June is Pride Month, a time for celebrating the diversity of LGBTQ+ people and an opportunity to reflect on the work society still needs to do to be truly inclusive. To help educate others about the negative experiences LGBTQ+ people have faced, and still face today, we’ve asked members of the PA Pride Network to share some of their stories. Here, Sam West, our Head of Resource Management who’s responsible for staffing our client projects with diverse teams of experts, shares her experiences of self-editing in her early career and how she still sometimes feels the need to hide aspects of her identity.
Let’s rewind our mix tape memories to 1990. I was 16 years old and knew, confidently, I was gay. I understood this meant that boys would not feature in my occasional crushes (with the enduring exception of Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran), and that this was ‘other’ to the conventions of boy meets girl woven throughout everyday life – magazines, media, songs, conversations, history. But I was unsure what this meant for me personally or socially. So, I set about trying to assemble this understanding, and in turn my identity, through (somewhat furtive) devouring of literature, listings and late-night TV programmes that carried any mention of ‘homosexuality’.
At this time, like many in the UK who were relieved at completing their GCSEs, I undertook two weeks of work experience. The first week was based in the post room of a large corporate office in London. I arrived as an enthusiastic wide eyed 16-year-old and was charged with delivering post (twice a day), telex and fax (immediately upon receipt). I quickly learnt I needed to navigate the machines, office layout and routines, but also, as the post room seemed to be the centre for sharing office intel, the chat and politics of this new environment. One afternoon the discussion centred around a female employee who had just been sacked for wearing, and refusing to remove, a badge stating, “no one knows I’m a lesbian.” Despite the surprise of the situation, and much debate around the drama, no one seemed particularly outraged or defensive of the now ex-employee.
I knew to my core that this situation was outrageously discriminatory but didn’t have the confidence or agency to challenge. What I did register pretty quickly was that I would need to be very careful about how I presented my sexuality and identity in any future work environment if I wanted to remain employed. Not quite the work experience take-away I was anticipating.
Roll forward two years and, before heading to university, I took a job at a manufacturing company based in Surrey. I was now a happily out tomboy lesbian – out to family, friends, the school I had just left. I was comfortable in my (female) gender and (gay) sexuality, and in how I presented this to the world in my exclusively trouser-based wardrobe. The day before I was due to start, I was informed of the office dress code – shirt and tie for men, skirts for women (plus accompanying clothing). Women were not permitted to wear trousers in the office. Not even culottes. It won’t surprise you that I was a) horrified and b) not in possession of any skirts, nor any desire to wear them. After an evening of internal debate, alternative job searching and increasing horror, the next day arrived with me uncomfortably entering the office. Sandwiched between my caterpillar boots and a long-sleeved rugby shirt, I was wearing the longest skirt possible. The first of the two that I borrowed from my older sister and would continue to wear on very high rotation.
In both environments I didn’t experience discrimination or challenge personally directed at me, but I was aware I had to manage or hide essential parts of my identity. These were aspects I had been challenged on and had actively explored and developed and woven into my identity. And alongside the restriction of being myself, I was expending my energy on managing how people were reading my identity, rather than cleanly focusing on work, relationships and delivery.
These moments, along with countless other insignificant yet significant ones, have informed each of my subsequent career decisions – particularly the environments and organisations I seek to work in. They have informed how I chose to present myself at work, how I talk openly about my beautiful wife.
The city-based corporate office environment is different now to that of the early 90s. There is wider representation of identities and experiences, and I’m personally in the position where I feel more represented, more confident in challenge and more comfortable to bring my whole self to work.
However, even after 20 years of being out in the workplace, after all this considered challenge and thought, and with the agency I now have, I still experience moments that take me back to that post room or the office in Surrey and make me deliberately think ‘what do I do next?’ There are still many times when my beautiful wife and I instinctively drop our previously held hands sensing it may cause verbal or physical issue.
My identity is one of many brilliant and varied individual identities across PA – we all have those moments that form us. Many of us continue to have moments that still challenge us now. All of us have the agency to change how we all feel in our work environment – I don’t want to edit essential parts of my identity, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to either. So, what can we all do to make sure none of us feel we have to?