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Pride Month - why LGBTQIA+ tech workers still need more than just a poster on the wall once a year

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 28, 2023
Summary:
Two out of five LGBTQ tech employees say they have witnessed homophobic discrimination and harassment at work, rising to 50% among some of the large employers. As Pride Month 2023 draws to a close, what can be done to tackle this?

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Despite higher levels of social acceptance in most developed countries, many members of the LGBTQIA+ community are still having a hard time of it at work.

For instance, nearly half of LGBTQIA+ employees in the US and about 20% in the European Union have experienced some kind of unfair treatment during their careers, including hiring discrimination, harassment or even being fired due to their sexuality. As a result, reveals a study by non-profit organization Catalyst, just over half of US LGBTQIA+ workers have chosen not to come out to their supervisors and a quarter are not out to anyone at work at all. About a third also believe discrimination has had a negative impact on their promotion and pay prospects. 

Unsurprisingly then, many members of the community feel vulnerable, underrepresented, excluded and unable to bring their full selves to work, research by McKinsey indicates. Nearly a third also report experiencing persistent micro-aggressions, which include insensitive and homophobic comments.

And things appear to be no better in the tech sector than they are anywhere else. In fact, they may even be worse, which is reflected in the industry having a major image problem. 

A study by the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology found that a third of LGBT people actively avoid pursuing a career in science, technology and engineering due to fears of discrimination and bullying. As a result, gay men, for example, are 12% less likely than heterosexual men to complete a STEM degree and 17% less likely to pursue a career in the sector. 

In addition, concerns over how people will be treated would appear to be born out. Two out of five LGBTQ tech employees say they have witnessed homophobic discrimination and harassment at work, rising to 50% among some of the large employers. In fact, just under two thirds of queer staff indicate that bullying contributed to their decision to leave their employer altogether. 

Challenges LGBTQIA+ people face

Aimee Treasure is Marketing and D&I Director at IT recruitment consultancy Templeton & Partners. Gay herself, she points out that the most common issue LGBTQIA+ people face, in her experience, is being subjected to micro-aggressions. Second on the list is a lack of understanding by others of their situation and the challenges they face:

You expect companies to have policies in place and most do, but it’s often hard for people to put others behaviour and how it affects them into words. As for understanding, most people don’t think about how it is for others and don’t get their difference. But the question is where can people go for support if you don’t acknowledge either their difference or how different their lives are? It’s the same as employers thinking that if they give the same key performance indicators and training to men and women, the outcomes will be the same. But they aren’t as women’s experiences are different and things like kids and housework aren’t factored in.

This tricky situation has not been helped by the mainstreaming of gay rights, Treasure believes  - although the same is not true of trans rights, which are currently all too often at the center of divisive culture wars

The unintended consequence of this mainstreaming though is that, like many feminist issues, the job is frequently seen largely to be done “so people think less about our needs”, she points out.

Another common challenge that many LGBTQIA+ people face is imposter syndrome, says Jen Taylor, Chief Product Officer at web performance and security software vendor Cloudflare. As a queer woman who joined the tech industry almost 30 years ago, it is a feeling she is familiar with and something which she mentors others to overcome. She explains:

It’s important to acknowledge imposter syndrome as I feel that nearly everyone experiences it. Normalizing it made me look at it, not as a deterrent to doing things but as something that you have to go through to get to where you want to be. It’s about authenticity. When I was young, I was often the only one in a situation and I didn’t know what was safe – only that the norms, jokes and behaviours of co-workers often didn’t feel safe. I felt I was holding back from expressing my opinions, and the pressure of being the only one prevented me from bringing my whole self to work. But I realised I couldn’t go on living like this, so I actively started seeking out environments that felt safer.

Tech bros

A key issue behind many of these challenges, believes Treasure, is the ‘tech bro’ culture found in many companies, particularly start-ups. As she says:

A lot of it isn’t intentional but the historical tech culture, and the current founder culture, is usually that of straight, white men and they hire replicas of themselves. So there’s a certain type of person in power and if they’re using algorithms for hiring, which much of the tech industry does, they end up hiring the same type of person as that’s what the algorithm thinks they want.

The upshot, Treasure adds, is:

A lot of people don’t feel supported in tech, more so than in other sectors - although things have gradually been getting better over the last few decades as more companies recognise their lack of diversity is a problem and try to do something about it. Adding a rainbow to your logo during Pride Week is great to signal inclusivity but it’s also important to ask yourself, ‘What are we doing to actively support LGBTQIA+ people?’

Such support includes providing appropriate healthcare benefits, including fertility treatment and gender affirmation surgery.

Another challenge, meanwhile, is the scarcity of visible LGBTQIA+ leaders to act as role models. As Treasure points out: 

We’ve all heard the old cliché ‘if you see it, you can be it’, which is true. But if you don’t see visible role models, how can you know if employers are just rainbow-washing everything to look good? Most companies have employee resource groups to create supportive communities. They give them some money, meet with allies and wear rainbow lanyards. But if they don’t have a board member who’s LGBTQIA+ or a strong ally, how much voice and representation will they have to effect meaningful change?

What employers can do to help

In other words, to make a real difference to people’s working lives, it is important for senior executives to take the time to talk and listen in order to understand the issues the community faces so that real action can be taken. Treasure explains:

It’s not just about holding events once a year during Pride Month, which is good. But if you’re making lots of money in a country with homophobic laws or the sports personality appearing in your ads is homophobic, how genuine are you about it all? So think about what it means and what the working experience of people in your company is. This is also where the idea of allies comes in. If leaders can understand and connect with people and say ‘we’ll provide this work space where you can meet in work time’ and encourage and support you, it’s very powerful.

Another approach that Taylor personally found useful though was mentoring. As she points out:

One of the most important things to help you grow in your career is to identify mentors and advocates. It gives you opportunities to discuss your moments of fear and doubt and get feedback, but also ideally have someone to advocate for you in terms of opportunities for visibility and growth. Mentors make you feel more supported and help to build confidence. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several, and it’s something I’ve really appreciated as it offered me valuable perspective. If I was experiencing imposter syndrome, they talked me through it but also gave me hard feedback when no one else would. 

However, even though some change has undoubtedly taken place, many tech employers are now starting to realise that the action taken so far is not enough. Treasure explains:

Tech has been slower than other industries to address the issue as it’s quite insular and cultures tend to be very company-specific. Because the sector focuses so much on innovation, the individual doesn’t appear to matter as much, but people are starting to realise that since Covid and things like the Great Resignation, having an inclusive culture is the way to go if you want to attract and retain talent.

My take

A key takeaway here is that bringing in a few speakers and sticking the odd poster on a wall once a year during Pride Month is simply not enough to create the much needed, although often poorly understood, change required by members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Instead, opening up discussion at the senior leadership level and listening to people’s needs so that concrete action can be taken based on their feedback, can make all the difference in the world.

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