Fujitsu’s Steven Cox opens up about being a gay senior executive in the tech industry

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez October 14, 2015
Summary:
Being openly gay in the technology industry can be tough. We need to hear about more senior people coming out and being open about who they are. Fujitu's Steven Cox shares his experience.

steven cox fujitsu
Steven Cox, Fujitsu's head of public sector in the UK

Not too long ago I did an interview with NetBiscuits CEO Daniel Weisbeck, in which he publicly came out as gay and used the interview to urge other gay CEOs to be open about their sexuality. And whilst many may question why a story about a CEO being gay is featured on an enterprise technology website, the overwhelming response proved why it is important to bring these stories to the fore.

The technology industry is consistently perceived to be one that is run by white, heterosexual men. The fact that we can only reference a couple of openly gay CEOS and that discrimination and sexism continue to prevail, suggests that there is plenty more work to be done in creating an open, inclusive and equal industry.

Not that it’s all bad. But for an industry that is meant to be forward looking, there is plenty of room for improvement.

Talking and writing about the experiences of being gay, bi, transgender, or whatever else you may identify yourself as, and working in the technology industry is important because it shows people that they are not alone and that more can be done to improve on the status quo. It also puts pressure on those that aren’t taking action.

Which is why I jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Steven Cox - Fujitsu’s head of public sector here in the UK. Cox has been at Fujitsu for nearly 20 years, but only decided to be open about his sexuality three or so years ago. Cox’s story about coming out serves as a strong reminder that having to ‘come out’ at work is a stressful experience, but one that can be extremely positive in the right environment.

Cox has since worked hard with Fujitsu to build a supportive LGBTI network - called Shine - which is actively involved in the community and works to make people feel that it’s okay to be open about who you are at the office. Cox said:

I joined Fujitsu 19 and a bit years ago in our defence business and that’s not an environment where you’re necessarily going to be out - so I wasn’t. And it was about three years ago where we started to talk more about diversity, inclusion and some of the programmes we wanted to run as a company.

The filtering

Cox explained that not being open about your sexuality at work can be a stressful experience - something I can identify with myself. Some people may argue that it’s easy to ‘just not say anything’, when in fact this leads to an incredible amount of pressure being put on yourself and to holding a considerable amount about yourself back from your fellow employees. He said:

There is so much filtering that goes on. For example, you go in and people ask you what you did at the weekend - if I went away with a group of gay friends, I can’t say that, so what can I say instead? What can I say that’s not a lie but not telling the whole truth? All of that filtering goes on and it takes away your energy and it stops you being as effective at work. I’m absolutely convinced about that, it’s made a big difference to me to not have to care - in a good way.

I’m quite keen that the diversity programme is about individuals being being engaged and supported at work - it absolutely makes good business sense. The business case stands up to itself. Even if individuals don’t get why we have to talk about gays, Don’t worry about that, here is the data, here are the facts, this is the right thing to do.

Cox also admits that coming out wasn’t the easiest thing to do - although it has benefitted him greatly in the long run. He took the decision so seriously that he first discussed it with Human Resources, in order to establish how serious Fujitsu was about being an open organisation. And whilst Cox suspected a couple of colleagues may also be gay, at the time he wasn’t certain and didn’t know anyone that was openly ‘out’, which gives you an idea about the culture at the time. He said:

It was quite a traumatic experience at the time to do it. I came out to our HR director at first and I started off the discussion by saying I want to have a talk, but just to let you know that at the end of the discussion I may ask you to forget you had this conversation. And I will deny that we had this conversation.

Because what I wanted to do is have a sense as to whether or not we were going through this as a process that one has to go through and therefore the company can tick a box. Or whether this was a genuine interest that the company actually wanted to pursue. I needed that reassurance because it’s a one man process. It’s an intense and stressful process.

It’s been quite a personal journey for me. I was running our HMRC business at the time - a £260 million a year business - and I came out in team meeting. I didn’t quite know how else to do it. And I couldn’t face having lots and lots of individual conversations. So it got to the end of the meeting and I told them they’re going to see my name associated with some of the Shine network work going on - so even then I said it indirectly - and told them I had a personal interest in this area. I said I was very happy to talk to them about it.

Shine

Since then, Cox has said that the experience of coming out has been “universally positive”. And that Fujitsu now has four networking groups - which focus on people with disabilities, women, those from culturally diverse backgrounds and LGBTI people. He admits that the company is in catch up mode, but that that also means that it can look to other leaders in the industry to see what they’re doing. He said:

So we started communicating about Shine and we launched the networking group and we have members now who identify as LGBTI and those that are allies - we don’t distinguish within the networking group.

We were in Manchester Pride and London Pride for the first time this year, so I was quite proud of that. We had our chief executive march with us as well. I’m engaged now with our global HR director in Japan on our diversity programme across the globe. To start to say, what are we doing to create an inclusive culture wherever in the company people may work? Within the walls of our buildings we should have an open and inclusive and fairly consistent culture, even if outside what goes on in the streets or in the country is a bit different.

Cox said that there has been instances of people questioning the motives or reasons for being so vocal

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about Shine and being gay in the industry, but that this shouldn’t be approached aggressively. He believes that this is all part of the education process.

Occasionally there are people who question things like being involved with Pride last year - I tweet internally and have a social media platform internally, and there are a few people that have asked why this is a thing and why we are celebrating going to Pride.

And that’s just part of the process of helping people understand, it’s education. But the reality is that if you look at the number of people who are women, the number of people who are disabled, the number of people who come from different cultural backgrounds, the number of people who are LGBTI, you are talking about most people.

We talk about this being a group of ‘different’ people, but it probably affects everyone in the company. I’m trying to help people understand that actually your children might be LGBTI, or some of their friends may be, or your close friends may be. It’s out there. Being more aware and understanding of it is really important. Allowing people to be themselves at work.

Advice

I was also keen to hear from Cox about his views on quotas and targets. Some companies have introduced ‘quotas’ to ensure that a representative amount of people from different backgrounds work for them - which is often met with criticism, with claims that this encourages positive discrimination. Cox’s views align very much with mine, in that there is nothing wrong with having targets. He said:

I think it is fair and reasonable to have targets. But it should be expressed as being an objective, here is what we think ‘good’ looks like. I think the danger comes in when it becomes so built into people’s mindset that they go out and do things so as to achieve the quota or target, as opposed to recognising the business’ aspirations. It’s negative when it ends up with positive discrimination.

I absolutely believe that people should be based on meritocracy. If we have got people applying for a job, I want a really diverse pool of people. For me, it’s about how do we get the right people applying for the job?

Finally, I wanted to hear from Cox about what advice he has for young LGBTI people that are entering the workplace for the first time and are unsure about whether or not to be open about their sexuality in the workplace. He said:

It’s something like 70% of graduates that are out at university, then go back in the closet when they start working. Not being out and carrying on not being out is one thing. Being out and going back is quite another. I guess I went through that. That is a big substantial step back at a big life event - starting work.

It’s difficult to advise people that they should come out on day one, because the reality is it might not be the environment to do so. So I think my advice would be that when you are applying for a job, seek to understand what the culture is like where you want to work. If you don’t think that’s the culture you can work in, don’t apply. It’s a bit black and white, but that’s it. Aim to be in a position where you can be yourself from day one.

My take

Thank you Steven. We need to hear more of these stories. Please do get in touch if you want to chat.