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As Pride Month draws to a close, what can tech sector employers do to support their LGBTQIA+ colleagues every day of the year?

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 27, 2024
Summary:
Life isn’t always easy for LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace and simply commemorating Pride Month once a year is unlikely to make much difference. So, what can employers do to support their LGBTQIA+ workers more effectively?

LGBTQ

While social acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community in both the US and UK is broadly on the up, life still appears to be less than ideal in a workplace context.

Data from a Gartner survey conducted last year provides some insight into the situation. For instance, it revealed that only 50% of LGBTQ+ employees in the US were confident their colleagues would treat them in the same way after learning about their sexual orientation.

A further 30% said they felt pressured to dress and speak in line with specific gender norms at work or felt uncomfortable talking about their life outside of work with colleagues.

The UK’s Stonewall charity has also indicated that more than a third of LGBTQ+ people felt the need to hide who they are at work. One in five respectively said they were either the target of negative comments or felt their sexual orientation limited their job opportunities.

Meri Williams, Chief Technology Officer at business expenses software provider Pleo, who is a non-binary lesbian, says that their own experience mirrors such findings:

The average experience for LGBTQIA+ employees has improved over the years, but it’s still not as good as it should be. Looking back 20 years ago, we’d only just gotten protections in the UK from being fired for being gay. Ten years ago, we were still fighting for true equal marriage, though civil partnerships had come back in 2005. And while these are big steps, we do still face everything from workplace discrimination to struggles accessing fertility treatments, making starting a family tough and costly.

Interestingly though, despite employers in the tech industry priding themselves on being meritocracies, all is not rosy in the garden. Williams explains:

In the tech sector in particular, a lot of people believe in meritocracy and are, therefore, unwilling to allow for the practical reality that we don’t start on a level playing field. This means it can be a tough playing field for LGBTQIA+ employees, and also that “merit” is a lot more subjective than we want it to be.

As an example, Williams points to having been unable to take on interesting assignments in some instances. This is because they were unable to travel to countries that impose jail sentences or the death penalty for being gay. Moreover, they say, the “huge amount of work” they have undertaken on top of the day job to help their employers become more LGBTQIA+ inclusive has likewise seldom been recognized.

Workplace difficulties for LGBTQIA+ employees

CV Viverito, a Director Analyst at Gartner’s HR practice, who identifies as queer and non-binary, agrees that the workplace experience is not always easy for LGBTQIA+ employees:

These data points totally reflect what’s going on. Life outside of work isn’t the same as your life in the workplace. Not everyone has the privilege of this, but many LGBTQIA+ people surround themselves with others in the community and family and friends who love and accept them. But you can’t do that in the workplace. You have co-workers and bosses and bosses’ bosses, and you can’t filter them out.

Although trans rights may still be a contentious topic in the wider political sphere, growing numbers of polls indicate rising levels of public acceptance of the broader LGBTQIA+ community. But Viverito says:

People like to think they’re accepting of others and many are well-intentioned, but unconscious bias is just that because they’re not aware of it. If you’re heterosexual and don’t have many LGBTQIA+ people in your life, when you see them in the office, a bit of bias may leak through. But there’s also the issue, for instance, of someone telling her colleagues she went out with her wife at the weekend, and people don’t respond as they feel awkward and so don’t know what to say.

This situation is not helped by today’s widespread ‘cancel culture’, which Viverito describes as “very dangerous”:

You make one mistake and you’re cancelled. But it’s absurd. Making mistakes is generally how we learn. OK, if people are using hate speech, but that’s very different from what most day-to-day humans do. And it means that people don’t feel they can ask colleagues about their partner in case they offend them or about their kid if they’re trans as they don’t want to get their pronouns wrong. So, they back off but, for the other person, it feels very exclusionary.

A lack of widespread workplace role models does not make things any easier either. Viverito explains:

Another reason some people might feel uncomfortable is that when you’re with other LGBTQIA+ people, you’ve got visibility into seeing people like you. But that may not be true in the workplace, which can lead to anxiety about whether people will treat you differently. So, it’s about visibility, and that affects psychological safety.

Are current activities enough?

Acting as a role model for other people is not necessarily a straightforward proposition either though, as Williams points out:

On the one hand, I’m not very feminine and, arguably, that has been an advantage in the very male-dominated tech industry. There’s a certain type of man who view me as ‘one of the guys’ because I like sports, wear trousers and have a wife, making it easier to fit in. However, this has also caused me to worry that I’m not a good role model for women in tech as my experience may be different to theirs.

On the other hand, now that Williams is in a leadership position:

Many LGBTQIA+ colleagues tell me it’s important and valuable that I’m there and openly queer as it gives others a role model to look up to and sets a new norm. Additionally, I’ve certainly been more productive by not expending energy hiding who I am, what gender my partner is, and other common fears faced by the community. Stonewall research previously showed that people can be up to 40% more productive if they can be themselves at work, and I think I’ve lived that statistic personally.

As for the value of annual events, such as Pride Month, feelings are mixed. For instance, a SurveyMonkey survey showed that just under two thirds (64%) of LGBTQIA+ people and their allies believe company efforts here mostly amount to ‘rainbow-washing’ rather than any meaningful commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

To make matters worse, 30% of LGBTQIA+ people and their allies felt their workplace did not do enough to support the community throughout the year. This figure jumped to 40% among LGBTQIA+ employees alone. Williams says:

With some companies I’ve worked at, Pride activities are supported by the company but are ultimately organized as a celebration and protest by LGBTQIA+ employees. Those feel much more genuine and a true show of support for our hard-won rights as well as a protest against the challenges still faced. But undoubtedly there are also cynical ‘pink pound’-chasing, purely marketing efforts, which can be disheartening and inauthentic. I’m particularly cautious of organizations that only care during Pride as it’s important to help LGBTQIA+ employees and their families all year round.

On the plus side though, Williams points to it being:

A sign of progress that brands can get a positive halo effect from celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community. Not that long ago, it would still have been a very risky proposition and not something marketing budgets would have been spent on!

How best to support LGBTQIA+ workers

Whether company activities amount to rainbow-washing or simply poor communication though, Viverito recommends that employers undertake an audit of what they are doing to support their LGBTQIA+ workers on a year-round basis. Included in the audit should be everything from onboarding programs and employee benefits to hosting diverse subject matter experts in webinars. They say:

It’s important to embed support not just into LGBTQIA+-focused activities but into other areas too. Otherwise, while it might be a true case of rainbow-washing, it could also be an accidental perception of not doing a lot because of forgetting to talk about it or communicate issues - especially if there’s a lot of hype in June and relative radio silence after that. Also, there’s the question of ‘are we taking the opportunity to infuse the lens’, for example, by ensuring LGBTQIA+ people are included in parenting or caregiving employee resource groups, and that they receive the same benefits as their heterosexual colleagues.

To help eliminate such discrimination, data has an important role to play - if it is available. Viverito explains:

In terms of structural barriers, we have to think where our personal biases might have been creeping in when looking at systems, processes and procedures. So, first look at your data, if you’ve got any, as you may see bottlenecking in terms of promotions, for example, which could be slowing down at director level. That way you know what to address.

Once pain points have been identified, the next step is to ensure your promotion criteria does not include biased language that is potentially filtering people out. Another suggestion is to ensure managers are trained to identify their own biases.

During the promotion discussion itself, it likewise helps to have someone in an “agenda defender” role in the room with the interviewer, so “they can assess whether you’re using objective criteria and can raise the flag if not”, Viverito says.

Other important considerations include ensuring there is a clear code of conduct that everyone, including contractors and suppliers, understand and abide by. Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index benchmarking tool provides an example of best practice here. Williams says:

The secret to success is ‘nothing about us without us’. This means, always involve the group you’re seeking to improve things for, without pushing all the work onto them. After all, marginalized groups seldom hold the key to reducing discrimination against themselves. It’s the majority that needs to adjust their behaviour and thinking. So, let LGBTQIA+ folks guide the work, while recognizing that most of the change needed is on their colleagues, managers and leaders.

My take

Although much may have changed for the better for LGBTQIA+ employees over the last 20 years, it is clear that a lot still remains to done – not least in the tech industry, which appears to be patting itself on the back claiming it operates as a meritocracy while failing to understand its quite serious blind spots. As this year's Pride Month draws to a close, let's hope things continue to improve. 

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