LGBT History Month: encouraging openness in the legal profession
John Grady is a partner in our regulation and markets team, and a sponsor and ally of Shepherd and Wedderburn’s LGBTIA Group
Why do I work as an ally and sponsor to the LGBTIA Group at Shepherd and Wedderburn, and why is the firm as a whole determined to be an open and inclusive place to work? The answer is very simple: it is the right thing to do.
And yet, for most of history, society has taken the opposite view. Even now, LGBTIA people suffer from discrimination, both in the workplace and in their private lives, and are at a higher risk of suffering hate crime. Some people still fear being open about being gay. Against that backdrop, it is no surprise evidence suggests there is a greater incidence of depression and mental health issues among the LGBTIA community.
On any view this is wrong, and that is why we, as a business, are committed to supporting LGBTIA colleagues. We strive to make our culture as inclusive as possible because we believe our clients, colleagues and business are best served by a diverse workforce, with the wide range of experiences, ideas and perspectives this brings.
Before joining the firm back in 2014, I made a personal commitment to myself to be honest and open about my sexuality with my new colleagues, irrespective of the consequences.
It’s probably not the kind of commitment that many others in my trainee year group would have felt the need to make but it was a really big deal for me. I knew that I may be spending the next decade or more of my life with the people that I was about to meet and I just didn’t have the energy to start concealing parts of my life.
So, in my first few days, I made a concerted effort to make as many references as possible to my partner: what he did for work, what his hobbies were and that I lived with him. It was clumsy and awkward at times but it worked and I know I’m not the first LGBTIA person to do this when entering a new job.
Looking back, the easiest thing for me to say now would be that no-one really cared, that everyone treated me the same and that it didn’t make the slightest difference to my early career. But I’m not sure I can say that or, in fact, that I would even want to say that.
Because, to treat me the same as anyone else, would have been to tolerate or even to ignore what makes me different. Diplomatically ignoring our differences might often feel like the safest and most sensitive option but it can sometimes have the most harmful effects.
A helpful example might be when people say that they “don’t’ care” about someone’s sexuality, about who they love or what they do outside the office. It’s a phrase that I’ve heard often, both in and out of the workplace, and I have no doubt that it is almost always said with the best of intentions.
The problem with it is that I want them to care. I want them to care in the same way that I care about their daughter’s dance classes, their latest tinder date or their husband’s painful redundancy. Caution and care with our words is no substitute for genuine interaction and friendship.
It’s not a one-way street, of course, and I know there are many good reasons why people are nervous about discussing these subjects. For instance, a fear of using the wrong terminology or asking the wrong questions.
Words matter, of course, and some views must be challenged. But that’s why, as a gay man, I think it’s even more important to try to bridge that gap and share my own experiences openly and with good humour.
It’s why I sometimes poke fun at my own oh-so-stereotypical love for Eurovision and trashy pop music. But it’s also why I talk about how it feels to be prevented from donating blood or having to be more careful about the countries I visit. There’s no right or wrong way to discuss these things but I find empathy, openness and mutual respect can go a long way.
I would therefore encourage you to remove some of those invisible barriers that you may have when interacting with colleagues.
My name is Deborah – I am a corporate solicitor, a girlfriend, a sister, a friend, a chocaholic, a musical-theatre fan, an (occasional) jogger and a bisexual woman. The latter being a relatively recent discovery which, perhaps, surprised me more than anyone else.
The past year or so has taught me a lot about what it means to be inclusive. I now see the world, and the workplace, through a slightly different prism (one that inevitably casts a rainbow).
I thought I had been the most supportive person I could be to my queer colleagues and friends. However, that's simply not the case. No matter how well-intentioned we all are, we will occasionally get it wrong.
I've reflected on my recent experiences to try to understand the little steps that we can all take (whether as role models or as allies) to make LGBTIA colleagues feel as welcome and as comfortable as possible (both in and outside the workplace).
Much like my colleague Calum, I made a determined effort casually to drop references to my girlfriend into conversations from my first day at Shepherd and Wedderburn.
Although I don’t think there was any trace of anxiety in my voice, beneath the calm exterior I felt panic and anxiety as I thought that people might judge me or react with horror.
Of course, none of these nightmare scenarios took place, the conversations continued as casually as they otherwise would have, and with each passing day my anxiety started to subside. I consider myself to be very lucky to work in such a supportive environment, which unfortunately for many other LGBTIA people, isn't the case.
For those in the LGBTIA community who are not out at work (which, statistically, is a scarily high percentage), one of the biggest concerns is the fear of having to correct other people’s assumptions. "You're a pretty girl, why don't you have a boyfriend?" or "Who are you going on holiday with? Oh, John – is that your flatmate?"
The expectation that you are straight hangs heavy in the air and, with time, becomes an increasing burden.
Carrying its weight often manifests itself in extreme anxiety. From my own experience (and those of others I know), the number of panic and anxiety attacks that have resulted from innocent questions, like the ones above, is heart-breaking.
How can we help? What can we do to lighten the load?
Ask open questions – don't assume. Let people share themselves with you without having to flip your perception of them. It is simple, considered acts in our day to day life that have the ability to effect positive change.
A few of my colleagues asked me if I preferred to use the term "girlfriend" or "partner". What a simple question! However, this showed me that my colleagues were not only supportive, but also were actively making an effort to ensure that I was comfortable referring to my girlfriend in the office.
Calum and I believe our role is to share our experiences openly. To show other LGBTIA colleagues (whether out or not) that we do work in an inclusive environment and that it is okay – no, that it is great – just being yourself.
We hope that by starting this conversation, everybody starts to reflect on and consider their role in this journey – we all have a part to play.
As an ally to the LGBTIA group and member of the HR team, I can use my position to influence change.
Shepherd and Wedderburn is committed to promoting diversity, inclusion and social mobility within our business.
We ensure that diversity, inclusion and social mobility is at front of mind when undertaking recruitment, training, promotion, salary and benefit reviews and policy development work.
Progress in the field of diversity, inclusion and social mobility is monitored by our Partnership Board, and we have a Board Champion who supports us in ensuring the necessary firm support is available.
In our recruitment campaigns for prospective employees and graduates, we talk about S+W Together (Shepherd and Wedderburn’s umbrella diversity group) to highlight that we are an open and inclusive organisation. Since S+W Together was formed, we have noticed an increase in the diversity of applicants applying for positions within our firm.
We go to great lengths to provide everyone in the business with e-learning, seminars and discussion opportunities, and our line managers and partners receive additional training on understanding and overcoming unconscious bias, and mental health in the workplace. To expand our equality and diversity training further, we have recently rolled out inclusive leadership training for Directors and Partners.
Employees can openly discuss any issues they have around fairness, transparency and equality of opportunity in their appraisals. As part of the appraisal, managers are required to comment on how their teams have supported and promoted diversity and inclusion.
We have also updated our policies to ensure that they are inclusive to all. We have reviewed our policies to ensure they include inclusive and gender neutral language and created a Supporting our Trans Employees Policy.
Fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace does not happen overnight – but we can all of us use our experiences and respective roles to influence change, regardless of how we may identify. We hope you join us in using LGBT History Month as a time to reflect on the everyday steps we can take to make a difference.