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When Mailivika started working in a large financial services firm in New York she felt reluctant to come out as being gay. “Despite being out in my personal life, the thought of being out at work terrified me,” she explains on the website of her current company Cloudfare. She already felt so profoundly different from her coworkers as a woman and a person of colour that she feared her coming out would reduce her career chances even further.
It´s just one of the many stories that are shared every year by LGBT+ people all over the world on National Coming Out Day. Research shows that many gays, lesbians, transgender people and other members of the LGBT+ community cope with the same problem.
The numbers vary greatly per country, but in Europe roughly around 30 percent of them feels the need to hide their sexual identity or orientation at work, while in the US it´s almost 50 percent.
It speaks for itself that companies should invest in a culture where employees are not afraid to come out. It´s not just ´the right thing to do´, there is also a strong business case to be made.
“People simply perform better when they can be themselves at work,” says Boudewijn Smit, associate with the law firm NautaDutilh, who wrote a handbook on creating an inclusive culture for LGBTQIA+ people. “They don´t have to spend energy on pretending to be someone they are not or on avoiding talking about the subject. On a higher level it has been proven time and time again that diversity and inclusion will lead to a more creative, critical and productive team.”
The handbook with best practices became a huge success, first among legal firms, that it was originally intended for, but later also with other professional service companies. It was one of the reasons that Boudewijn Smit was awarded as ´Future Leader´ at the European Chambers Diversity & Inclusion Awards.
“You can use the handbook as a checklist, to see if your company does everything it could do,” explains Boudewijn Smit. “I´ve already heard from several people who used the handbook to convince management to make some changes.”
There are many things companies can do to create a more inclusive company culture, which are listed step by step in the handbook, but these are some important ones:
“It only works if you set clear goals and measure progress,” says Boudewijn Smit. “And to make sure there is progress, you need to have someone at C-suite level who takes D&I into account in every decision that the company makes. I think this top down approach is very important”
There are several ways of measuring progress when it comes creating an inclusive culture. Boudewijn Smit: “In our firm we have a yearly satisfaction survey where we ask people if they identify themselves as a LGBT+ person, so we can measure how comfortable they feel in the company.”
“I´ve worked in our firm in New York for some time and there they really see the added value of diverse teams,” says Boudewijn Smit. “It was the first time I felt I could be completely myself. They realised that diversity makes teams stronger and actively put together teams that were as diverse as possible.”
“Here in the Netherlands, companies have become more inclusive since I started my career, but I still feel you need to adapt yourself to a certain norm. For example, sometimes I catch myself thinking that I´m lucky to be happily married to my husband. If not, maybe I would have had to defend myself to preconceived ideas about ´gay men with a dissolute lifestyle´.
“It seems as if some people still feel more comfortable when their colleagues fit the heteronormative mold. I strongly believe that we should truly celebrate our diversity instead.”
“To give another example, I have a quite a lot of friends who like to paint their nails. Personally, I don´t do that, but sometimes wonder if it´s because of my own believes or because I´m just so used to adjust to what other people believe to be normal and appropriate.”
“It is an ongoing struggle to discover who you truly are because as a LGBTQIA + person you are so used to hide parts of yourself. This starts at a young age and perhaps it never really stops.”
“If you haven´t experienced it yourself you might not realise that LGBTQIA+ people don´t come out just once in their life. In reality this is an ongoing process and something I have to reconsider in every new social or professional situation,” says Boudewijn Smit.
That´s why it´s important for companies to send out signals that provide a safe environment, and employees can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“To put the rainbow flag on your corporate website is still important, but in my opinion it´s not enough anymore,” says Boudewijn Smit. “As a company you also need to look at the images and the language that you use in general. Do you only use heterosexual couples in your corporate images, or also same-sex couples? And how gender inclusive is your corporate communication?”
Small adjustments in your communication can already have an enourmas impact, as Boudewijn Smit explains: “Behind my name in my emails signature I´ve added my pronouns ´He, him, his´, which means that I identify myself as a man. This is an important message to trans people, or people who don´t identify themselves with a specific gender (non-binary people). If you are, for example, biologically a man but identify yourself as a woman, you would add ´She, her, hers´.”
The story of Mailivika, at the beginning of this article, didn´t end there. A close friend of hers invited her to a dinner for LGBT+ young professionals in financial services. “Before this event, I would have never believed that there were so many people ´like me´ within the industry,” she writes. It was this event that gave her the courage to also come out at work.
“LGBT+ professionals usually don´t have many role models, so it´s important that companies have internal networks, or a collaboration with external networks where they can turn to,” says Boudewijn Smit, who helped to set-up both networks in his own company and industry.
Other than the letters LGBT+ might suggest this not one group, but several groups with different fights to fight. “Gay, and lesbians, for example, are already way more accepted than trans people,” says Boudewijn Smit. “This group has to deal with much more preconceived ideas, and still have less career opportunities. One thing that companies could do to support trans people is to take them into account in their employment conditions, for example by giving support to employees who are transitioning. But most importantly to have an open conversation with them and make sure as an employer you are aware of any specific needs.”
“All things considered I´m pretty positive about the future,” says Boudewijn Smit. “Sure, I still go to webinars where all participants are white, middle aged heterosexual and cisgender men, but I also see that the younger generation is much more open to diversity, and open minded about sexual orientation and gender identity. That gives hope.”