We’re coming out!


Helen Boyle considers the business impacts of being out at work and the potential benefits Birmingham could gain from coming out of the closet and embracing the Equality Bill.

Government statistics suggest the 7% of the UK population is lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) which would mean that 70 455 in Birmingham would identify as such. The likelihood is that in the city this would be much higher as LGB individuals move to the city for a more cosmopolitan outlook and to access a gay community. Until lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) identities are measured by census we will not know for sure. However how many of these people would come out to the government is uncertain given the reluctance of individuals to come out to their work colleagues for fear of reprisals?

One of the most common questions I am asked by friends is are you out at work, and having past experience of being closeted in the workplace I am glad to say the answer is yes. When surveyed by Stonewall many LGBs said they don’t come out because their fears of job security and negative atmosphere at work which is I can say from personal experience is exhausting, stressful and de-motivating.

Being in the closet makes the casual water-cooler conversations a torturous experience;   self consciously using non specific pronouns at every turn, characterising yourself as an individual with no life outside work or an eternal singleton a la Bridget Jones.  Some individuals chose to withdraw from casual team interactions completely unable to engage meaningfully with colleagues– an atmosphere hardly conducive to building a confident, innovative and happy team.

Conversely working in a supportive, inclusive environment is motivating for LGBTs and their colleagues promoting creativity, free flow of ideas, and most importantly allows 100% focus on the task at hand rather than on subterfuge. Managing diversity across the board not only supports the productivity of the workforce but supports staff retention as many LGBs are reticent to move from a positive environment. It is fantastic to see the commitment of increasing numbers of Birmingham’s businesses to LGB diversity as they achieve a place in stonewalls workplace equality index.

At stonewalls work place conference Margot James Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party observed: ‘there’s a business case as well as a moral case for continuing the battle for greater equality in workplaces. The companies that stay loyal to that agenda will hang on to their quality workforces and their future.’

The same could be said for cities, those that manage LGBT equality and diversity proactively from regeneration to service provision should be more successful economically. Professor Richard Florida’s Boho Creativity Index links diversity with creative industries and entrepreneurialism suggesting that the big ideas and cutting-edge industries that lead to sustained prosperity are more likely to exist where in cities which welcome minority groups and have a thriving, visible and vibrant gay community. He observes that the existence of this community will attract “new bohemians” and the “supercreative core” of society to the city. Speaking to The Times Professor Florida said.

‘Most centres of technology-based business growth also have high concentrations of gay couples. When people with varied backgrounds and attitudes collide, economic growth is likely. What I have found is that straight men and women also look for a visible gay community as an indication that a city is likely to be an exciting place to live.”

However, Birmingham is currently seventh in the Boho Creativity Index for the UK with low levels of innovation, entrepreneurialism and lack of provision for the gay community. As an out and proud adopted Brummie I am sorry to say that my home town Manchester tops the chart.

I would encourage Birmingham to come out and fully embrace its gay community and celebrate its hyper-diversity, using it as a USP to attract entrepreneurs, skilled employees and tourists thus supporting its economy. We are ideally place to steal the march on the coming equalities bill and show the UK how to create a fairer society more profitable city.

The single equalities duty seeks to make legislation easier to understand and equalises race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief under law for the first time. It encourages the actively promotion of equality in public services – teachers will be obligated to tackle homophobia when they see it – a far cry from section 28.

Critics of the bill focus on its potential detriment to the economy and cost to business particularly surrounding the equalisation of pay and damage to the business of current government suppliers. I believe much of this stems from the general concern over our current economic climate. Companies will go under, contracts will be lost but not as a direct result of this legislation.

The bill does not insist on companies delivering parity in pay for a number of years, rather to reveal the inconsistencies by allowing staff to discuss salaries. Staff could then vote with their feet, but then this is something companies are familiar with in the employment market; it makes sense that to attract the best staff you need to offer competitive benefits. The same goes for procurement, the bill does not reduce the public sectors procurement needs it merely redirects them to those companies who are able to adapt to the new market conditions. Diversity will become another market force which sorts the wheat from the chaff, a front on which the innovative and adaptable companies will gain competitive advantage and become market leaders.

It is clear that the adaptations to the new legislation will not all be plain sailing, for example there is much uncertainty around situations where there appear to be direct conflicts between different minority groups; we have already been cases pitting sexual orientation against religion. However, without a level playing field we have no scope for dialogue, compromise and understanding.

The dialogue in Birmingham and in our cities workplaces has already started, albeit at a whisper and much of it nervously behind closed doors. Birmingham LGBT Community Trust is one of a small but growing number of groups leading the charge and putting equality on the agenda in the city. We achieved a commitment to investment in the Gay Village in the last 12 months and work will get underway following the Pride Festival 2009. With LGBT equality achieving parity with the other aspects of diversity in wider society the impacts on the work-place experience for our 70,455 LGBs should become easier and more productive. Embracing diversity can boost the performance of our businesses and our city so let’s all get around the water-cooler and be ourselves, come out, and proudly put Birmingham on the map.

Helen Boyle is a former chair of Birmingham LGBT Community Trust

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