Last week marked Lesbian Visibility Week, when individuals and organisations shone a light on a community that is all too often overlooked. Although we often talk about the importance of LGBT+ inclusion, it’s also vital that employers support the specific needs of each of those groups – including lesbians.
As we emerge from the pandemic and more of us return to workplaces, organisations – both big and small – need to continue to focus on creating environments where everyone can achieve their potential.
A new survey by DIVA on the experiences of LGBT+ women and non-binary people during the pandemic highlighted just how far businesses have come in helping people become more comfortable embracing their authentic selves at work, with nearly seven in 10 respondents (68 per cent) saying they were out to most of their colleagues. This is a fantastic sign of progress and an important vote of confidence in the work that so many organisations are doing every day to support their lesbian, bi and trans staff.
However, the fight is far from over when it comes to inclusion, and this too is reflected in the research. Three in 10 of the respondents (35 per cent) reported that they had hidden their identity at work out of fear of discrimination.
While there’s much to be optimistic about, it’s crucial that employers continue to make their workplaces welcoming, safe and inclusive places for lesbians, as well as all LGBT+ women and non-binary people. Here are some ways organisations can start to do this:
Policies may not sound like the most exciting place to start, but they are often the foundation for organisations that want to implement real change. Every business and individual will have different needs and HR professionals must place inclusivity and visibility at the heart of their approach to policies. This ranges from having strong, accessible and robust ways for staff to report harassment and discrimination, all the way to making sure your hiring practices are as inclusive as possible.
Language also matters, and being inclusive of all lesbians, including non-binary people, is important. This could be as simple as ensuring that you don’t include gendered language within your policies, and make it clear that these options apply to staff of all genders and sexualities.
And remember that, once inclusive policies are made, they need to remain accessible and visible to all staff, and don’t end up hidden away. For example, having the parental leave options clearly signposted, and specifically including lesbian families for women and non-binary people can help someone to consider the practicalities of starting their own family and what that might mean for their job.
Networking your networks
Making sure your workplace is inclusive doesn’t always mean reinventing the wheel. Staff networks are a tried and tested method, with many organisations already encouraging their employees to come together with peers who may face similar challenges in the workplace.
Sadly, we know that LGBT+ networks often struggle to engage women, so organisations need to ensure their networks are accessible for everyone, and that they’re actively seeking out women who might not feel encouraged or empowered to attend. Changes like holding network events within work hours and making specific spaces for marginalised groups within networks, such as coffee mornings specifically for lesbian and non-binary staff, can empower people to become active members.
We also know that inter-network collaboration can help organisations reach more staff members. For instance, some lesbian employees may be in the staff network for women, parents and carers, faith or black and ethnic minorities, but not in the LGBT+ network. By encouraging formal inter-network collaboration on events or holding monthly inter-network meetings, organisations can ensure they are supporting and representing as many lesbian employees as possible.
Representation matters. Lesbians are underrepresented in senior leadership positions. While there’s no quick fix for systemic issues, organisations must take active steps to empower lesbian employees to reach leadership positions. This often involves visibly championing lesbian leadership – from using internal or external comms, to offering staff the opportunity to tell their stories, they should feel supported with any specific challenges they face in progressing their careers.
We know employers often have programmes to support women in leadership roles, and this can be very impactful. But it’s also important for organisations to tailor these for specific groups, like lesbians, who can face very unique challenges within leadership as the result of being both LGBT+ and women or non-binary people. It’s a good idea to do this in partnership with LGBT+ networks and external specialists, so that programmes are structured to fit their needs.
Creating real change
It’s always important to remember that it’s never the responsibility of employees to take on the brunt of this work – the key is to teach employers how to better support them. Good inclusion will always work in the other direction, with organisations being proactive in engaging and listening to colleagues and putting support in place.
To celebrate Lesbian Visibility Week, Stonewall teamed up with DIVA to deliver a series of events and panels featuring inspirational lesbian, bi, trans and queer leaders, and to create space to champion and celebrate our community. As part of this, there’s a vast range of information and resources available, which employers can signpost to their lesbian staff, and of course learn from themselves.
Real change will always take time and organisations need to make sure they keep up the momentum after Lesbian Visibility Week.
Sarah Campbell is head of empowerment at Stonewall