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Changing the minds of straight, white men – and what not to say to a trans colleague

Changing the minds of straight, white men – and what not to say to a trans colleague

L-R: Liz Grant, Sarah Boddey and Debbie Cannon discuss the basics of LGBTI inclusion at the Dive In festival in London

The offices of Allied World at 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London – aka the Walkie Talkie – were among those playing host to Dive In festival events yesterday.

Initiated by employee resource group [email protected], and supported by a range of other insurance companies, Dive In was a four-day event to explore and promote diversity and inclusion within the insurance sector.

The third day of the festival was subtitled Out in the Market, and it specifically looked at issues around LGBTI diversity and inclusion.

The day began with a discussion on ‘The “Out” Workplace: Basics for LGBT Inclusion’, which featured Debbie Cannon, a personal injuries claims handler for LV=. Cannon talked movingly about her personal journey as a trans woman.

Cannon had previously served in the military, married and become a parent, before taking up work in the insurance sector. She eventually reached a point where she realized that she wanted to transition. Choosing to tell a work colleague for the first time was one of the most nerve-wracking things that she’d ever had to do.

Fortunately, the colleague was supportive, although Cannon admits that her transition proved to be a learning curve for many of her fellow staff; ‘but it was a learning curve for me too.’

She offered advice for anyone who finds themselves working with a transgender member of staff.

  • ‘Don’t ask them what they used to be called.’
  • ‘Don’t ask them if they are undergoing or have undergone gender re-assignment. Transitioning is not all about gender re-assignment and at the end of the day, it’s none of your business.’
  • ‘Never use the term “trannie”.’
  • ‘Be aware that some transgender people are effectively going through puberty again, and may need extra support.’

She explained how the issue of using a male or female bathroom can be fraught with anxiety for some transgender people who are concerned about being challenged.

She also acknowledged the fact that many cisgender individuals are frightened of engaging with transgender people or asking them questions, in case they cause offence, but said that: ‘We’ll know when it’s being asked with good intentions or bad intent.’

Sarah Boddey, Liz Grant and Debbie Cannon
Sarah Boddey, Liz Grant and Debbie Cannon

Other speakers included Liz Grant, OBE, Director of Fantail, and Sarah Boddey, a head of Diversity and Inclusion at AIG.

Boddey, who identified as straight, said that promoting LGBTI inclusion had become a particular passion for her, and added that ‘transsexual’ was becoming increasingly inappropriate as most trans people prefer transgender or simply ‘trans’.

Cannon agreed, saying that ‘transsexual’ again put an unnecessary emphasis on ‘sex’ and gender re-assignment.

Boddey talked also about the problems of persuading straight staff of the importance of LGBTI inclusion, and knocking down the various arguments that had been presented to her for not taking the issue seriously.

To those who might say that the workplace ‘shouldn’t be getting involved in people’s private lives’, she replied that ‘Being gay is a fundamental part of who you are and you can’t ask people to leave this fundamental part at the doorstep of work.’

To drive home the message, Liz Grant talked passionately about the business case or LGBTI inclusion. Research carried out by Stonewall shows that individuals that conceal their sexual orientation at work are 30% less productive. In London, an estimated 10% of the population are LGBT; if 10% of your workforce are LGBTI and feel confined to the closet, how much productivity is being lost at work?

Lord Browne addresses the Dive In festival audience at Aon
Lord Browne addresses the Dive In festival audience at Aon

She went on to talk about the advantages of businesses promoting themselves to LGBTI customers, and the challenges faced by global companies in promoting their values in all the countries in which they operate.

‘How do you begin to tackle the core group of straight, white men who are so uncomfortable with LGBT issues?’, asked one member of the audience.

‘Chip away around the edges,’ suggested Boddey. ‘Think about introducing reverse mentoring.’

She said that linking up a senior staff member for a monthly coffee and chat with an LGBTI member of staff had paid great dividends, with the senior staff member coming to see LGBTI people as… well, people.

The session was followed by a networking event hosted by Link, the LGBT Insurance network, and a lunchtime talk from representatives of Diversity Role Models.

The most popular session of the day was an evening talk from Lord John Browne, the former head of BP and now chairman of L1 Energy. It took place at the Aon Centre, in the new Leadenhall Building (aka, the Cheese Grater).

Browne was introduced by Corporation of Lloyd’s Chairman, John Nelson.

Browne recounted his own story about being outed by a newspaper whilst still at BP, and his subsequent resignation. He talked about writing his book, The Glass Closet, and the – overwhelmingly positive – reaction he had had from people since.

Browne has talked to many people in the business world about LGBTI inclusion, and was aware how much work still needs to be done – both in the UK and globally.

He recounted how a head hunter had approached him after a talk he gave in the Midlands recently and had said how a CEO had asked him to recruit a new senior member of staff. His blunt instructions were; ‘I want them male, white and straight.’

‘We must not forget that the situation outside major metropolis like London, New York and LA is still very different,’ cautioned Browne.

He said that he thought that companies could be doing a lot more to monitor how many LGBTI staff they had, in order to track their progress in this area. Unless more companies collect such data, it’s impossible to know how widespread exclusion and bias persists.

A Dive In poster outside the Lloyds Building in the city of London
A Dive In poster outside the Lloyds Building in the city of London

Erik Johnson, one of the founders of [email protected] and now Assistant Vice President of Allied World, heralded the Out in the Market day as a great success, saying that around 400 people had registered to attend events across the day.

‘Out in the Market, the LGBT focused day of the Dive In Festival was made all the more special by having Corporation of Lloyd’s Chairman, John Nelson there with Lord Browne at the end of a day. That was very untypical for the Lloyd’s insurance market.

‘It began by challenging HR people to think about LGBT people as a significant talent pool to be nurtured and ended with some of the most powerful people in the City speaking openly about the importance and the business case for being out at work.’

His sentiments were echoed by Jason Groves, director of communications at Marsh and chair of the communications committee for the festival.

‘We’ve had a fantastic reaction to the entire Dive In Festival, with many events being virtually packed out,’ he told Gay Star Business. ‘The festival has definitely helped to change many hearts and minds about the business case for diversity and inclusion in the insurance sector.’

Images: Festival images Alice Lubbock – @alice_lub | Photo of Dive In poster outside Lloyds: David Hudson @davidhudson_uk