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Despite major advances toward LGBT+ equality in recent years, queer women still bear the burden of invisibility in the workplace. Here, Christobel Hastings looks at what it means to be hidden in plain sight, and how companies can push for progress.

A few years ago, I undertook a freelance gig at a media company. I was only supposed to stay for a couple of weeks, but somehow the days blurred by, and before I knew it, I’d been part of the team for six months. I was friendly with staff, included in office gossip, and even went for after-work drinks on Fridays. I was a part of the furniture; sort of.

"It was the first time I’d mentioned my sexuality, and judging by the astonished looks I received afterwards, I was reminded for the umpteenth time why I usually keep it quiet"

Christobel Hastings, Freelance Journalist

One day, the office chatter turned to A-list actors, and everyone in my team gave their verdict on which famous celebrity was the hottest. When it got to my turn, I laughed awkwardly. “I’m going have to sit this one out because I’m gay,” I said. It was the first time I’d mentioned my sexuality, and judging by the astonished looks I received afterwards, I was reminded for the umpteenth time why I usually keep it quiet. Once my colleagues had recovered and conversation bubbled back to a normal volume, one woman turned to me and said, “you never mentioned you were gay!” Her tone was incredulous, eyebrows quizzical, and she looked at me as if I’d been deliberately concealing the information. I smiled, shrugged, and swiveled back around to my laptop. The truth is, I wanted to say, you always assumed I was straight.

Hidden Figures You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a one-off episode, but actually, it’s the story of my entire working life. It’s a strange phenomenon, in some senses, because the wheels of change really do seem to be turning for LGBT+ people. The past decade has seen a huge shift in positive representation in Hollywood, and queer stories on the small screen are booming (shout out to Netflix). There’s no shortage of role models in the public eye either, and conversation about LGBT+ life in the media is steadily becoming more sensitive and nuanced. 

73% of LGBT+ women are not fully out to colleagues, while 86% of women said there is a need for more visible lesbian and bisexual women in senior professional roles, to help boost visibility and provide role models for other women

It’s disappointing, then, that the same progress hasn’t occurred in the workplace. Although plenty of companies are now making strides towards LGBT+ inclusion, there is still a dearth of visible queer women in professional environments. According to Mckinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace study , 71% of lesbian women have dealt with microaggressions at work, and are also far more likely to feel like they cannot talk about their personal lives. Another study from the British LGBT+ Awards found that 73% of LGBT+ women are not fully out to colleagues, while 86% of women said there is a need for more visible lesbian and bisexual women in senior professional roles to help boost visibility and provide role models for other women. You may ask why people don’t just simply disclose their sexual orientation in order to gain visibility. To do so, though, requires an environment that embraces varied expressions of gender and sexuality; and sadly, that’s where most workplaces fall flat. When Amy*, a 25-year-old LGBT+ content creator, worked at a photography studio in 2018, she found herself on the receiving end of harmful assumptions from her colleagues. “It was a very small team, and they were all straight females talking about their boyfriends on our lunch breaks,” she recalls. As is often the experience of queer women, Amy’s colleagues excluded her by reaching conclusions about her sexuality, automatically discounting the possibility that she was a lesbian. “I felt awkward because they asked me if I had a boyfriend. I said no and was very vague about things. I only worked there for a week because the environment made me feel uncomfortable."

A Visible Imbalance The casual erasure of queer women, often before they have a chance to properly establish themselves in the workplace, is symptomatic of the wider societal demand for heterosexuality. So invested are people in a cultural narrative that requires women to have a male romantic partner, that those who deviate from the script frequently become the target of abuse. Most queer women could write an essay about the unwanted male attention, fatuous remarks and open hostility they’ve received on account of their sexuality. The heteronormative social codes also result in crude stereotypes about appearance and behaviour, and women who don’t fit into that mould aren’t seen at all. Jen*, a 35-year-old lesbian communications manager who worked in recruitment before pivoting to the charity sector, says the toxicity in the corporate workplace is underpinned by an indifference to diversity of age, thought and experience. “Many businesses operate under the modus operandi of: if it's profitable and successful, don't fix it,” she explains. “They pay lip service to diversity and inclusion, but that's all it is; and half the time, it's done in order to show a surface level willingness to improve culture.”

“The higher up the ladder, the more closed the barrier for entry is for people who actually want a change, who don't benefit from the status quo”

Jen*, Communications Manager

The stark gender imbalance in such workplaces, she continues, doesn’t help the cause. “These businesses are always run by old white men – and any discussion on visibility for lesbians, starts with visibility for women.” Representation, she says, inevitably gets worse at a senior level. “The higher up the ladder, the more closed the barrier for entry is for people who actually want a change, who don't benefit from the status quo. How many women are on the board driving the decision-making process? Usually that's the only question you need to ask."

Can You See Me Now? Diversity is, of course, the key to ensuring that queer women and underrepresented groups don’t suffer from erasure in the workplace. It is the lifeblood of a happy, healthy company, and one that naturally leads to a more inclusive culture. And though we often hear the line that workforces must be diverse in order to reflect our society, we forget that a culture of equality helps create an environment in which everybody can advance and thrive. So how does a company go about working towards change? Actively hiring more diverse candidates seems like an obvious first step, but it’s only part of the solution. “No workplace is the same, so diversity and inclusion cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Emma Kosmin, Head of Workplace Consultancy at Stonewall. Employers, she explains, need to listen to the needs of their staff so they can ascertain what particular challenges they face; which makes complete sense given that no two LGBT+ people are the same. “This means creating safe space for these women to come together, discuss their issues and offer their own potential solutions.” At the same time, companies must create more opportunities for professional development, as well as raising the profile of their LGBT+ staff. “We also know that highlighting and profiling LGBT+ women role models in the workplace can have a positive impact on staff at all levels,” she adds.

"Without visibility, queer women aren’t seen, aren’t heard, and aren’t part of the conversation. But when companies adopt a more holistic approach to diversity and inclusion, we can begin to appreciate their brilliance"

Christobel Hastings, Freelance Journalist

It should be noted that even while efforts to hire and promote diverse candidates are taking place, companies should be working harder to foster an inclusive culture. This is where equality and diversity training can highlight the specific issues faced by queer women and LGBT+ people in the workplace, so staff can better understand their blind spots. Ultimately, it can seem like the invisibility of queer women in the workplace isn’t as bad as the appalling harassment, discrimination and violence towards the LGBT+ community that we still read about in the news. But though it’s more tacit, the weight of unconscious bias is just as insidious, and can have a deeply corrosive effect on self-esteem and wellbeing. Without visibility, queer women aren’t seen, aren’t heard, and aren’t part of the conversation. But when companies adopt a more holistic approach to diversity and inclusion, we can begin to appreciate their brilliance, both in the workplace and out in the wider world, too. *Names have been changed

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