I started a new job at a big advertising agency when my wife was three months pregnant. It was a convenient way to ‘come-out’ to my new colleagues, and saying that I was expecting a baby (even if I wasn’t the one ‘carrying’) seemed to give me access to a secret club of parents who would share their stories with me in whispered moments between meetings.
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The very corporate nature of the business meant that talking about the crazy morning you might have had getting the kids up, fed, and off to school just wasn’t the done thing. This was so different from the world of women’s magazines that I had come from, where people were brutally honest about the reality of fitting work around family life or more often, the other way around.
I’d ‘pivoted’ industry after leaving my job at the magazine, and at the agency I found that co-workers who were parents would open up to me once they knew my wife was pregnant, and when they did, I was able to relate to them far more than I previously had done. Most of the time it was either ‘banter’, or serious work chat, and that meant authentic relationships were hard to come by.
It got me thinking about how much happier people at this organisation could be if everyone was confident about bringing their full selves to work, parenthood and all, and not feeling that talking openly about personal lives made them any less professional.
I wonder if as gay people, we’re better at this because we’ve had to be. To be ‘out’ at work and in life means being vulnerable. We don’t always know what someone else’s biases towards us might be, but we work hard to not let that diminish us. One of the reasons I believe LGBTQ+ people make inspiring leaders is that we encourage our straight colleagues to be as ‘out’ about themselves as we are.
But back to the ad agency, and the fact I was about to be a Mother meant I ‘made sense’ in a largely heterosexual world. As a ‘lesbian’ some of my straight colleagues may have only seen my difference, instead there was something that placed me within a frame of reference they knew, albeit in a somewhat (to them) unusual role, as the ‘other’ mother.
I didn’t meet any other gay parents in my company and beyond sending an ‘all company’ email to the thousands of staff, there was no LGBTQ+ network to tap into. While so much of starting and having a family is the same regardless of your sexuality, there are some differences (not least regarding the conception process) that it would have been nice to share with a fellow LGBTQ person or ally at work.
When I informed my HR department of my wife’s due date and asked to see my relevant parental leave policy, I was sent a paternity leave document. It was emailed to me without acknowledging the fact that throughout, the term ‘father’ and the male pronoun was used.
All someone needed to do was change the language of that document, simply switching the word ‘father’ to ‘parent’ or ‘he’ to ‘they’ but no one thought to. I was left feeling excluded and that my organisation didn’t understand my family. I was expected to fit a heterosexual template.
Of course, I made my disappointment known. The solution? The company was happy for me to amend the pronouns and gendered language in the Word document myself. Not quite what I had in mind.
In my view the entire culture of the agency needed to fundamentally change, so everyone, regardless of sexuality, could be more open and authentic. Furthermore, responding to someone’s lived experience of exclusion at work, and addressing it thoroughly, would have been far more meaningful than projecting rainbow lights on the building for Pride. This might have looked good from the outside, but as we well know, it’s how a community of people on the inside feel that truly matters.