What is the personal impact of hiding your true self at work? As the world celebrates National Coming Out Day this October, we’re examining the benefits - both personal, and business-focused - of an inclusive workplace.
How would you feel if you felt forced to hide your personal life at work? When something as simple as displaying family photographs, discussing your weekend plans, or even wearing a wedding ring could reveal your secret identity to your employers?
It might sound bizarre, but this is the choice being faced by many LGBT women across the world, who, despite advancements in the field of gender-diversity, still face what IBM’s Claudia Brind-Woody describes as " what people call a double-glazed glass ceiling".
"Research by Stonewall and Catalyst has shown that women hesitate to raise their hand again and come out because they are already discriminated against."
The evidence is clear: an experiment involving fake graduate CVs, some mentioning membership of a gay student organisation, showed that LGBT applicants are 40% less likely to get an interview.1 And for gay women there is a belief among almost a quarter of those who keep their sexuality a secret in the workplace that to come out of the closet would affect their future promotional prospects.2
For bisexual women, the fear of stigma is even greater: 37% keep their orientation a nine-to-five secret.3 Perhaps then it is no surprise that 62% of LGBT graduates who have been out throughout college will hide their sexuality from their first employers.4
An everywomanNetwork member told us her story of the prejudice she faced as the only out LGBT person among the 300 employees of a US construction business:
“My first six months on the job were tough enough without me throwing my sexuality into the mix,” she explained. “I was a young woman managing a team of middle-aged men who didn’t take kindly to being told what to do by a girl in her twenties. In a bid to get to know my colleagues better, I began posting funny quotes and memes on the door of my office, and slowly but surely intrigued passers-by began to pop in for a chat. Over time I dropped into conversations that I’d been on a date with a woman – taking a temperature check if you like.
“In June 2014 I decorated my door with a Pride poster and several colleagues poked their heads in to wish me ‘Happy Pride Month’. Later that day an HR associate called by to say that I was no longer able to post anything personal on my door. There had been a complaint, and HR felt ‘one person being offended is one too many’.
I felt robbed of both my voice as an LGBT person and my successful strategy for building relationships at work. I felt horribly depressed and rejected.
"The next day a colleague appeared at my desk and asked me to walk with him. As we passed through various departments I noticed rainbow signs posted all over corkboards and pinned on desks by co-workers – many of whom stood up to hug me and declare their desk a ‘hate free zone’. I’m both happy and proud to say that over one year on, most of the flags are still up, including my own. It makes such a huge difference to know that I am supported and cared for in my workplace. That I don't have to tiptoe around personal relationships is so incredibly freeing."
For heterosexual colleagues, creating a positive environment for LGBT members of staff can be as simple as standing up as a visible supporter -
otherwise known as a ‘straight ally’
Barclaycard, UK Card Chief Operating Officer, Alison Berryman (one of the Telegraph’s out at work top 50 LGBT executives 2015) says it’s this movement that will drive change: “The minority can get together in a support network [like Barclays’ Spectrum] and strive to educate and deliver the message, but you make a real impact if the majority are with you. Women’s networks are increasingly getting more men on board because they can help us drive change; the same is true in the LGBT network.
I’ve walked the building with ‘proud to be an ally’ rainbow cards asking colleagues if they’d be happy to display them on their desks. They always are, and as a result and along with Barclaycard’s sponsorship of Pride, new employees entering Barclaycard for the first time can immediately see, without having to ask any questions, that this is an LGBT-friendly environment,” says Berryman.
In a more tolerant, accepting environment, it’s much easier for employees to share their sexuality with others - and the positive impact is clear.
“I never dreamt in a million years I’d be out in my career; I absolutely thought it would be detrimental and the fact I’ve been able to is wonderful,” says everywoman Club member Jo Rzymowska, the Managing Director of UK & Ireland’s Celebrity Cruises featured in professional LGBT network OUTstanding’s top 100 out business leaders of 2014.
“I’m a better leader and manager for being out. Previously I wasn’t being my true self at work. The reality is that the better you know someone, the better you work together, and that’s why it’s so important we make it possible for everyone to be open. For me, coming out was made possible through a mixture of self-confidence, and working in an organization where the conversations going on around me made it absolutely clear that diversity was encouraged.”
1 András Tilcsik of Harvard University (American Journal of Sociology: 2011
2 LGBT Diversity: Show Me The Business Case (Out Now Consulting: Out Now Global LGBT2020 Study 2015)
3 Gay In Britain: Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual People’s Experiences & Expectations Of Discrimination (Stonewall: 2013)
4 Human Rights Campaign