Every year, during the month of June, the LGBTQ+ community celebrates in a number of different ways. Around the globe, various events are held during this special month to recognize the influence LGBTQ+ people have had, and continue to have around the world.
Historically, LGBTQ+ employees in the tech industry are hesitant to be their authentic selves at work. The atmosphere in tech — and by extension, the ICT channel — is unpredictable at best. For many LGBTQ+ in tech, there are only two options: be out or be an outlier.
In recent years, however, the channel has seemingly eased into being more diverse and inclusive by putting a bigger focus on women and gender equality. According to Maddie Bird, associate marketing manager at Informa Tech, this can pave the way for other groups, but there’s still a way to go.
“There is definitely a movement in the channel, and I love the focus on women,” said Bird. “There are women in the channel groups, woman-focused keynotes at conferences - I do think those are very important. But, when you're talking to members of the LGBTQ community, it's important to not necessarily make assumptions based on binaries. Like me, I'm non binary, which means I literally don't fit into any sort of category. I don't fit in at women's events and I don't fit in at men's events. So, in my case, I’ve been trying to get people to think about gender as more of a spectrum, not a category.”
Bird, who identifies as non-binary, makes the point that gender doesn't really have anything to do with biology; it's the way you identify.
So, why is it so difficult for businesses, and society as a whole, to wrap their arms around this issue? Sure, the awareness and conversations around it are fairly new, making it a bit uncomfortable to peel back the layers in some cases. It’s a similar conversation when it comes to diversity, gender equality, and everything that folds up under that umbrella.
Businesses and members of the channel have a very real chance to recognize the opportunity here, and pivot accordingly. It has been proven again and again that diversity benefits businesses and the bottom line, so where should the focus now be?
“From my perspective, as a cisgender, gay male, I feel that the conversation is not necessarily something people are always willing to talk about,” said Joseph Marks, channel event director at Informa. “I think there's a lot of assumptions about queer culture, typically and especially through media. If you think about it, queer culture has really just entered the mainstream media in the last couple of decades, so there are still a lot of myths and stereotypes surrounding it. With regards to business, it’s tough because you want to be supportive while also not making assumptions. When it comes to someone’s orientation or identity, it’s a different conversation.”
Marks also makes the point that it is hard to reach out to communities solely based on those types of identifiers. It's hard to find the tribe in there, unless it's something that's consciously put together by that community. Marks says that he doesn’t think that there are necessarily issues with companies supporting the idea, it’s just a matter of doing so without making assumptions.
So what can companies do to start this conversation? And, how can they do so in a way that's respectful and productive?
“It has to be folks in that community actively addressing the leadership within their organization and getting their support,” adds Marks. “That’s ultimately where it starts. And then the allies follow. But it comes down to the fact that if I’m not taking up for myself, I’m not going to sit back and assume that others will.”
Bird adds that in most cases, someone in the LGBTQ+ community has to be willing to put themselves out there and be open to answering questions.
“I'm happy to teach,” says Bird. “I always try to be one of those people. But those people can be few and far between because some companies don’t know how to support.”
It’s also a matter of safety. People can't feel empowered to bring these issues of identity up if they don't feel safe, Bird stresses. That is priority number one.
“I've been at companies where I was blatantly harassed by my superiors for my identity,” Bird continues. “Now, I'm in an environment where I feel very safe. When I joined Informa, one of the things the team did to make me feel safe was they asked me what my pronouns were. And when I put my pronouns in my email signature, I saw that everyone had added theirs as well. It’s a seemingly small example, but now I feel very empowered, because I feel safe. I now feel empowered to give back and to contribute to things like this and speak out more. So I guess it just boils down to the fact that companies must figure out how to make marginalized groups feel safe, first and foremost.”
So, given these elements, how do you help make a business a safe, inclusive space for members of the LGBTQ+ community? Particularly given that there is a rather significant SMB presence in the channel, how do these smaller business owners address this?
“I think businesses need to truly lean into this culture of inclusion,” says Marks. “This could mean any number of things, but essentially what you’re doing is making a statement that you support all different backgrounds within your organization, and some things will not be tolerated. It’s also reminding folks that they, as employees, are an extension of their organization and how they represent themselves, both in the office and in their lives, is important. I think that is a huge, necessary step, no matter your company size.”
In all things, anywhere, all the time, it is important to consider who you are trying to reach, and to make sure you're treating everyone as an individual rather than trying to lump people into groups. Be conscious of, and ensure that there isn't an assumed norm. It is very easy to fall back into our bubbles of comfort, what we’re used to. The challenge is to break free of those, have what may be tough conversations at first, and then work to establish a new more naturally inclusive norm.
There are no rulebooks, especially on how to become an ally, but with some of these steps and a healthy dose of awareness, the channel can become a more inclusive place.