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Stephen Frost

Frost Included

Principal at Frost Included

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Four ways the workplace has changed for LGBT+ employees

What’s changed in the workplace for LGBT+ people?

It’s Pride Month, so Happy Pride! It’s a time to reflect on how far we have come, but never forget there is always further to journey. The workplace has changed for LGBT+ people over the last 20 years. This change is not a given, however, and it’s not yet universal.

Leadership remains a critical skill to develop to allow LGBT+ people and allies to navigate complex social contexts.

In 2004, I joined Stonewall as director of workplace programmes to run a nascent Diversity Champions Programme. This was a good practice programme for employers committed to diversity and inclusion. Until that point, Stonewall, Europe’s largest lesbian and gay equality organisation, had been a successful lobbying organisation for legal changes such as age of consent, but had not really engaged in the workplace.

When we launched the Workplace Equality Index in January 2005, seven of the top 100 employers for gay people did not want to be named. When we launched the third index in January 2007, hundreds of employers were fighting to get in and be named and promoted.

In the last 20 years, the UK workplace has changed significantly and positively for LGBT+ people in four key areas.

1. Leadership: people perform better when they can be themselves

As any LGBT+ person knows, coming out is not a one-off event, but a lifelong process. The journey isn’t always linear and the ability to be psychologically safe varies hugely depending on social context. We know from research, however, that people perform better when they can be themselves and so we adopted this as our guiding principle.

In 2005 we launched the Stonewall Leadership Programme in conjunction with Henley Business School and Harvard University. It was striking back then how many capable professionals were either in the closet or asking how to ‘manage’ their identity in order to avoid it harming their career. In other words, there was very much a negative framing around being LGBT+.

The key success of the Stonewall Leadership Programme, and other learning and development initiatives since then, has been to transform people’s self-perceptions of their sexuality from being a hindrance to being one of positive strength and affirmation.

Still, more than one in three LGBT+ people in the UK report having suffered abuse because of their sexuality or gender. Leadership remains a critical skill to develop to allow LGBT+ people and allies to navigate complex social contexts. More people than ever now realise, however, that being able to be authentic helps client relationships, team dynamics and helps everyone to be able to be themselves.

2. Engagement: corporate participation

When we launched the Diversity Workplace Conference in a few rooms at the Queen Elizabeth Conference centre in Westminster, we had to work hard to get some corporate speakers and even harder to get paying attendees. The conference has now grown to Europe’s largest LGBT+ conference and takes over the whole building.

Attendees are straight as well as LGBT+. Allies are critical to the advancement of LGBT+ rights. In 2020, many leading corporations and celebrities are supportive of LGBT+ rights.

Corporate monitoring shows that declaration rates for LGBT+ are persistently below declaration rates for other protected characteristics.

Corporate engagement is also of course seen in Pride. Most major corporations now change their logos in June or do some other statement in support of the LGBT+ community. One financial company that has been a longstanding supporter of Pride is holding a companywide survey, followed by a series of virtual ‘fireside chats’ and encouraging everyone to upload videos of their story to share on the company intranet.

In 1999, LGBT+ people serving in the UK military could still be fired simply for who they were. In 2006 the Royal Navy became one of the first armed services anywhere in the world to march in a Pride Parade. In 2000, all military services including the Royal Marines take part in Pride. Whilst controversy remains over corporate ‘pinkwashing’, it’s beyond doubt that organisations have embraced LGBT+ inclusion in the last two decades.

3. Recruitment: war for talent

In 2005 Stonewall launched its first recruitment guide for lesbian and gay job seekers, especially graduates. The business case was simple – people shouldn’t have to go back in the closet just to get a job. We convened employers who were happy to accept applications from openly gay people with the understanding that they would be able to be openly gay at work.

There is still a situation of many LGBT+ people going back in the closet at work. Corporate monitoring shows that declaration rates for LGBT+ are persistently below declaration rates for other protected characteristics. The recruitment industry has now embraced LGBT+ inclusion, however, and not only that, but there are many niche and specific LGBT+ initiatives and job boards that cater specifically for LGBT+ talent. Whilst there is still more to do, the recruitment landscape has changed from being ignorant of LGBT+, to facilitating LGBT+ careers.

4. Black Pride and an intersectional future

‘Lesbian and gay’, as Stonewall was back in 2004, has now expanded to include bisexual, trans, queer and more aspects of orientation and identity. It’s progressed to reflect intersectionality in many ways. In their own words, UK Black Pride was birthed in 2005, when a ‘bus load of Black lesbians travelled to Southend-on-Sea to celebrate themselves and bear witness to each other at the intersection of racial, gendered and class oppression’.

Inclusion is coming into its own with the transition from Pride being largely a male, white affair to it being a diverse celebration of all kinds of sexual orientation and identity. UK Black Pride is Europe’s largest celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent. It celebrates Black LGBTQ and QTIPOC culture through education, the arts, cultural events and advocacy. In the words of Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives. Our struggles are particular, but we are not alone”.

We are not there yet in allowing everyone, especially ethnic minority and disabled LGBT+ people, to truly be themselves at work. Homosexuality remains illegal in 72 countries and is punishable by death in eight nations. We have to recognise the diversity within LGBT+ and whilst many gay white men have never had it so good, there remains work to do to allow everyone to be able to perform at their best. We need more active leadership and allyship, and more monitoring and measurement. Only then can we continue to measure progress – for everyone.

Interested in this topic? Read Inclusion: Tackling unconscious bias against LGBT+ employees.

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Stephen Frost

Principal at Frost Included

Read more from Stephen Frost

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