Corporate Lesbians Cause Companies to Catch Up

Last week, 25 energetic women came from all over the Netherlands to listen to the offering of the Triad Leadership Program. These women, and the program, are extraordinary in many ways.
  • First, the way we are approaching this work was created by corporate women in the Netherlands, and guided into shape by a brand new offering, the Tribal Leadership technology being developed at CultureSync.
  • Second, the program participants are doing the work partly for themselves and mostly for others in the organization.
  • Third, it takes guts to stand up, in whatever level of the organization you are, and say: I want a different culture and I will make that happen.
  • And fourth, the women recognize that only the people who understand the issues can shape the solution.
The issue

Here’s the bottom line. In the Netherlands we have great laws that demand that there is no discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, sexual identity, or gender.
Laws are great. They are guidelines. If you step over the line, there are procedures to pull you back in line.

Laws are not everything. People still step over the line. Discrimination still happens.

In the corporate world, there are degrees of stepping over the line. There are organizations like the Equal Opportunities Commission that employees can engage with to lodge a complaint. The Commission will check out the story and determine whether an unlawful action has taken place.
And then there are the inadvertent cases of stepping over the line. They come in many shapes and forms and are often due simply to an unawareness of how things work.
For example, during my research into the value of Dutch Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) networks for corporations, I found that many LGBT people do not contemplate foreign postings as a career path, because they think their company will not be able to accommodate their family situation, particularly if the posting is to a country where homosexuality is illegal. Or, if they are a US citizen living in the Netherlands with a Dutch partner, they don’t consider moving back to the US because the US immigration law will not allow them to bring their partner.
Chances are, the company doesn’t know about any of the thoughts going through the person’s mind. The company only knows about the people who do apply for foreign postings.

30% of lesbians are in the closet at work. It’s their decision, based on negative experiences. Recent research indicates that lesbians experience negative reactions to their sexual identity mostly from strangers, and then from work. Family comes after that. It stands to reason that if lesbians are in the closet at work, their managers and HR are unable to work with them to stop harassment, or think and work through other issues they face.

The problems are not all out there with the company. Lesbian women make assumptions about their lives, what is possible and what is not possible, and shut down possibilities before they even notice them.

I was struck this week by how I do this and have done this. I was at a Landmark Education event and saw a woman I remembered from 11 years ago. I remembered that I was in a Landmark Education program, and the leader had been speaking all day about commitment to your relationship. It came down to: if you are committed, get married. If you are not, don’t. I sat in my chair thinking: Its OK for you to say that, you CAN get married. I can’t. Then this woman stood up and announced she had asked her girlfriend to marry her. I realized in that moment that I had reduced my options to the legal limitations at that time in the Netherlands. The homophobia was inside me. From that time I declared that I would marry my sweetheart. I told this to politicians and colleagues and family. 10 years ago the institution of marriage in the Netherlands was changed to include same sex partners. We were married a month later.
The point of this story being: we think there are barriers to equality between all people, but if we don’t address them they will not move.

The solution

Its only when someone steps up to her manager, or HR, and presents the problem that the manager or HR can be aware of the problem. Managers don’t sit around wondering why a person does not apply for a foreign posting. They really don’t. And with 30% of lesbians in Dutch companies still being secretive about their sexuality at work, we can’t expect managers to come up with the answer themselves.

Lesbians need to own the problem, and to own the solution.

The program that we have developed – and are continuing to refine through the experience of running the program – has the potential to shift mountainous barriers.

Each participant takes on shifting the way things work in her organization. She doesn’t do this alone. She has two friends that have her back. They form a triad, and together they discover the power of three. The triads have a monthly coaching session with the program leader, me, and a monthly learning and sharing session with all the other participants.

We will discover barriers as we go. And there is one thing I know for certain: change will happen. Never before have corporate lesbians worked together, across the companies, to make change happen. With the powerful people in the room last Monday, I can only imagine the future we are walking into, together. We are writing history together.
I am inspired by Australian Aborigine activist, Gary Foley recently said, “History will be kind to me as I intend to write it.''

The Triad Leadership Program will be developed for all people wanting cultural change in their organizations. We want workplaces to work for everyone.

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