To mark Pride month, Health & Protection interviews Shaun White, senior manager of partnerships at life insurer OneFamily, about issues with bringing his whole self to work as a gay man working in the protection sector.
What have been your own experiences with regard to attitudes towards LGBT communities in the sector?
In my early days in the sector, back in the late 80s, I felt the need to not totally express my true self. I appreciate that could be more around my perception and fears over people’s reaction, as opposed to what their actual reaction might have been, but that feeling was definitely there for me.
It took me a while to understand what I was and what I wanted as a gay man, even though, thinking back, it was clear from a very young age.
My teacher spoke to my mother at the age of seven because my homework project on my favourite sportsman was a scrapbook, no words, just full of pictures of men with no tops on, so by the time I started work everything was clear for me and so I never totally hid my true self.
The sort of changes I made were to refer to my partner rather than my boyfriend, and whenever we had a work event my partner was always inconveniently busy so I never had to address the fact he was male.
Particularly in the finance industry there has always been a bit of an old boys’ network and I have to say I do not believe that has totally disappeared – people relying on their mates and previous working acquaintances. This industry should not be about who you have known or worked with but more about establishing new relationships which help drive the industry forward.
Let’s all just take each other on face value and find out how we can support one another to do a great job.
How have attitudes evolved in the sector?
Certainly, these days we see a lot of recognition of issues which affect the LGBTQ+ community, which you would never have seen when I first started in the industry.
Recognition alone does not solve the problems though.
Having been involved in a few initiatives over the years which tried to address the issues, it feels like now we are not only talking about them but also trying to promote education and open discussion. Certainly, at OneFamily where I work, we are seeing actions to address phobic behaviour and the organisation is standing up to make it clear that it will not be tolerated.
That is a great step forward.
What is the sector doing well and where does it need to up its game?
My experience in the sector is that LGBTQ+ issues are certainly being bought to the surface.
Internal colleagues at OneFamily and those in other sector organisations are definitely more open about their sexuality and gender identity – I often see gender pronouns on email signatures now.
The more we can get these topics of conversation out into the open, the quicker we will gain acceptance or at least an understanding of our differences.
After all, no matter who you speak to, there will be something about that individual that makes them different from the rest of the group. Maybe not being gay, but maybe they were adopted, or from a different ethnic background or so on, but all of those differences should be embraced.
In my opinion, just treat everyone with respect. You do not need to have the same opinion as everyone else but you do owe it to your colleagues, and yourself, to have your own educated opinion. So, make sure you educate yourself and do things for the right reason.
Don’t jump on a bandwagon just because it is moving. Research, learn and ensure you understand the history and background of what is being said and really understand what your actions mean.
Whether it is adding your pronouns to your signature or becoming an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, make sure you understand why you are doing it.
Ensure your actions are driven by a desire to make change for good.
After all, it is your job to ensure you are educated to make decisions and not the job of those who you are trying to become educated about.
The industry can support this by providing educational tools and allowing staff the space to have these discussions. After all, it will benefit your staff and ultimately your organisation.
OneFamily is providing a lot of material and space for employees to educate themselves and set them off down that path, which is great and being in that sort of environment is very encouraging.
As part of our diversity and inclusion work I have recorded an interview with a local drag queen about the changes they have seen on the gay scene, which has been shared with my colleagues.
I have also hosted an open conversation, alongside a colleague, about what being homosexual means to us, where staff were encouraged to ask questions.
I believe there is no such thing as an awkward question if it comes from a point of seeking education and the person is happy to receive an honest answer. It is amazing what can be achieved from a simple conversation.
Do you feel encouraged and enabled to bring your whole self to work?
I am a confident individual and in the main I would say yes, I have no issue with being myself.
Having said that, only the other day I found myself adjusting my behaviour during a meeting.
Normally I would have no issue with addressing my homosexuality and usually use my ‘Gay Icon’ mug, which is often clearly visible on video calls with our external colleagues and partner organisations.
However, I found myself in a meeting with an organisation that I felt might not respond favourably to this particular gay icon and so found myself covering up my mug during the meeting.
Was that driven by their lack of understanding, or by my concern due to conditioning on feeling that people from particular groups may have an issue? Clearly the latter as I do not know their individual stance on homosexuality. But that feeling was still there.
What I am saying is that, until I can enter any room or meeting with no fear of repercussions due to my homosexuality, I guess we are not fully there yet.
Maybe I should have been braver.
When it comes down to it, in my daily work, I have no issues being who I am and representing my full self but sometimes there feels the need not to be quite as open as I would like to be.