Leadership and Corporate Lesbians

Last year, my wife and I invited some 20 lesbian women in Dutch corporations to sit with us and talk about their experience of being lesbian and corporate. We provided the meal and some crucial questions, our guests provided conversation. On any one evening we would have up to 12 women at the table. Most did not know each other and most were not even in the same company. Yet their stories were remarkably similar.

After the final meal together, we wrote up major findings  and the “Do’s and Don’ts“ for companies. I invited several high level corporate lesbians to address the issues in a workshop during the annual Company Pride Platform conference in June 2011.

One of the workshop speakers admonished us to move beyond talking, to make things happen. To be leaders.  To make sure the 5 Do's and Don'ts we came up with are implemented in our companies.

The 5 Do’s and Don’ts for companies that want to retain lesbian talent

1.     Have policies, with sanctions, against any activity that demeans lesbians. The work environment must be a place where lesbian women can work with freedom, equality and full self-expression.
2.     Create and maintain a culture of diversity, in which lesbians can proudly be lesbian. Don't stop until every lesbian feels safe to be out at work.
3.     Don’t assume lesbians do not have the family commitments of other staff.
4.     Don’t assume that lesbians will not want foreign postings in non-gay friendly countries. Never think on behalf of lesbians. Talk with them.
5.     Create ‘hard’ KPIs for lesbian network leaders for their work with lesbian issues at the workplace, and ensure that management accommodates these KPIs.

A year later, curious to find out what has happened since our ‘soirees’, I make it a point to ask ask our dinner guests how they are doing. One had a remarkable story. She had set up the LGBT network at her company in 2010 and, at the dinner table, she expressed a sense that her career might be suffering as a result. She was certainly having problems with her line manager, who did not want her putting energy into the network instead of into her work. He did not understand that putting effort into the network helped her work, because it helped create an inspiring environment where she felt safe to be fully herself. When the CEO approached her and showed positive interest in the work she was doing with the network, the line manager and the HR manager were both upset. 12 months later, she proudly reported that she had won an award at her work for being the most inspiring woman in the company – toppling several senior management women.

It takes courage to do this work. Willingness to stand out. Bravery. The ability to live outside short term comfort and trust that your values will become company values.

Lin McDevitt-Pugh
Lin is director of NetSHEila, a company specialized in maximizing the value to companies and organizations of relationships between people.  She coaches corporate employee resource groups and their leaders and delivers strategic network development workshops to corporate LGBT networks, business networks and international NGOs in The Netherlands, Africa and Australia. She can be contacted on +31-6-150 48468 or through the contact form on www.netsheila.com. Follow her tweets via @LinMcDevittPugh.

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