Is it safe to be out in the Square Mile?

Ashley Steel, the City's one openly lesbian board member, talks to Simon Evans about overcoming entrenched views
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The Independent Online

'Sometimes you know you're being peered at," says Ashley Steel, head of infrastructure and government at accountancy giant KPMG. "And I've gone through my fair share of rubbish. Thankfully things are a lot better now, but we still have a long way to travel."

The City's only openly lesbian board member and the only senior woman in the Square Mile prepared to be featured in The Independent on Sunday's Pink List of the 100 most influential gay or lesbian people in Britain, she is in a unique position.

While politics and the media have their fair share of names on the list – from Evan Davis, presenter of the Today programme, to former ITV boss Charles Allen to Business Secretary Lord Mandelson – the difficulty in coming out to a predominantly male and often macho and conservative audience means the pink list contains a disproportionately small number of City and business figures.

BMI chief Sir Michael Bishop; Howell James, head of corporate affairs at Barclays; Robert Taylor, chief executive of Kleinwort Benson, and the head of communications at Prudential, Stephen Whitehead, is hardly a list representative of gay and lesbian influence in the Square Mile. "It's a real shame that so many gay people working in the City still feel that they cannot come out," says Steel.

The lengths to which BP's former chief executive, Lord Browne, went to conceal his sexuality during his 2007 imbroglio, as well as a number of high-profile employment cases surrounding sexuality issues, show that to be out and proud in the City is still something of a rarity.

"Unfortunately, I think there are probably lots of Lord Brownes still out there unable to be truly open," says Steel, who came out to work colleagues when she became a board member in 2003. "I was fortunate to be working at a firm like KPMG, which is a relatively open employer. But in saying that, it wasn't easy."

Whether by fortune or design, a stint working at KPMG's San Fran-cisco office provided the spur to disclose her sexuality to her colleagues – a move that was by and large met positively by her co-workers.

"Having come out in San Francisco, I couldn't really go back in," Steel explains. "The experience of Silicon Valley and the States was hugely positive. And coming back to work in London probably made things easier than if I'd returned to a regional office."

Since then, and with a degree of reluctance, she has become something of a standard-bearer for the gay community – at the forefront of attempts to drag the City of London and the financial world into the 21st century, sometimes kicking and screaming. She has also counselled younger staff at KPMG who might be worried how a coming out will be received.

"I understand that people don't simply want to be known for who they are sleeping with; I certainly don't. But until senior people are prepared to speak out, other, more junior colleagues with never feel it's completely safe to be out," she explains.

Steel says that chief executives, gay or straight, still need to do much more to promote better working environments: "The tone at any firm is very much set by the top management, so it's vitally important that bosses talk about sexuality and improve gay and lesbian-friendly policies."

She adds: "I always try and get something 'pink' into my speeches, like this year's Christmas event when I mentioned my partner Angie – or should I call her my wife now?" Steel recently tied the knot in a civil ceremony.

"Some people are still very uncomfortable about being around gay people, so any chance I can get to try and dispel myths and alleviate people's awkwardness, I like to take."

Persuading companies to stamp down on the use of nicknames among employees – something that is more prevalent in the City than most other walks of life – is something that Steel feels passionately about too. "Even if something is said in an affectionate way, I don't think language such as 'gay boy' can be supported in the modern world. Many of these words have historically negative connotations. I think that only a dyke can say the word dyke, etc etc."

Despite her own and others' efforts in the private arena, the public sector dominates campaign group Stonewall's index of leading gay and lesbian-friendly employers (see the box on the left).

"I've always found the fact that people are more able to be out in the public sector rather than the private sector puzzling," says Steel. "I guess the public sector is generally further along the diversity spectrum than the private sector. They've got something of a headstart."

She accepts that overhauling decades of prejudice in the City, where views are rather more entrenched than the rest of society, is something that will take time.

"It will take a generation for things to truly change," she explains. "Senior management figures are typically of a certain age and a certain background. It will take a long time. I don't think prejudice against women has been banished yet, so it shows how far we have to travel."

Steel, who spoke last year at Goldman Sachs' "diversity week" programme, is a supporter of groups such as Gay@UBS and JP Morgan Pride, which she says provide an important network in the Square Mile for gay or homosexual workers.

"Let's be honest – the City isn't a meritocracy. You're only as good as your network. So I think it's great that companies continue to promote gay networks and programmes such as these to help people."

But with the City feeling the full force of the recessionary winds buffeting UK Plc, does Steel think that firms will shelve such activities in the coming months?

"They shouldn't and I don't think they will, because I think they are a key differentiator for employers looking to recruit talent."

David Shields, director of workplace programmes at Stonewall, agrees: "We do have some concerns that diversity programmes will be sidelined, but we hope that most are firmly entrenched in company structures. I don't think they are an incidental part of a wider programme. They are important, and companies that do drop them because of the recession will regret it in the future when things improve."

Breaking barriers: The Stonewall index

David Shields, director of workplace programmes, Stonewall

"Investment banks, professional services and the police consistently show themselves to be the highest- performing sectors in the list.

"Overall participation from companies jumped by 30 per cent this year. We had 317 employers nominated. I think that we'll probably have a top 150 next year, with more sector-specific profiles.

"There have been some real strides in the City this year, especially among law firms. I certainly don't think the City and business is the 'last bastion', but it's clearly not an easy area to be gay or lesbian. However, when you look at the next tier of management in City firms, things are definitely improving."

Stonewall's 2009 list of the top 25 employers for gay people

Lloyds TSB; Hampshire police; Brighton & Hove City Council; Kent police; Nacro; Transport for London; London Borough of Tower Hamlets; Manchester City Council; Merseyside police; Home Office; Ford; IBM; Goldman Sachs; London Fire Brigade; Barclays; HM Prison Service; Gentoo ; Avon and Somerset Probation; Cambridge City Council; Ernst & Young; PricewaterhouseCoopers; KPMG; West Yorkshire police; Staffordshire police; BT.

Curriculum Vitae: Ashley Steel

Ashley Steel was appointed KPMG's senior partner for infrastructure and government in 2006. She has been a member of the firm's UK board since 2003, and is the board sponsor on the issues of corporate social responsibility and sexual orientation. She is also a member of KPMG's European board.

Steel joined KPMG in 1985, having completed an MA in manpower strategy and a management PhD.

She was based in San Francisco between 2001 and 2003 as part of the firm's global management for its technology practice. She is alsothe global chairwoman for transport.

She enjoys hiking, cinema, and golf.

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