OUTstanding role models: a conversation with Australian LGBTI Leaders

Role models play an integral role in society. Whether in popular culture, the sporting arena or in business – people (particularly those less fortunate) may find both solace and strength in looking to someone else who has ‘made it’.

‘Making it’ in this sense, needn’t be fame nor riches. Humble people of ordinary means can be inspiring role models. They can be a parent, teacher or colleague. Role models are what they are – not so much because they see themselves as great – but because others perceive greatness in them.

In 2016 Deloitte and the AFR Boss Magazine published Australia’s first list of LGBTI business role models. The purpose of the list was to provide a clear set of successful business leaders who identify as LGBTI, and to shine a light on them for LGBTI Australians and the wider community.

It has now been almost a year since the list was published, and to coordinate with Wear it Purple Day on August 25th, Deloitte spoke with three of the individuals from the inaugural Outstanding 50 LGBTI leaders to discuss leadership, inclusion and the importance of role models:

Andrew Hall – Andrew is the Executive General Manager for Corporate Affairs at the Commonwealth Bank. He was previously the Director of Corporate and Public Affairs for Woolworths and sits on the Board of Australians 4 Equality and is involved with the Out for Australia program. Connect with Andrew on Twitter @ajhall72.

Georgie Harman – Georgie is the CEO of beyondblue, leading a team providing services, support and advice to help Australian’s achieve their best possible mental health. She has significant policy, change management and service delivery experience with a focus on complex and sensitive societal issues. She is on the Board of the Victorian Pride Centre. Connect with Georgie on Twitter @georgie_harman.

Peter Wilson – Peter is a Managing Director of Greenhill & Co. Inc. – the NYSE-listed independent investment bank, where he has advised major corporations and governments for more than 12 years. He was a long-standing volunteer and Chair of the Inner City Legal Centre, and is currently Chair of PlayWriting Australia, a Director of Belvoir and a member of the Council of Women’s College at the University of Sydney. Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

According to Pride in Diversity statistics, in Australia, as many as one in two LGBTI Australians are not comfortable being ‘out’ at work. How does a statistic like this manifest in the businesses you manage, or in Australian business more broadly?

Andrew: I hope to think that this statistic has shifted somewhat. However, it is a worrying statistic if it is still the case. I do feel that things have changed enormously – over the last ten years in particular – whilst I believe there will always be an interest factor from colleagues around someone’s own personal story, I think a person’s sexual orientation has become less of an issue. Having said this, you can never underestimate the challenge and vulnerability of coming out at work.

Peter: I guess similarly to Andrew, the statistic you mention isn’t congruent with my personal experience. However, we do know there are people who are in that position. I recall many years ago a situation of being uncomfortable taking my partner to a Christmas party at work.  We had a long discussion about it and I didn’t end up taking him. What’s sad is – sometimes you don’t necessarily need know that being out at work will cause a negative reaction, it can just be not knowing that can be just as bad and unsettling.

Georgie: beyondblue is part of an industry that truly embraces diversity – where you can come to work and be your whole self – so it certainly isn’t an issue coming to work here. We employ a significant number of LGBTI people who are ‘out’ – right from the junior levels up to board level.

Having said that, I started my career in a big city law firm and have been ‘out’ throughout my entire career. It never struck me as something I needed to hide – as Andrew and Peter have said – I recognise that is very different to other people’s experiences. I have always approached it in a way that I am aware of my skills and what I bring to the table, and that I’ve made a contribution on my merits – being gay is just one part of who you are and I don’t feel it has disadvantaged me in anyway.

Do you think it is easy to forget sometimes, in leading, larger-end corporate organisations where diversity and inclusion has widely been embraced, that the experience may be different for those working in smaller organisations or outside corporate?

Peter: I think that no workplace, be they large corporate, SME or otherwise should just assume that they are a friendly safe place for LGBTI people. It is up to them to be sufficiently proactive. I will say though, from my own experience, in a small organisation where you aren’t remote from the ultimate decision maker, it can be very easy to work it out quickly whether it is safe or not to be out – in some larger organisations it’s more difficult to be truly sure.

Andrew: My partner works for a smaller firm of around 30-40 people and I think the maturing of attitudes in society more broadly, is evident in small businesses. As Georgie said earlier, people respect each other for their skills and talent. Although, I am always impressed when I come across people who have a ‘blue collar’ type career, where you could imagine it might be more challenging and they have done it and come through it successfully.

Thinking back to when you started your own career, how have things changed in Australian business with relation to LGBTI inclusion? What’s better? Is anything potentially worse?

Andrew: Things are always improving, I wouldn’t say that anything is worse. What saddens me though, is that if there is any lingering sense that this has anything to do with political correctness, I am dismayed that in 2017 this attitude still permeates. We know that we should have diverse workforces – this has been proven without doubt. So when you come across people advocating the political correctness point of view, it is very hard to take seriously.

Georgie: I agree with Andrew, I do a lot of work with businesses across all industries and the shift certainly over the last 5-10 years has been towards recognising the value and the contribution that diverse workforces bring to the bottom line. If you think about other types of movements – such as the gender equality movement – we’ve seen more recently corporates actually standing up against things like domestic violence, because they know it’s good for business as well as society. Creating a workplace culture that encourages difference and diversity is recognised as a business advantage, not just the right thing to do.

Peter: For me there’s no doubt that it is better. Particularly for younger cohorts of people. I went to an urban law school – so the culture there and that generation was pretty ok – but I don’t think any of us really knew anyone who was out in high school. Today’s generation seems to be coming out much earlier and among their peers it doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal. I do have a fear though that over the last couple of years, we are seeing hate speech again from public figures. The quality of the debate is under threat – everything is opinion, consensus is eroded. There’s an attitude emerging among these groups of: ‘whatever I think is OK, and I only have to listen respectfully to people who agree with me’.

A study conducted by YouGov in the UK found that as many as 49% of individuals surveyed between the ages of 18-24, identified themselves as neither completely heterosexual or homosexual (i.e. somewhere in between). What are the implications of numbers like this for businesses, particularly those with formal graduate intake programs?

Peter: I was having this conversation with a senior executive in the financial services sector just recently. She was asking me how she should talk to her people about how they should behave and talk about LGBTI people and issues. What I said to her was that you need to remember that this sort of status is personal and it’s not apparent on the outside most of the time, so firstly never assume that you know what a person’s sexuality or gender is. If you start from that perspective, it enables you to quickly communicate in a more inclusive way.

Andrew: These sort of figures show that there is a change in generational thinking and probably more traditional prejudices that have existed around gender or sexuality are declining. I think within the next decade again, there will be a cohort of people moving into middle level management and more senior roles, who for them, they have grown up in an era where questions around a person’s sexual orientation is irrelevant.

Georgie: It really comes down to business and companies positioning themselves as places where people can come to work and be their whole and authentic selves. At the end of the day, we are employed to do work, to make a contribution to the company we work for. Identity is incredibly important at an individual level, but it shouldn’t be the central driver of hiring practice, marketing, or defining your product. It should just be: “we want the best people to work with us”.

Why is having visible LGBTI role models important?

Andrew: They are important because they display very clearly to people that it’s about your determination, your abilities and your capabilities – these determine your success in your life. If you can see people who are achieving, doing what you want to do, that is incredibly heartening.

Peter: I think it’s important because there has been a lack of them. Unless there are LGBTI people modelling successful careers and standing up against things that negatively impact our community, then they aren’t successful role models. We to remember that a lot of us – and I’m referring to those of us who have achieved some form of success – have to a degree had some privilege. Whether it be wealth or education or having been supported by LGBTI friends and allies – the real pain of discrimination hits people the hardest when they are otherwise disadvantaged. And role models, even though they may be far away, may also be the only positive image a person has.

Georgie, on the point of role models, is this even more significant for women?

Georgie: I think when you are in a position like mine and you have a platform, you need to use it. I think it’s incredibly valuable, no matter how cringe worthy I might personally find it at times – I don’t necessarily see myself as a ‘role model’ – however if others see me as that, then I need to step up. I think that reflects the challenges that women generally face in the workplace. If I think back over my career, I didn’t see my sexuality as impeding my career, nor being a woman. However if I had chosen a different career path, being female may have been a bigger issue and probably more so than my sexual orientation.

The discussion of same sex marriage and marriage equality has again become a significant talking point in Australian politics. Do you think LGBTI Australians need strong role models now? What would you say to those who might be struggling at this time?

Andrew: Through the course of the ballot, Australians will hopefully see a lot of LGBTI role models. The great thing that will happen for most Australians is that they will hear from straight allies, who are saying ‘It doesn’t matter, I’m voting yes – this is a question of love’. One of the biggest upsides of going through this unfortunate process is that, sometimes, the people you least expect will be the ones showing up in support.

Peter: I think it’s important at all times. However yes, the equality debate means that those role models need to be seen to be modelling a different form of success now. It is one thing to have role models who are successful in corporate life, now we need to have role models who have successful relationships, who have successful families, who are modelling those qualities.

Georgie: It is an incredibly important time for people with influence to be talking openly about their sexuality and what marriage equality means for them and their family, friends and colleagues. I would say that marriage equality is important to me personally, but it is important to us as a country: it says that we are all equal. We know that the rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are much higher in LGBTI people than the rest of the population. That is not because we are somehow more vulnerable, weak or prone to illness; it is because the additional layer of prejudice and discrimination we face – simply for being who we – are elevates the risk factors.

What is the desired end result here? Will we ever be able to put our feet up and say ‘good job’ or do you think that in some way shape or form, the wider inclusion conversation will remain permanent?

Georgie: I’m a bit of a Pollyanna and I truly believe that we are not far off, maybe a few years, but we are well down the road. Future generations will look back and say what a ridiculous concept. But as Peter alluded to earlier, some of us have come from privileged perspectives and our experience isn’t necessarily the experience of the young transgender kid, hiding who they are in a small country town. So until that is solved, there is much work to be done.

Andrew: I think the foundation for a stronger, more diverse and inclusive future is well laid. But we can never stop or take our eye off it. History has shown that you always need to be working on it, understanding it, thinking about it and challenging it. We will forever be working on it to some degree – but with the foundations of inclusion laid the way they are now, we are working on it for more positives than negatives and that’s the great thing.

Peter: An ongoing conversation about inclusion is a feature of a healthy culture. Human society has always had “have’s” and “have nots”, so we do need to retain the inclusion conversation. On the flip side, if you take your attention off something, it can very quickly turn which means we can’t be complacent – we need to keep the diversity lens on everything we do. This discussion is fundamentally about treating other people as human beings. It can be really quite simple and that can cut through a lot of the BS that loud voices on the fringes of both sides that we tend to hear.

Make it a discussion that’s compulsory. It needs to be a very respectful conversation: are we going to treat people as humans? It’s a pretty quick conversation in my view.


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