Stand by your gay colleagues

The Straight Allies initiative allows firms to reinforce positive attitudes to diversity in the workplace


Having ‘allies’ tends to suggest you have ‘enemies’, so the decision to launch a ‘Straight Allies’ programme to support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) network at Pinsent Masons was taken after some deliberation. 

As the first law firm to be ranked in Stonewall’s workplace equality index more than six years ago, surely the need for Straight Allies is overkill, you may say. Indeed, it almost feels like an unnecessary application of labels – something akin to ‘them’ and ‘us’.

But our initial driver for considering a Straight Allies programme came directly from Stonewall which, as part of its workplace equality index survey, asks about whether such a programme is in place. Our initial cynicism began to give way as we started to look in more depth at the purpose of such a programme.

Research from Stonewall in 2011 showed that two in five gay people still did not feel able to be out to their managers. Three in four did not feel able to be out with clients or suppliers. LGBT people still have negative experiences at work because of their sexual orientation and are often placed in a position where they have to make a conscious decision to come out at work again and again – every time they meet new colleagues, clients or suppliers. 

Our gut feeling was that we would do a lot better on that score. But were we being completely honest with ourselves in suggesting that everything is perfect? We know from experience, for example, that some of our trainees have chosen not to come out until after they have qualified. 

So we began to give some thought to what gives gay people the confidence to be out at work.

The short answer, we think, is knowing that those who work immediately around you will react positively and be comfortable with you being who you are. So, in effect, no matter how much effort a firm puts into giving its gay staff backing, you are unlikely to be comfortable coming out if those immediately around you who you work with every day may not react well. Often it can be difficult to judge. Without direct evidence we look for cues – ironically, often discriminatory in themselves – such as age, apparent political leanings and perhaps the odd throwaway silly comment – to form a judgement on whether to come out or not. 

And we know that for some people who have come out, their preconceptions of how some people might react have proven to be totally wrong.

This brought us back to the purpose of Straight Allies. For us, it’s about having a network throughout the firm of people who are helping us in their own way to signpost that they’re supportive of gay colleagues. They mention their gay friends and relatives, and talk positively about our diversity initiatives. They are also there to help us ensure that that odd ‘throwaway’ comment gets challenged. Together, we are greater in number and can do more to promote an environment of inclusiveness within our teams. 

So does an LGBT-forward firm really need an initiative such as Straight Allies? Yes, we think we do. But it doesn’t mean our diversity efforts are not working.