off. We’re inclusive but we’re not that inclusive’. I was shocked. It was 2007. She had simply assumed that the organisation would discriminate. A quick phone call to colleagues in the network to discuss, and we were able meet with Human Resources to change the policy wording to make it much clearer that the policy did not discriminate on grounds of either gender or sexuality. It quickly became a non-issue, and another success for the LGBT network.

 We’re listed in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index and have consistently improved our position over the past five years. In a climate where many companies won’t have a gay person at the top, our Chief Executive is openly gay. Our transgender lead has won an award externally and recognition for his work raising awareness, and improving support within the workplace for people who are transitioning. We have a supportive and friendly network that has fostered an organisation willing to improve its policies, create a working environment that is open, honest and is happy to be challenged. Our network is championed by senior managers. Whilst no-one believes that there is a ‘pink ceiling’ in this organisation, like many workplaces, there are small pockets where inequality still exists. Not everyone feels safe enough to be ‘out’ in the workplace. Consider the following.

Colin isn’t out at work. He attempts to minimise his difference and tries to remove characteristics that he thinks his colleagues won’t like. It inhibits his personality. A simple ‘how was your weekend’ on Monday morning requires a carefully constructed answer. Energy spent on projecting a ‘fake persona’ that only exists at work hinders his ability to think quickly, and makes working life stressful. When Colin is praised for his work, who is really being praised? The real Colin, or the holographic projection of Colin?

Not being authentic at work has a detrimental impact on confidence and performance. This paradigm was echoed by several people in the workshop who spoke of their sudden progression up the career ladder once they had actually ‘come out’ at work. Being able to be themselves improved their career.

We discussed how much of ‘ourselves’ we bring to work. How close together was the ‘home you’ and the ‘work you’? The idea of the ‘good gay person’, who didn't talk about it too much, didn't look ‘gay’ and didn't challenge people. Many of us volunteered for the network, helping to organise conferences, Pride events, lunchtime ‘brown bag’ sessions, wrote news articles, sat on committees which advised policies including childcare and supplier contracts. Would we be happy to talk about how we picked up these skills as evidence of CPD within a job application or at an interview? As an organisation, we work internationally. Are there issues about sending gay members of staff to homophobic places like Uganda? We also considered how the organisation might benefit from our diversity and what being gay might bring to our leadership – both positive and negative character traits.

Within this safe space, we invited gay speakers and friends of the network, coaches, mentors and role models to talk about their own careers and provide guidance and advice. The careers advice was clearly applicable to anyone looking to develop their skills and confidence – As this entry risks being unwieldy, I’ll reflect in a separate post.

The workshop actually left me feeling really confident about being in an environment where LGBT people are clearly supported to be themselves and develop their careers. And if your own workplace doesn’t have an LGBT Network, I can highly recommend setting one up. What I still don’t feel confident about is being supported as a working mother. But perhaps that’s a post for another day…


* This post is not sponsored by Stonewall, honest. I don’t agree politically with everything they do or stand for, but I do think they've done a lot to change the working environment for LGB people in the workplace, and I think it’s best to work with them, rather than against them. Peace.

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