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LGBTQ+ History Month: be a better workplace ally

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 24 Feb 2023

Allyship and being sensitive to the support that colleagues with different experiences may need is key to an inclusive organisation.

As a gay man working as a teacher when the controversial Section 28 was in force, David Watters knows all too well the damaging impact of prejudice and the feeling of isolation that it can provoke. The infamous clause, introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988, banned discussion of same-sex relationships in schools and left a damaging legacy that still endures. 

“I didn’t feel that I could be supported as a gay person,” Watters explains. “How we talk about relationships, gender or gender identity can impact so hugely upon your self-esteem. If you don’t feel good about yourself, if you don’t feel you are as valid as anyone else, you are going to do things to reinforce that belief you have in yourself,” Watters explains.

Section 28 was finally wiped from the statute books of England and Wales in 2003 (Scotland repealed the Act in 2000), but despite undeniable progress, prejudice against members of the LGBTQ+ community is rife, resulting in people being unfairly held back in their careers because of their sexuality and/or gender identity. More than a third of LGBT staff (35%) have hidden or disguised the fact that they are LGBT at work in the past year because they were afraid of discrimination, according to research conducted by Stonewall

“People often base their opinions on headlines rather than getting to know a real person,” Watters says. “Regardless of who you are, you’re going to be limited by labels. And society’s going to have placed opinions and attitudes upon who you are, and then how you perceive yourself.”

Now an associate consultant and trainer for the Employers’ Network for Equality & Inclusion (ENEI), Watters says allyship has a vital role to play in making organisations more inclusive. “An ally proactively and consciously includes people who may be different to themself and stands alongside them – not speaking on their behalf, but amplifying their views and acting as a conduit between them and those who can make a change,” Watters says.

“As an ally, it’s about getting to know the subtleties of the people you work with who may have a lived experience that is very different to your own, so that you can be a better, more compassionate and more understanding colleague, and sensitive to the kind of support someone might need. It’s about understanding that we need to know more about the person than what they do for a job.”

These days employers do a much better job of understanding people’s different life stages, whether that’s showing more compassion for women going through the menopause, or people dealing with bereavement or illness. However, we’re not always as sympathetic to the challenges facing LGBTQ+ people – who will often experience ‘mosquito bites’ of microaggressions, even on their journey to work, Watters explains. 

He says there is much individuals can do to make sure they are being good allies. “By creating space – even if it’s two minutes at the start of the day – to connect with our colleagues, we’ll form far healthier relationships.” 

At the same time, recognising your subconscious ‘affinity biases’ is also important. “We often don’t consciously or proactively engage with people we’re less comfortable with. So it’s about recognising that bias exists and that if we’re favouring certain colleagues over others, we need to question why that is.” 

Having leaders in the business who set the tone as allies is critical, he says. “Leaders create the culture. Leadership allies will challenge and support, but they will also make sure they hold back as well, to allow other people to share their perspectives in meetings. Leaders need to ensure that their company values are upheld without exception. Any discrimination or bias, no matter how small, needs to be challenged. It needs to be consistent and it needs to be from the top down.”

Treating everyone with respect and interacting with colleagues in a way that allows them to be authentic isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business – not least in terms of reducing staff recruitment and retention costs, and the potential reputational damage to your business. “If we feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, we’re going to be happier – it’s going to enhance your mental wellbeing,” Watters advises. “People won’t stick around in a workplace where they don’t feel psychologically safe.”

David Watters is the presenter of an ICAEW webinar on allyship, exploring unconscious bias and the impact of developing awareness within your organisation, available to watch on demand free of charge.

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