Positively promoting the L-Word

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Gay charity Stonewall is attempting to foster a new generation of confident and open business leaders in the workplace. The Pink News went along to the organisation’s latest programme to discover what leadership is.

In 2003 the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations were introduced, banning discrimination on the grounds of sexuality in the workplace.

This marked a turning point for Stonewall’s campaign for fairer representation of gays and lesbians.

Three years on and gay and lesbian people in the workplace are encouraged to feel empowered and comfortable at work, and Stonewall is still playing its part by providing advice and training for future gay and lesbian business leaders.

So what is leadership? Where does it come from? How is it sustained? The Pink News met some of the gay and lesbian talent being fostered by the charity.

The October sun trickled gently off the River Thames with a wave of expectation as 36 men and women from the business world gathered at the internationally renowned Henley Management College for a crash course in leadership.

Newspapers are often full of adverts offering readers the chance to get ahead in business or become a millionaire in a minute.

This was not a business for dummies type exercise, the programme was reportedly oversubscribed.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs provided the sponsorship while renowned Harvard Professor Martin Linsky led the course.

Large organisations such as the Metropolitan Police and IBM have been known to happily send people on the course.

Applicants had to provide a 200 word statement of suitability and already be credible within their organisation and at a middle management level with at 5-10 year proven track record.

Ben Summerskill, Stonewall chief executive, said the programme will help develop future business leaders.

He said: “Increasingly, gay people aren’t just expecting progressive employers to recruit and retain them.

“They want help in passing the ‘pink plateau’ which still makes them almost invisible in Britain’s boardrooms and corridors of power.

“We’re proud to be able to support next generation lesbian and gay leaders in fulfilling their ambitions.”

Equally this was not about taking over the company and creating some sort of gay conspiracy, the universal message of the course was that leadership comes from all sections of a company.

One of Goldman Sach’s 14 business principles specifically focuses on the issue of diversity. For this the bank has a Gay and Lesbian network led by Julian Robbins, an analyst developer within Equities Technology, and Paul Johnson, a derivatives trader.

Mr Johnson proudly proclaimed, “Goldman Sachs was one of the earliest banks to adopt anti discrimination legislation.”

Summarising the importance of safe workplaces for LGBT people, Mr Robbins told The Pink News: “The gay community is quite often an invisible minority.”

This is the type of ‘positive discrimination’ which Unum Provident’s Jeanette Killick, experienced when she

told her colleagues she was attending the scheme

She told The Pink News: “My boss was also particularly supportive of anything that might add value to my performance.”

“My own team however were a little more ‘cautious’ and I met with the usual positive discrimination comments ie: ‘Leadership is Leadership and whether you are straight or gay shouldn’t make a difference.'”

However, a quick glance at the figures paints a startling picture of the importance of promoting confidence within gay and lesbian employees.

In 1993 Stonewall conducted a survey of over 2,000 lesbians, gay men and bisexuals titled Less Equal Than Others.

It found that 1 in 4 had avoided certain jobs, careers or employers for fear of discrimination because of their sexuality.

Two thirds of respondents who were working concealed their sexuality from people they worked with. 19% concealed their sexuality from some people.

Only 11% of all respondents never concealed their sexuality at work.

In 1999 research by the Trades Union Congress discovered that out of 450 lesbian, gay or bisexual trade unionists, 44% reported that they had suffered discrimination because of their sexuality.

A 1995 study by the Social and Community Planning Research Council came to a similar conclusion.

It found that 32% of gay and lesbian employees had kept their sexual orientation a secret.

It is these types of experiences and feeling that organisations such as Stonewall are trying to change.

Day One started with coffee and a swift registration while delegates met and networked.

The theme of the first unit was “Defining leadership for the rising gay professional.”

The first session started with delegates nervously sitting round a table fixated on Mr Linsky.

It was like that first day of university when you don’t really know who to talk to yet or where to sit in fear of missing out on the cool clique or being partnered with the class idiot.

The first lecture was “What it means to exercise leadership,” a skill Annabelle Willox, 31, an Assistant Registrar at Cardiff University had already shown.

She previously persuaded her employer about the benefits of becoming Wales’ first Diversity Champion by signing up to Stonewalls’ equality criteria.

She went on the course to turn her academic knowledge into business acumen. She called the experience “eye opening.”

Ms Willox, from Newport, South Wales, says she would like to be a university vice chancellor or chief executive of a Local Authority.

“The course helps you realise your role in relation to others and to how you can help develop the organisation.

“You discover what authority actually means, and learn how to deal with the constraints.”

By lunch the group had bonded and were ready for more.

The second unit covered the technical problems and challenges of leadership followed by smaller workshops and a session on essential skills for leadership.

This is one area Procter and Gamble’s Dr Alfred Wong, 38, really appreciated. He warns that leading can be a “risky business.”

He attended the course for the networking opportunities and to learn a “different approach to business.”

He lives in London and hopes to pursue a senior scientific research management role.

The Research Development Section Manager said employees should tread carefully when enacting change, “My biggest discovery was the importance for a leader to choose the right approach to push boundaries, based on a clear understanding of their authority and the potential discomfort that a change can induce in an organisation.”

Working for an investment bank, Lehman Brother’s Richard Burton, 40, knows all about risks. Mr Burton is Executive Director of the Fixed Income Technology Analytics department at Lehman Brothers.

He knew what to expect having previously worked as diversity champion for the bank with Stonewall programme as he had worked with the organisation as a gay and lesbian champion for the bank.

Mr Burton said the programme made him change the way he wants to drive forward diversity at work and plans to challenge the norms in the workplace.

Day Two took a more practical approach, putting the theory participants had learnt into practice.

It was an earlier start to provide time for questions from previous day.

The theme of the sessions was “Exercising leadership for yourself and others.”

The lectures and workshops gave advice on the way to act and behave at work in order to generate influence.

It changed Ms Killick’s outlook.

Prior to the programme, the 42-year-old Head of Customer Care Services, at insurance company Unum Provident, admits she was unsure about the importance of LGBT issues in the workplace.

She told The Pink News said: “From a position of general ambivalence on LGBT issues in the workplace the programme has moved me to become much more active around LGBT issues overall.”

Ms Killick, from Surrey, says the programme opened her eyes to “a world of opportunities.”

“One of the key skills I learnt about on the programme was about looking at workplace situations from the outside, even when I am embroiled in the action.”

This was described by course leader Martin Linsky as “moving from the dance floor to the balcony to check what is really happening.”

Ms Killick said it helped her see things from other perspectives and re-evaluate her priorities.

She said: “The outcome from this discussion for me personally was a realisation that there was much more I could and should do in my organisation to support LGBT issues and drive the organisation towards true equality.

“I had thought I was supportive of the issue, but supportive is different to proactive and now I intend to be much more proactive.”

And that is where it comes back to Stonewall.

Stephen Frost is described as the architect of the charity’s workplace programmes which have seen large organisations such as the BBC, Barclays and Shell sign up to gay equality schemes.

He told The Pink News that Stonewall tries to make a difference in all areas of gay people’s lives.

“Stonewall intervenes in any area it feels it can make a difference, directly talking with lesbian and gay people with potential is something we want to do and influence.”

The programme will be repeated annually to give others the opportunity to learn from highly experienced colleagues alongside their peers.

Mr Summerskill was pleased with the event, he said: “We had hugely positive feedback from those who took part in the programme.

“We’re delighted to be offering this opportunity once again for lesbian and gay people to gain new skills and become the leaders of the future”.

Like all good events, the leadership programme ended with a champagne reception.

As the sun set in Henley after two days of gruelling workshops it was inspirational to see how so many people from so many different industries were united on the need for LGBT equality.

Delegates complimented the opportunity to network and meet people in similar situations and returned to their workplaces inspired, invigorated and joined by a common goal.

It is this recognition that they are not alone which seems to be their key to success.

This article first appeared in the December issue of The Pink News which is out now