PRIDE, the workplace and the legal profession
June is PRIDE month 2021 in the UK.
The fact that, in today's society, it is necessary for a 'modern, progressive' country such as the UK to dedicate a month to persons of a certain sexual orientation or gender may quite reasonably evoke the initial emotion of disappointment. However, PRIDE, as the word denotes, is a movement built on the positivity and courage of those who have stood up against repressive legal policies and social opinions for decades. PRIDE month originated to celebrate, support and provide a platform for the LGBTQ+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, questioning, intersex, non-binary, asexual, polysexual, genderqueer and gender variant people).
PRIDE associations focus on raising awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and campaigning for freedoms that will allow the LGBT + community all over the world, regardless of race, faith, sexuality, gender, and whether disabled or able-bodied, to live their lives on a genuinely equal footing.
The celebratory element of PRIDE highlights societal progression in many parts of the world; however, it is important to acknowledge that prejudice, bias and inequality continue to exist. Despite progressive LGBTQ+ legislative change in England and Wales (particularly since 2000), hate crimes based on sexual orientation reported to the Met Police have risen by 122% since 2011. In the UK in the last five years, 4 out of 5 trans people have experienced a transphobic hate crime. Worldwide, homosexuality remains criminalised in c.70 countries.
Progression in the Legal Sector?
As workplaces are microcosms of society, they are, unfortunately, not exempt from such prejudice.
On a positive note, the Law Society’s LGBT+ survey (which took place in February 2021 and is to be released in July 2021) found that 53% of LGBTQ+ respondents felt able to be themselves in the workplace. Furthermore, over 90% had colleagues who were not LGBTQ+ themselves but were supportive and active allies for LGBT+ equality in their workplaces. Yet, there is clearly still work to be done as 41% of respondents felt they could only be themselves in the workplace some of the time.
Of concern to our profession, a quarter of LGBTQ+ respondents had experienced homophobia, biphobia or transphobia in the workplace – with the majority not reporting incidents, either because they felt it was not serious enough to report formally or because they lacked confidence that it would be resolved effectively.
Stephanie Boyce, President of the Law Society of England and Wales recently stated that:
“Now more than ever, we must continue to take a stand. Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on LGBT+ communities. It is vital to show the public that the legal profession will constantly and unequivocally support LGBT+ people and their rights.”
Increased support in the workplace through rainbow logos and initiatives such as #LegalPride2021 and #EqualUnderTheLaw are part of the solution, however, individually, and collectively, we all have a duty to make sure those acts are not simply performative.
The importance of language
With vigorous legal workplace protections against outright and indirect discrimination in place, a key issue in the workplace is that of microaggressions. These are subtle, underhand comments or behaviours directed at minority groups or individuals. For example, the 2019 "Lean In Women in the Workplace" report found that 71% of lesbian women have experienced workplace microaggressions.
So, what is a microaggression?
- Micro-assault: The perpetrator behaves in an intentionally discriminatory or offensive way towards an individual or marginalised group.
- Micro-insult: This is usually a subtle or 'unconscious' act of discriminatory behaviour or comment, often a ‘backhanded’ compliment which makes someone feel uncomfortable.
- Micro-invalidation: This form of microaggression demeans, belittles or invalidates the experience or ideas of an individual or marginalised group.
Thankfully, employment tribunals have grown used to recognising the various types of microaggressions and categorising 'unconscious' behaviour as discriminatory where necessary. As colleagues in the workplace, we must choose to always use the correct language and call out microaggressions when we see or hear them.
The right to be yourself in the workplace
We all have the option to continue to make genuine change by educating ourselves about the power of using appropriate language. Leadership teams must play their part and proactively promote equality by:
- Implementing robust systems for reporting microaggressions;
- Dealing with incidents fairly and promptly;
- Protecting anonymity;
- Building diverse and educated teams within the workplace; and
- Promoting and showing support for diversity, inclusivity, and equality at every opportunity.
Colette Stevens, HR Director at Michelmores says:
"we know that our people are happier and more productive when they can be themselves at work – and that trying to hide part of your identity can become exhausting. Our approach to Inclusivity is not just about having the right policies and frameworks in place, but about creating an environment where people can authentically be themselves. LGBTQ+ individuals have a choice to make around whether to be out with their peers and colleagues, and for some that is not an easy choice to make. At Michelmores we are raising awareness of how we can better support our LGBTQ+ colleagues, in a safe and supportive way. We recognise there is still work to be done, and are committed to generating the changes needed to create a greater sense of belonging for everyone at our Firm."
As a trainee solicitor, the stats on LGBT+ lawyers in the UK who are openly "out" in the workplace make for disheartening reading. Anyone can become a brilliant lawyer, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, faith, religion, disability, background, education etc. Those that wish to be open about their sexuality should feel free and safe to do so. Businesses must do everything in their power to ensure they make that process as easy as possible.