Are careers still stunted by discrimination when it comes to sexuality?

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The Independent Online

While most people think nothing of putting a family photo on their desk, David Greenall, who works at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), describes the moment he put up a framed picture of his partner at work as life-changing. "For 10 years, I'd only told a handful of people at work I was gay. That made life difficult – I excluded myself in many ways because I worried colleagues would ask me about my personal life. But when I discovered the efforts my employer was making to ensure the working culture was gay-friendly, I decided to take the step of coming out at work. It was such a positive experience that I could have kicked myself for not doing it sooner."

Today, Greenall is a diversity champion at the DWP and chair of its Sexual Orientation Staff Network Group. "It's a big step from where I was, but I'm really keen to make sure other people feel able to be out at work, if that's what they want to do," he says.

Some of the recent activities he's been involved in include running awareness sessions for managers, raising the visibility of the network, and supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month in February, which saw numerous employers and public services flying the rainbow flag to celebrate diversity and the lives and achievements of the LGBT community.

Up and down the country, other employers have committed people like Greenall, who are undoubtedly largely responsible for the fact that even compared to just five years ago, LGBT people are more likely to be out at work. This benefits not only the LGBT community, but businesses themselves, according to Stonewall's recent research.

"Lesbian and gay people who feel able to be out at work, and are well supported by their employers, reported that they are significantly more effective, more motivated and build better working relationships with colleagues. Lesbian and gay equality at work evidently makes good business sense," says chief executive Ben Summerskill.

The study's interviewees, who range from administrative staff through to partners, identified that robust policies, employee network groups, senior lesbian and gay role models and expressions of commitment to gay and lesbian employees from senior leaders are the key ways of significantly encouraging staff to perform better – all things that feature heavily in Stonewall's 2009 list of gay-friendly employers.

"Ironically, when we first decided to tackle this issue, we were concerned that some people who were not out would be worried about us making the issue so visible," says Fiona Cannon, equality and diversity director at Lloyds TSB. "But what's become clear – and enabled us to become number one on the list as Britain's most gay-friendly employer – is that people are very clear about wanting us to talk and act on it as openly and confidently as we do any other diversity issue."

Beth Pritchard, private banking assistant for LloydsTSB, says the change in attitudes during her six years at the bank have been "fantastic". She adds: "It makes me feel really good to work here."

Encouragingly, Stonewall witnessed a 30 per cent increase in the number of organisations participating in its workplace index this year – 317 across 23 sectors. "That's despite the index having become more challenging," says David Sheilds, Stonewall's director of workplace programmes. "For instance, last year, we asked, 'Do you have a network?' This year, we asked what it does. Last year, we asked, 'Do you have a workplace champion?' This year, we asked what they do. What emerged was that many networks are part of the organisational structure. That's a real shift. In the beginning, most network groups were a space for mutual support and didn't extend to policy and practice."

Thomas Molloy, chair of the Rainbow Forum, the LGB staff group at Kent County Council, says that its network has helped enormously "in acknowledging, firstly, that we are a set of people who exist and secondly in enabling us to make changes that affect everyone in the organisation and beyond."

Indeed, the Rainbow Forum helped the council improve provision for families so that it took into account the specific range of needs of same-sex adopters and people in civil partnerships. In addition, the network helped the council celebrate LGBT History Month, which included an exhibition in the main entrance – thereby catching the attention of everyone from partner organisations to other employees and young people in Kent.

Stephen Golden, head of policy and strategy at Transport for London, says its network has come up with a huge range of practical measures. "For instance, one of the things they recognised was that if you're new to the organisation and gay, sometimes it's very hard to judge whether you can come out happily. So what the network proposed was developing a buddy system so that LGBT people can be supported through the coming out process. Rather than us saying managers should do x, y and z, the network has offered to take ownership in supporting people in a much more meaningful way."

Mark MacKenzie, chair of the LGBT staff network, adds that the group's membership isn't exclusive to LGBT people. "If a manager has someone who is gay within their team and they want to know how to improve their working life, they can join to find out more."

Some employers, including IBM, have amended their policies around LGBT issues to the extent that they walk away from businesses where a client displays discrimination. "We demote managers who don't get it," adds Des Benton, IBM UK diversity manager. "And we have a strong networking group, with a high level of executive support."

Networks aren't the be-all-and-end-all, however. Indeed, smaller employers often don't have enough employees to warrant one and even organisations, including LloydsTSB, recognise that there are other means of making improvements. "For example, we do research surveys on an annual basis on LGBT staff and we have lunches for LGBT staff who may or may not belong to the network, which are hosted by our senior executives," says Fiona Cannon.

For Rebecca Bentall-Lynch, an audit principal at the National Audit Office, the fact that she is a lesbian is a non-issue – just the way she prefers it. "Everyone is aware that it's unacceptable to have unprofessional attitudes about any diversity issue. The organisation makes that very, very clear," she explains.

Diversity manager Jill Morgan explains that the organisation's commitment to LGBT issues is communicated very visibly – for instance, through poster campaigns and via the intranet. "Among our headlines have been 'Don't leave yourself behind', so that our employees get the message that inclusion is key."

It's not just employers that have moved the LGBT agenda at work forward. The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment and vocational training. Meanwhile, trans people are protected by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Gender Equality Duty. What is clear, says Kath Browne, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton who has researched the working lives of LGBT people in the Brighton area, is that when properly implemented this equalities legislation really does benefit everyone. "One of the women I spoke to as part of the research was going for her gender reassignment and was very nervous she would get her P45, but in fact her employer had already put in place all the statutory requirements, as well as thinking through their policy. She kept her job and felt very loyal to the employer."

Nevertheless, she adds, "We also found that, particularly with trans people, they are very often unemployed or in unstable or unsuitable jobs because they choose to live in their gender roles. Others lose their jobs because of being trans. There is still a lot of discrimination out there and it's not just overt. People can be subtly bullied."

Stephen Whittle OBE, professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University, transitioned from female to male in the Seventies. "People have really extensive employment rights now, but we still find people who suffer terribly in their jobs. Research shows that 45 per cent of trans people do not transition because they fear losing their job."

Stonewall points to problems for LGB workers too. "One area that continues to be a big issue is the pink plateau," says Shields. "You just don't find many LGB people at board level and that hasn't shifted since our index began. Another area our recent research flagged up was the extent to which LGB people feel straight colleagues are informed about LGB issues. It's also the case that gay men have higher satisfaction levels at work than lesbian women. They face a double-glazed glass ceiling."

Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, says fire brigades have a long way to go – although not everyone shares that view (see case study above). "In my opinion, many of our brigades are institutionally bigoted. We have not tackled the last taboo of diversity – gay men and women, many of whom remain terrified about coming out in fire stations."

'It's so important for me to be myself at work'

Cathie Reeve is station manager for the London Fire Brigade.

"This is the fourth year we've been the number one gay-friendly fire brigade in the country and this year, we reached number 14 in the Stonewall Work Equality Index too. I'm not surprised – I've been in the fire brigade for 13 years and even back then, I felt able to come out. The very fact that everyone knows I'm gay, but I've still progressed to become station manager, shows that it's a non-issue for people here.

It's so important for me to be myself at work. I'm a gay woman and love my lifestyle. To have to hide that is unthinkable for me if I'm to do a good job. I like being a role model too – showing that if other people want to be out, it doesn't need to be a problem.

I'm well aware that some other fire brigades have quite a journey if they're to catch up. Recently, I went to our national LGBT workshop and quite a few people who heard my story said, 'Wow, that's great you feel you can be that out'.

We have an LGBT support group and I'm proud to be part of that. We help the organisation find ways of improving further still when it comes to LGBT needs. What also pleased me recently was the fact that our commissioner came to Gay Pride. Our top leadership did the march through London with us. That sends out just the right message."

'My employer was very supportive during my transition'

Daniel Hooper is a technical specialist at the Environment Agency who underwent a gender transition from female to male.

"When I went through my transition, I was very open about what was happening and why, along with the timescales. I encouraged my employer, who was very supportive, to surround it with a lot of humour, and that really worked. It meant that when mistakes were made inadvertently, it didn't have to be a huge deal. For example, if someone got my name or my pronoun wrong, we'd just laugh it off.

I work in an area of the business that is considered to be very judgemental and is mainly male dominated. But I've never suffered from any harassment.

I hear about many trans people who try to keep the fact that they're trans a secret at work. For me, that was never an issue because the psychology of such a closed life has never appealed to me. In any case, I think it helps to show others that trans people are normal people doing normal jobs.

The few people who are trans in the Environment Agency have helped write up the organisation's trans policy. The benefit is that it addresses our needs as we perceive them, rather than being made up by someone who doesn't really understand the issues. One example of the policy is the section on what is the appropriate language to use."