An uphill battle for LGBTI awareness in business

The issues we face in business to promote inclusiveness and diversity are not dissimilar to those faced in professional sports, where stigma associated with sexual orientation and gender identity is still a very real battle, writes Ben Allen.

Despite significantly improved measures to reduce discrimination in the workplace, a groundswell of community support for marriage equality and the increasing visibility of LGBTI figures in popular culture, 53 per cent of LGBTI employees in the US remain closeted at work and in Australia that figure is 48 per cent.

Two-thirds of those bullied or harassed in Australian workplaces, because of being out, consider leaving their employment.

In Australian sports, 87 per cent of gay youth under 22, and 75 per cent of lesbian youth, said they were at least partially in the closet in their sports, keeping their sexuality secret from all or some of their teammates. Perhaps even more alarming, a recent study of 10,000 Australians found that 75 per cent of people believe an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual person would not be very safe as a spectator at an Australian sporting event.

A silhouette of a person climbing up a large rocky structureThose aiming for the top of business or sports lack role models – the paucity of openly gay or lesbian chief executives, ASX 200 board members, law firm partners, judges, Olympians, sports stars or professional athletes are obvious examples.

Networks like Dentons’ LGBTI network, GLOW, and initiatives like Rainbow Laces, seek to increase that visibility and in doing so, remind our peers and the next generation of lawyers, business executives and sports heroes that their careers, and their true selves, are not mutually exclusive.

Over the past decade, what we have seen in workplaces through the efforts of organisations like Pride in Diversity has been the promotion of internal networks, such as our Dentons' GLOW network, to our staff, aimed to bring greater visibility of openness and inclusion. Promoting those internal networks to our clients and peers is an important next step. Connecting those networks from different firms, organisations and clients is the next logical step.

At Dentons, we have a proud history of being at the forefront of diversity and inclusion in Australia. We spearhead initiatives focused on gender diversity, cultural equality and on improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. Through our GLOW network, we are now spearheading initiatives focused on gender identity and sexual orientation.

We are proud of what GLOW has achieved in the 12 months since our internal launch. Since that time, all staff have had compulsory LGBTI awareness training, an LGBTI Ally program has been deployed, resources concerning gender identity and sexual orientation are available to all our staff in our library and on our intranet, and we openly and very visibly celebrate important LGBTI events like IDAHOT Day, Wear it Purple Day, Mardi Gras and Transgender Awareness Week.

Policies and procedures have been updated to reflect LGBTI-inclusive language, and importantly, the firm has publicly registered its support of marriage equality in Australia.

However, there continues to be a lack of awareness, even among highly educated people, of the difficulties that still plague LGBTI employees in both coming out in the workplace and in bringing their whole selves to work.

I truly believe that the more people who come out and perform well makes it easier for those around them to do the same. The challenges of being an authentic leader differ from sector to sector, industry to industry and, I am sure, sporting code to sporting code, but each offers insights and lessons that we can and must learn from, and we must continue to connect.

We have certainly come a long way in the past decade, but we still have a long way to go. Leadership is an essential part of the solution. Just this week, Alan Joyce was pushed to defend his decision to speak in favour of marriage equality, describing it as one of the “important issues that ultimately shape what kind of society we live in”.

Ben Allen, DentonsThose of us in positions of seniority with the opportunity to live freely should seize that opportunity. Much like sport is doing now, business has done much to create a great vision of that opportunity, but it can only come to life if LGBTI people and their supporters are willing to nurture and promote it, openly and proudly.

The above is an edited version of a speech given by Dentons Australia partner Ben Allen to the Rainbow Laces Gala last week. Ben Allen is a partner of Dentons and the executive sponsor of the firm’s LGBTI Diversity and Inclusion group, GLOW. He also sits on the Dentons Global LGBT+ executive committee.

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