In the closet at work – The truth about life as a gay woman in the workplace.

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8 min read

People ask me “have you always known you were gay Steph?” 

Honestly, I don’t know the answer.  What I do know though, is that for much of my adult life, I have harboured a deep secret, that weighed heavy on my shoulders.  At now 46, and never happier, I approach my wedding in December 2021, reflecting on how far I have come with being the authentic ‘me’ since moving away from the corporate space.

I worked in corporate banking for 20 years, progressing up the professional ladder until, whilst in a senior management position, I left in 2017. Now I run my own company, Infinity Wellness, which focuses on supporting all types of organisations everywhere in shaping their wellbeing strategy and creating a solid wellbeing culture that helps employees to thrive and ‘be well’ at work and at home.

When you work for the same company for 20 years you change as a person.  Like many gay women, in my 20’s, I had relationships with men as I tried to find my way in life and work out who I really was.    From memory, I think my last male partner was in my late 20s. 

Living through a period of resistance and not acknowledging how I felt was very difficult.  As a child of the 70’s, I feel a little like I was caught between the varying decades of non-acceptance of gay women in society to a more accepting period that developed in the late 90’s to 00’s.Looking back, I am sure this had an impact on not coming out in my younger years.

Throughout my career I have often been asked about my relationship status

Colleagues would always ask about relationships, “are you married” or “do you have a boyfriend.”  The word ‘partner’ didn’t get used in this context in the way it does today.  These questions often made me feel vulnerable and I began to accept myself for who I was inwardly but not outwardly to others. 

I remember that every time I met someone new at work, I would dread it.  “Here it comes, the inevitable ‘relationship’ question.” My response, most times would be to say I was single.  But there were times that I would say, I was ‘seeing someone’ or ‘dating’ and I would always say it was a guy as I was so scared about how I would be accepted if I told them the truth.

One of the hardest things to come to terms with during my corporate years was knowing that people were talking about me.  Now let’s just pause for a moment, this isn’t paranoia.  I know that people were talking about me because since leaving the company, those closest to me have told me. 

It’s almost like those who cared wanted to support me but didn’t know how to.  Not everyone I worked with had good intentions.  I remember being embarrassed, upset, and disappointed because of a gift that I was given in a secret Santa which was inappropriate.  The whole team surrounded me watching me open it and then laughed at me.  I felt like a 6-year-old in the playground again without any friends. 

Just before I left the company in 2017, I did open up to those closest to me.  These people were professional, caring and kind.  They didn’t ask me any questions but simply wished me well.  It was this team of people that looking back, I wish I had been more honest and open with.  Of all of the colleagues I had there over a long period of time, it’s also this final group of people that I have stayed connected with.

What stopped me from being openly gay at work? 

It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons why but that feeling of safety, free from harm, not being ridiculed, or asked too many questions is what I needed, then. 

I worried about how my sexuality would affect my status at work or how I would be seen as a professional woman in a senior role.  I had no role model to follow and no examples of others that would help me feel more supported.  There was always a certain expectation in the organisation that we should behave in a certain way and I worried that maybe I wouldn’t fit the mould if people knew who I really was.

In the main, I look back now and know that a lot of my thoughts and fears were just that, thoughts.  Apart from the odd embarrassment or what felt like pressure questioning this was all about me not being able to find the right words to tell the people

The world has moved on a little now, and so have I.  I talk more openly, I occasionally post pictures with my partner, and I am proud to tell anyone that we can’t wait get married. 

I know there are a lot of people like me, in the workplace, struggling to be their authentic self.  I know it’s hard to find the words and the LGBTQIA community are fearful of the repercussions of coming out in the workplace.

I know too that colleagues of LGBTQIA also need help in developing compassion-based conversations and need support in learning empathy skills.  Let’s face it, it must have been difficult for the people I worked with to build a relationship with me when at times I must have seemed so closed down to them. 

So how can workplace leaders shape an open and safe space for LGBTQIA colleagues to feel ok about being who they are, without boundaries, and what are the benefits?

There are some fundamental questions that businesses of all sizes need to ask themselves.

  • Does your organisation have a clear mission when it comes to the LGBTQIA and D&I agenda and do they talk about it? 
  • Do all colleagues have an opportunity to get involved in the discussion and do your colleagues understand the benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce?
  • Does the D&I agenda get talked about regularly or does the rainbow carpet get rolled out in June each year to support pride month?
  • Where do you hang out as a team and what’s the environment like for nurturing open, community-based discussions? 
  • Are your team building sessions off site in stuffy hotels or relaxed spaces that allow all colleagues to be ‘themselves.
  • Is discrimination taken seriously? 
  • Does the organisation have a strong anti-discrimination policy that they stand by firmly and follow through on, no matter what? 
  • Do colleagues feel safe to report workplace discrimination and are the routes to do so clear, easy to understand and navigate?
  • What’s the Allie strategy in the company? 
  • Do all colleagues have a place they can go to support their LGBTQIA community openly and be part of the wider strategy and movement?
  • Are Allies visible in the workplace and do they have a clear sense of purpose?
  • What support programmes and campaigns are in place to embrace the LGBTQIA community at your workplace?

If this all seems a bit vague or there is a sense of confusion, know this; the benefits of getting some of this right are significant for the future growth, existence and relativity of your organisation.

A recent blog from Amex said that ‘by making diversity and inclusion a priority in your company, you can help strengthen your team’s performance‘. The LGBTQIA community offers unique perspectives for problem solving.  For example, they often identify areas where the company has viewed a solution too narrowly and help improve solutions in a much broader way.

The more diverse your team, the wider reaching your clients become.  Where LGBTQIA members identify with their community they are able to bridge the gap between the business and the client.

According to Diversity best Practice the internal benefits of fostering a strong D&I culture increases productivity, engagement, and loyalty.  Improving collaboration, solution quality and even speed of delivery due to the capabilities and experience of the broader team.  Overall a strong D&I strategy enhances organisational effectiveness and creates an adaptable, flexible team culture.

According to Deloitte, diverse companies enjoy 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee. Inclusive teams improve team performance by up to 30 percent in high-diversity environments. One study showed that companies with diverse management teams had a 19 percent increase in revenue compared to their less diverse counterparts.

Greenhouse say that diverse companies attract candidates (and get them to stay). People are drawn to companies that show they value diversity and inclusion. Less diverse environments can also be hostile for those who feel they don’t fit in. When people feel cared about, and see that their peers are cared about, they stay (and they refer others). It’s a beautiful cycle.

There are so many examples, across the world, where change is taking shape and people are feeling more accepted and therefore perform at their best. 

So, what do you need to do in your workplace?

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