Twenty years ago this year, I met my partner when we were both working at a criminological institute in Germany. She was researching the legal system and one evening reported back that a prominent German lawyer had told her matter-of-factly: “I employ women to work at reception but I would never employ a female lawyer.”
Shortly after, I started work at the German office of a US law firm, where I was “out”, as I always have been. There, the designated diversity partner gleefully told me that he immediately binned anything that came from the New York office on equalities.
I have spent the intervening years working in financial services in London. And social attitudes have come a long way in that time. Most importantly, legislation enabled same-sex couples to adopt and to marry. This right to a family life has been of great psychological, and practical, significance to me, my partner and our children, and to thousands of others.
So how concerned should we still be about equality? Despite some great role models, there is still a long way to go before we can look at chief executives in business and see a diversity that reflects wider society.
And there is a mountain to climb before all LGBT employees are comfortable being out at work. Stonewall reports that a quarter of LGBT workers are not at all open to colleagues about their sexual orientation.* Other research puts the figure even higher, at 40%. And 62% of LGBT graduates, across all sectors, say they don’t feel secure about being ‘out’ when they join the workforce and therefore go back in the closet. In financial services, it's a dismal 67%.**
Why? The financial services industry has certainly often played to heterosexual stereotypes, from many of its corporate sponsorship choices (more rugby, anyone?) to the imagery of traditional relationships used in much of its advertising.
More fundamentally, and this is not confined to financial services, many still find difference challenging. Most people are most comfortable spending time with those who share their own cultural and social reference points. It's not surprising - research on empathy has shown that people relate most easily to people they perceive to be most like themselves.
Small wonder then that many LGBT workers struggle to be truly themselves at work. This limits not only their own happiness and progression but also the productivity of the organisations they work for. Research increasingly shows that a diversity of people prevents groupthink and drives diversity of thought, unleashing innovation and creativity in business.
But change is happening. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware that the old ways will not serve us well. Google’s research has shown that millennials are more likely to support a brand whose advertising features equality. A lack of diversity will ultimately affect the industry’s bottom line.
So it's great to see companies and some of our members standing out on the issue, such as Aviva, and Lloyds Banking Group who has been named as the most inclusive employer in Britain by Stonewall this year. And groups such as ABI's partner OUTstanding, and Link, the LGBT Insurance Network, are educating companies about the “return on equality” that comes from investing in LGBT staff, and about embedding genuinely inclusive cultures.
But it is also clear that much remains to be done. As we approach Pride weekend in London, now is a great time to embrace the creative disruption that engaging with difference can bring. We can only win!