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Doing it differently: Uncovering

Should you hide your true self in order to progress? GC looks at some under-the-radar areas of diversity through the lens of NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino’s work on covering, and showcases GCs promoting LGBT diversity and social mobility through ground-breaking initiatives.

LGBT and social mobility initiatives

Allied forces

Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Peter Siembab (Hong Kong) and Sarah Goldfrank (Washington, DC) discuss the company’s LGBT Ally programme.

Sarah Goldfrank (SG): You need a strong ally community to support LGBTQ individuals to feel comfortable in the workplace. That’s why our LGBT Pride employee network started our Ally programme. It’s on our intranet; people can sign up to be Allies, or sign up as being openly LGBTQ.

We have done a lot of work to drive out the Ally programme in the legal department. Legal department leadership and team leaders will personally send messages to their teams encouraging them to be Allies and talk about how important it is. Legal is the leading department when it comes to having visible Allies – it’s upwards of 30% globally and we are always driving it out further.

Peter Siembab (PS): We kicked off the Ally programme in Asia last year and have gotten a tremendous response. Employees here are rallying around the initiative. It’s creating a safer and more inclusive environment so that people feel they can bring their whole selves to work and not have to worry about hiding or covering.

SG: There have been a lot of very interesting US-based studies that talk about the fact that even though LGBTQ is so widely accepted among youth for example, 50% of youth who are out go back into the closet for their first job. There is sometimes an assumption that these young people are going to be out because they’re out on social media, and they’re running high school clubs, and so on. But it turns out that 50% of them are going back in the closet at work. That is a pivotal moment for institutions to look themselves in the eye and say, ‘are we doing enough to actually create an inclusive environment?’

Having visible Allies helps people feel more comfortable; to know that actually, ‘it is ok for me to be out’ – it’s not going to be seen as a negative. I think that’s critical. I walk around my floor and almost everybody has their Ally card on their desk.

To sign up as an Ally is easy and done online. You can see other people who are Allies in your department. You can do searches. You receive a package which includes an Ally card for your desk, which has ten tips on how to be a good Ally. These include knowing the issues, and asking yourself and your colleagues, ‘how would you like to be treated at work?’

Our LGBT Pride employee network has also driven out terrific training programmes. The programmes are voluntary, but people can sign up for a programme on how to be a better Ally, on transgender issues, bisexuality, and other LGBTQ-related matters. The Ally training programmes bring people who are openly LGBTQ and an Ally together to speak, so the trainers are bringing personal stories. I’ve been to a lot of diversity training, and I’ve found this among the most powerful – to hear, for example, the stories of transgender individuals who have found a place where they can bring their whole selves to work.

You can’t be required to be an Ally, but you are encouraged to be, regularly. Our Washington, DC legal team is about ten of us, and I think every single person is an Ally. It does help that new people see that all of us have the Ally card, so they think, ‘oh, that’s part of the culture, I’ll sign up.’

PS: In Asia, as well as across the world, there are certain pockets where, for various reasons, LGBTQ issues are a challenge and so the uptake is not as much as in other jurisdictions. There’s a strong element of cultural issues; there can be legal, family, socio-economic, or educational issues.

But I think that merely by creating the dialogue, with management, with team leaders, with internal communications, by pushing it out on to law firms, people have to respond to it. Maybe it’s a non-response, or a hostile response. But it puts it out there, and can spark a conversation, which is important.

The big picture is that it’s not just about LGBTQ, it’s about being yourself and coming to work. When you say you’re an Ally, yeah, you’re an Ally for LGBTQ, but more importantly, the message is: ‘I’m an Ally for people coming to work and being themselves – not trying to be like somebody else’.


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