Why is it hard to talk about your sexual orientation at work if you don't identify as straight, especially if you're a woman? We asked Yohana Solis, Regional Safeguarding Manager, Argentina and Tracy Dumais, Mobile Learning Consultant, Thailand.
When Amanda Hawthorne (Teacher, Spain) told the EDI mailing group that less than one per cent of women surveyed at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said they identify as lesbian or gay, we wondered if it was the same for us. Equality monitoring is not straightforward and it's hard to get a recent global figure. But, while there are many countries we work in where being in the LGBTQ community is illegal and others where social norms make it difficult to talk about, we are an inclusive organisation.
We asked two women why it is particularly difficult for women at work to talk about their personal lives in a way that heterosexual people might take for granted.
Have you been reluctant to disclose your non-heterosexual identity at work? And why do you think this might be so for women rather than men?
Yohana: Women, especially in the Americas, have been an oppressed minority and have suffered disrespect and challenges to prove their worth in the work environment. It is frightening to risk losing what has cost you a great deal to achieve. In patriarchal societies like mine, a lesbian woman would be looked down on, even if it’s not illegal to express yourself. Fear of being judged or discredited is what kept me silent for a while.
Tracy: I am sure there are as many reasons as there are women. Generally, I think women in the organisation are quieter: about our concerns, our achievements and yes, our sexual orientation.
I sit in a lot of meetings where men often take up more airtime. I don't think it is anyone's fault, but we are evolving from being a very masculine organisation and we still have work to do. Let's meet in the middle – women need to be bolder and the organisation needs to be gentler, solicit the voices of the quieter individuals and provide more spaces for sharing.
That said, my own personal reason is a bit different – but still, I suspect, common. I am a bisexual woman in a heterosexual relationship, so my orientation seems like superfluous information. I do love it when colleagues know me well enough to know this about me though. It makes me feel more whole.
What would or does make you feel able to talk about it?
Yohana: Reassurance, definitely. This is quite new for me (it’s something I’m discovering in my late thirties) and I’m still walking on eggshells when talking to people. Mainly older people would think that choosing a partner from your same sex is a fashion or a phase in life and that you may not be hundred per cent focused on your job because of that.
The decision to love or express our desires freely is part of a fight against patriarchy. Fear and panic can be very damaging, so it is key to find other women that listen to you and care about your story. While my story is a personal one, many others are writing a similar story of surviving violence and abuse in a male-dominated society. Owning who you are is the first step towards a more diverse and fear-free community.
Tracy: Usually, I need to hear someone else talk about it before I feel comfortable. I spoke out recently in the email thread about 'Lesbian Visibility' that Amanda Hawthorne started because I read her email and I was excited to read all the replies. Then I got up the next morning and there were none, so I decided to be brave and reply myself. And trust me, I sat on that draft for about an hour before I gathered enough courage to hit 'reply all'. I did it because I realised if I was longing to hear lesbian, bisexual and pansexual voices speak out then there were probably more women like me wanting to feel represented, and so maybe I should be one of the brave ones. Role models are very important.
Why should you be able to be yourself at work?
Tracy: I think we underestimate how important it is to express yourself fully at work – to be seen authentically, as it were. Work is a huge part of our lives and the more empowered we are to be ourselves, the more powerful and effective our work will be.
I think I have felt like this more since we have all been working from home. The lines between work and home are blurred and glimpses of our lives are often available to our colleagues over our shoulder. To those of us who don't have the space for an office in our home the British Council now sits at our dining table or even in our bedroom. Psychologically this presence of work in our private space means it is more important than ever to be comfortable, safe, and valued for who we are – in the fullest way possible.
Do you think twice before talking about your personal life at work? Should we keep our private lives private or do we need to talk more?