Diversity and inclusion can mean many things to many people. It can evoke an emotional experience when, for whatever reason, someone found themselves to be ‘different’. Or it can conjure up the moment that - whether as a child, teen or adult - someone began to realise they didn’t quite fit the mould ready-made for them.
I remember vividly the lengths I went to cover it up. So after finally coming out, to have a recruiter say only a few years ago ‘I’d take off the gay and LGBT stuff on your CV, it’ll limit your options’ was a stark reminder of the pressure to keep silent. I didn’t change my CV one bit – but how many would have accepted such dreadful advice?
Thankfully, diversity and inclusion is firmly on the business agenda. It’s obvious why – firms who take gender and ethnic diversity seriously outperform their competitors. This benefits us all – achieving gender equality would add more than £150 billion to our economy, and a level playing field for ethnic minorities could add £24 billion.
Increasing the number of women on boards, tackling pay gaps, ensuring starting a family isn’t career limiting, and recruiting from a mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds are all necessary and essential campaigns. But too often LGBT+ is overlooked. YouGov research for LinkedIn found LGBT+ workers earn an astonishing £6,703 less on average. A quarter do not reveal their sexuality at work, and most worryingly a third have heard or experienced discrimination. This is simply unacceptable.
Improving the experience of LGBT+ people in the workplace isn’t just an issue of fairness though. It’s also essential for the success of a business.
If lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans and intersex people can’t bring their whole selves to work, not only are they likely to take their talent to a company that does value them, they will expend energy hiding their true self. We can be forced to hide our private lives from colleagues and clients for fear of homophobia, exclusion, or being overlooked for a promotion. This means evading questions about family life, or fabricating answers to simple questions about what you did at the weekend. This can be exhausting.
Trans people especially face stigma because of a lack of understanding. Miserably, this means many choose to leave their workplace in order to undergo transition. No one, absolutely no one, should feel the need to do that. It’s a type of ‘triple glass ceiling’ – potentially discriminated against on the grounds of gender, sexuality, and because they’re transitioning.
What needs to be done?
First, just start the conversation. It’s not a taboo. ‘Are you gay?’ is the kind of question that should be as easy to ask as ‘do you have a family?’. Since joining the CBI a year ago or so, asking that question has meant I’ve been able to build a group of LGBT+ people and allies to form our Network.
Admittedly, it doesn’t help if there aren’t any senior 'out' role models to demonstrate that LGBT+ people succeed in the business. But that mustn’t stop the conversation being had. ‘Straight allies’ are essential and need to be just as vocal. Every employer, whatever size, should think how they champion diversity and inclusion. Larger employers, in particular, should make sure someone at the very top acts as a champion.
The next step is creating an inclusive atmosphere that pervades a company’s culture. This can often be the most difficult thing to achieve. Whether it’s drawing a stronger line in the sand on office ‘banter’; clear messages from managers about the importance of diversity; or strict processes in place that make sure recruitment is fair. All these steps make a huge difference in the long term.
For companies who want to go further, gender-neutral toilets, employee networks, bringing in external speakers, and dedicated training opportunities promote diversity even further.
Change will not come overnight. But if a business can create a sense of empowerment and freedom among all its employees, whatever their background, half the battle is won.
National Coming Out Day today is a chance for employers to come out and celebrate their LGBT+ employees and customers. Everyone wins if they do.