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Inclusiveness to grow: a conference making an LGBTI difference

October 25, 2016
 
At GE’s GLBTA APAC Regional Conference in Perth last month, the company officially registered its support for Australians for Marriage Equality. Geoff Culbert, President and CEO of GE in Australia and New Zealand, says, “We have one of the most thriving LGBTI populations in the world, we have long embraced diversity and benefited from it as a country. At GE, we absolutely recognise that an inclusive workplace, where everyone can be their authentic self, is more productive and effective.”

Inclusiveness was the theme of the GE conference, with a focus on the benefits that accrue when everyone is encouraged to bring their whole identity to work ...

One in every two lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) Australians hide their identity in the workplace, according to data from Pride in Diversity, Australia’s national employer support program for LGBTI workplace inclusion, and publishers of the Australian Workplace Equality Index.

Behind the statistics lie anguish and lost opportunity—two powerful reasons why GE is holding the GLBTA* Alliance APAC Regional Conference this week in Perth, and why some of the company’s customers and suppliers, from Aurizon to Qantas, are participating.

Jeremy Wray, manager of Subsea Systems Accounts for GE Oil & Gas says his aim in organising the conference is that the 100 or so attendees will “take away a sense of optimism and a desire to get more involved. I’d love it if they had an ‘Aha’ moment at the conference, perhaps around understanding the lived experience of LGBTI employees, and how non-inclusiveness actually impacts people’s lives.”

Alan Joyce, CEO and managing director of Qantas, will present via teleconference at the event, themed, Inclusiveness to Grow. Joyce, who has referred to himself as “a gay man running the biggest iconic brand in the country”, says he believes Australia as a whole is a meritocracy, but he constantly campaigns and champions inclusiveness and equality for the LGBTI community, and diversity in general.
“Employers are not making the most of everyone’s talents if people don’t feel valued in the workplace.” WA Senator, Louise Pratt

In the US, a study by the Human Rights Campaign organisation discovered that 62% of LGBTI university graduates born between 1980 and 2000 go back into the closet when they start their first job.

Many do so for fear that it will affect their careers, that their relationships with colleagues will change, and that co-workers or management might think it’s unprofessional of them to talk about their partners, dating or sexuality at work.

Yet we all talk about our families, partners, relationships and what we did on the weekend with our colleagues and the friends we make at work.

Says Senator Louise Pratt, WA’s Shadow Assistant Minister for Families and Communities, herself a member of the LGBTI community, “What most LGBTI people look for in their place of employment is the assurance that they don’t need to hide their private life or censor their conversations. They need to feel as comfortable as anyone else in talking about their partner, children and home life.”

Wray explains that a sense of isolation among closeted LGBTI employees can lead to health problems, absenteeism, lack of trust and engagement, and high turnover of LGBTI staff—all of which diminish productivity.
“That we’re having some of these conversations in an open, constructive way—that’s a first step to inclusiveness.” Jeremy Wray, GE

Senator Pratt, who has long campaigned for gender equality and will speak at the conference about her experiences, says she especially hopes to raise the profile of LGBTI rights in non-white-collar industries, “where it is likely that companies assume that they don’t have LGBTI staff, because they are invisible”. She says “It’s important that workplaces have LGBTI inclusion policies even when their employees are not out or known.”

Catherine Baxter, vice president of operations at Aurizon, Australia’s largest rail-based transport business and a top-50 ASX company, has helped to drive Aurizon’s recent transformation towards inclusiveness.

She says, “The updating of company policies to ensure inclusiveness of everyone—not just LGBTIQ** people, but women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, for example—has been a great start. And the formal launch of Aurizon’s ‘ALLin’ network in May last year has led to many more positive changes.”

One Aurizon inclusiveness campaign asked employees to wear rainbow-coloured laces in their work boots as a conversation starter and as a sign to colleagues of their commitment to inclusion at Aurizon.

“The campaign was received with such enthusiasm that we soon ran out of rainbow laces, which are now a visible constant in our operations,” wrote Aurizon employee Matthew, on the company blog.

He says the campaign, “became a defining period in recognising the willingness and commitment of our peers to champion a culture where we can all feel comfortable to bring our whole selves to work.”

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GE’s Inclusiveness to Grow conference will share such successful grassroots initiatives and emphasise the importance of participation from the top.

Ross Wetherbee, the senior program manager of Pride in Diversity and Pride in Sport, both social inclusion programs of ACON, Australia’s largest LGBTI health organisation, who is speaking at the conference about the state of inclusion among industrial companies, also links inclusiveness with corporate results.

Pride in Diversity publishes the Australian Workforce Equality Index, which ranks workplaces on their inclusivity. Wetherbee says that high-performing Australian organisations are characterised by C-suite, executive team and senior leadership involvement with LGBTI policies and initiatives—that is, the bosses publicly and unequivocally walk the inclusive talk.
“True inclusivity enables diversity of thought and psychological safety.” Ross Wetherbee, Pride in Diversity

Another characteristic of high-performing companies, says Wetherbee, is that they innovate in their engagement with LGBTI communities both inside and outside their organisations; he cites reverse-mentorship of managers as an example.

And he says that, like GE, other highly successful companies engage with their suppliers to ensure that they have similar inclusion programs in place. This helps to spread inclusiveness and promote an environment in which employees can feel safe and comfortable with their identity during all workplace interactions.

GE’s GLBTA inclusion program “started in earnest in the early 2000s,” says Wray, “and has been gathering momentum in the past couple of years, with chapters emerging in Singapore, China and Japan.”

He says the opportunity in organising this conference has been to engage with customers on a level beyond business, “asking about the challenges that they’re facing, finding ways that we can collaborate; I’ve talked with companies that don’t have an Ally network, and been able to give back to them, to share what we’ve done, and help them to progress the inclusion.”

* GE’s inclusiveness network has the acronym GLBTA, which stands for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies.
** Aurizon’s inclusiveness network has the acronym LGBTIQ, which stands for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer.
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