As another academic year nears and the campus begins to bubble back to life, I always take a moment to reflect back to my own first days as an anxious ‘fresher’.
Just like any new student I was concerned about getting lost, making friends, fitting in, managing finances and making it through the many dreaded exams and assignments… But unlike a number of my peers I was also concerned about who I should be at university.
Only a year earlier, I had come out to close friends and family, and whilst I had heard university is the one place you can be yourself I still didn’t want to be labelled as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ the moment I stepped foot on campus.
Fast forward several years, I once again faced the same question of whether to ‘out’ myself in the workplace, even though that workplace was another HE establishment. I decided I didn’t want my sexuality to define me, besides it had nothing to do with whether I could do my job well or not.
In 2008, Stonewall researchers interviewed a range of lesbian and bisexual women in depth about their experiences in the workplace.
The participants discussed their experiences, perceptions and expectations of the impact that their sexuality might have on them at work. Whilst there was a large mix of responses it showed that many felt that as they already faced visible barriers being women in the workplace, being ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ was another barrier they could avoid by hiding that part of themselves at work. It suggested that lesbian women had far less of a community and culture for support, unlike their gay male colleagues. To add, bisexual women (and men) are even more invisible and found it even harder to talk about their life outside of work.
It can take a lot of nervous energy to hide oneself at work.
It can impact your ability to build an open and honest rapport with colleagues, impact your confidence in your role or ability to progress in a department. This, alongside many early factors associated with coming to terms with ones sexuality, in part explains why LGB people are 50% more likely to experience long-term mental health problems or twice as likely to commit suicide. Unfortunately, the figures are even more daunting for trans individuals with 88% suffering from depression, 77% on anti-depressants and over 60% attempting suicide.
So whilst at first sight it might not seem to make a big impact on whether an LGBT individual is out at work, it could make a very significant difference to that individuals career progression or even mental wellbeing.
Over time I learnt to be more open and found myself going from hiding who I was to setting up a new LGBT staff and allies network.
Personally, I can say that being able to be myself at work in an institution that values individuals and diversity has enabled me to develop professionally with confidence. Being a part of the LGBT staff and allies network has permitted me to develop professional networks I wouldn’t have otherwise accessed and has provided me with a base to demonstrate professional competencies I might not have shown in my previous roles.
Whilst I appreciate some colleagues may doubt the need for an LGBT network, I do hope that they can appreciate the role it can play in helping others to feel welcome and valued. I look forward to a time when the roles of such networks are no longer needed. In the meantime, I encourage anyone, LGBT or ally, to come along or to show their support to the network, it could mean the difference to being happy and successful at work, or help make someone else feel that bit more welcome!
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About the author
Sarah-Louise Collins is Widening Participation Manager at the University of Winchester.