The business suit. It’s a rite-of-passage every undergraduate looks forward to. The day that marks a coming-of-age: the beginning of our business ‘selves’.
But does the suit we buy represent something darker, more constricting? In trying to fit into workplace norms, are we stifling our individuality? In trying to win other’s respect by conforming in the workplace, are we negating our own self-worth?
To mark National Coming Out Day 2016, I want to urge businesses to revolutionise the way they support and celebrate a culture of difference in the workplace so that employees, particularly those who are LGBT+ can more easily be themselves. Making this move at The Portsmouth Grammar School has profoundly impacted upon the school culture and experience of our pupils, staff and parents.
Vanessa Buote’s research demonstrates that there is tangible value in feeling comfortable with oneself at work: 80 per cent of people surveyed claimed that a culture of authenticity improves the workplace, with 75 per cent wanting their co-workers to share more about their true selves. Those who felt authentic at work described the positive impact this has had on their job satisfaction, engagement and productivity at work.
The truth is that straight people talk about their personal lives all the time at work. Wedding photos on desks are commonplace and conversations about the husbands or wives of straight people are not seen as personal or private at all.
However, in my experience I’ve found that a double standard exists when it comes to LGBT+ relationships in the workplace, with corporate culture dictating that these should still be kept firmly in the closet. This sentiment is often underpinned by spurious comments like “It’s nobody else’s business”; “Who you’re attracted to should not be discussed at work”; “Keep your private life private.”
“Coming out within the school was never an issue for me. Not once did I question whether there was going to be a dichotomous 50/50 response.
"In my mind, everything was going to be okay, and it was not a ‘big deal’ to explore this avenue of my identity. I was right, there wasn’t an issue, no one really cared, because so what if I liked girls? PGS provides an example of what environments we should be striving for; safe ones, where no one is afraid to be who they are.”
- (Dodo Charles, pupil 2009-2016).
“Joining The Portsmouth Grammar School has been full of surprises, but none more unexpected than meeting my now-fiancée at the school. The response from everyone-staff, pupils and parents- has been fantastic and so supportive. My A Level class, by then almost ready to fly the nest, clubbed together to buy us a bottle of champagne as an engagement gift, presented by none other than the plucky young lady who had dared to ask me a question relating to my sexuality nearly 18 months beforehand.
"Being in the kind of environment the school has provided, with its commitment to Pride, has enriched my working experience vastly in how open, secure, happy and comfortable I feel. And I hope that my experiences as an "out" member of staff have likewise contributed to the richness of our school community in some small way.”
- (Lucy Smith, teacher of Philosophy and Religious Studies).
It’s time to admit that the majority of workplaces are not doing enough to celebrate diversity. Recent research (Pride in London 2016) showed that half of LGBT+ people keep their sexuality or gender a secret at work and are five times more likely to have experienced workplace bullying.
Businesses need to shout, loud and proud that LGBT+ people are welcome. It is not enough to simply tolerate difference anymore; it must be celebrated.
So, what can businesses do to improve the experience of their LGBT+ members?
- Avoid heteronormative assumptions: if it is necessary to ask about a person's marital status, ask about their partner rather than their husband or wife. Likewise, make it clear that social functions are inclusive.
- Make it explicit in your policies that you are a company that celebrates difference.
- Invite LGBT+ members and their allies to represent your company in your city's gay pride parade.
- Become a Stonewall Proud Employer.
What we have achieved at the Portsmouth Grammar School proves the extraordinary benefits of making this change. Our pupils still wear the school uniform, our staff still wear their business suits, but their identity is their own.