LGBTQ+ people need allies not alibis in the workplace. Here’s Why.

I try to fight against imposter syndrome and haven’t ever felt that I don’t deserve to be where I am in my career. Even when I had to present the ELLE Style Awards as the magazine’s Acting Editor in Chief. Even making a speech to a glamorous room full of film stars, models, musicians and fashion designers, I tried really hard to believe in myself. I looked good in the tailored tuxedo and Jimmy Choo stilettos. I was serving woke Anna Wintour and loving every minute (the awards and after party were a roaring success, though I didn’t win the full Editor in Chief job – long story for another time!).

But writing this column for Out Leadership has me feeling more out of place than a Gen Xer on Tik Tok. What qualifies me to speak to you bunch of intimidatingly impressive captains of industry and leaders in waiting? The ‘Out’ bit is easy. I’ve been out since I was 16 and would bunk off school with my GBF to people-watch in Soho (London Soho that is). I’ve also made a point of being open about the fact that I have a female partner, now wife, in every job I’ve been in since I was an intern. I have written a column for the London Evening Standard, and continue to be a feature writer for the UK press. Throughout my 15 years’ penning columns and first-person pieces for The Times, Guardian, and many more titles, my sexuality or my view on issues affecting the LGBTQ community have long been bedrocks of my work.

OK, great. Colour me rainbow and throw me to the unicorns. But what do I know about leadership?

Well, if you’re looking for corporate leadership rhetoric, management training or the like, I think the fact I have referenced Jimmy Choo, Tik Tok and unicorns in the few paragraphs of this column should suggest you’ve come to the wrong place. What I know about leadership comes from doing it in what has probably been a very different industry to your own. I’ve run two magazines, then I ‘pivoted’ from magazines to work as a Creative Director at the advertising agency Ogilvy when I lost my job at ELLE (don’t worry, you’ll get the full story in another column). I didn’t last very long in that ad agency environment (another story for another time) so I pivoted again to be the leader of a company of one – I became a freelance journalist, wrote a book, oh, and had a baby with my wife. I’ve just taken a role as Head of Content at the creative agency Portas, which is bringing my advertising and journalism experience together. So… everything I know about leadership comes from having made mistakes and experienced a number of challenging work environments.

If you haven’t filed my CV in the ‘maybe’ pile just yet, let’s crack on with my new Out Leadership column’s first subject: Why LGBTQ+ people need allies not alibis in the workplace.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between Allies and Alibis. An alibi will vouch for you being there. They are really happy you exist. They are ‘all for’ diversity. You have ticked a box, served a quota. They will show up to panels and events, but will they really show up for you, when you need them? Probably not. For that you need an ally. These people are by your side and are equally invested in fighting for equality and representation, regardless of how they themselves identify. An alibi waits for you to call something out, and then they’ll support you. But if an ally sees it, they’ll say it.

Being gay doesn’t automatically make you an ally, you still have to put the work in. I heard a story of a lesbian CFO of a publishing company who proudly headed up the ‘diversity task force’. But when her PA was asked to choose some powerful images from the magazines they published to print and frame for the lobby, she balked when presented with an image of a lesbian couple. ‘You know how some people don’t like dogs…’ was her outrageous explanation for vetoing this photo.

As leaders it is our duty to be allies, not alibis. We do that by listening to the intersectional experiences of our teams and pre-empting positive change. For example, when I worked at an international advertising agency and announced that my wife was pregnant and I’d like to see the parental leave policies, I was presented with a ‘Paternity Leave’ document that referred to ‘fathers’ and used male pronouns throughout. An ally in the HR department would have stepped in and said, ‘hang on, before we send this to Lotte, a lesbian Mum-to-be, we should amend the language, so it doesn’t exclude’. Instead the team only made the change when I brought it to their attention.

I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of people ‘talking the talk’ when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but Out Leaders walk the walk… even if they are in stilettos.

About Lotte Betts
Lotte Betts is currently Head of Content at Portas. She is an award-winning writer and journalist and her first book How To Be A Gentlewoman: The Art of Soft Power in Hard Times is out now. Lotte lives with her wife and their young daughter in London.

LGBTQ+ people need allies not alibis in the workplace. Here’s Why.


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