21 June 2021

It’s Pride Month, a time for celebrating LGBTQ+ communities, recognising achievements and continuing to work towards an inclusive future where everyone is valued. It’s also a time for education and leadership. This year, we’re going ‘beyond the party’ at FutureGov, engaging our team in educational workshops, sharing reading and collating resources for ourselves and our communities.

Our Community Network Manager James Rowbottom sat down with our CEO, Matt Skinner and Deputy CEO, Jen Byrne for a discussion about what leadership as an LGBTQ+ leader means to them.

James Rowbottom (JR): June is Pride month and we have a pretty unique position with two LGBTQ+ identifying leaders. What does Pride mean to both of you?

Matt Skinner (MS): Pride is a few things for me. It’s a celebration of an amazing and diverse community that I'm proud to be part of. And it’s often very fun. Pride’s also a period where I get to take some dedicated time to spend in that community with friends I can deeply relate to.

It's a moment of coming together and an opportunity for me to reflect, both about the journey that I've personally gone through, but now as a leader in an organisation. Incredible progress has been made over the last few decades, and particularly since the Stonewall riots, which we know the June Pride celebrations are commemorating. But we also know there’s still a lot to be done.

Pride reminds me to look at the community as a whole, but also as a group of unique people. Just this year, we’ve seen very prominent struggles in the news surrounding and directly affecting the trans community. It angers me that allyship even amongst the LGBTQ+ community is not good enough. There’s clearly so much more work to do.

Jen Byrne (JB): Similarly for me. I’ve also been reflecting on how much Pride has changed and scaled over the years. But it’s not just about marching or partying in Soho. Reflecting on the wider spirit of Pride, and thinking about it as a business, it’s a reminder to increase visibility and be bold in standing alongside the LGBTQ+ communities. Showing your Pride openly can say a lot about who you are as an organisation, how you embrace difference and what it’s going to feel like working with us.

For us, Pride month is absolutely about being bold in standing together and being an ally. This year we have a series of workshops for the team to improve our knowledge-base, in addition to some of the things we usually do like sharing great books or articles by and for the community.

MS: As a leader, not just as a member or ally of LGBTQ+, these are all things we need to be mindful of every day. It’s our role as leaders, for people like myself, Jen and others in our company, to purposefully make space for diversity of people and thought.

All together it’s a really fun time. It’s an important moment to come back around the mission and the vision for awareness and support for this community; to check back in with myself and others that I’m doing everything I can to make the world better.

JR: Matt, you mentioned a deep connection with others in the community, how do you think that affects your work?

MS: Being part of any community gives us all a unique lens to view the world through. Whether I always view my work from an LGBTQ+ lens, I’m not sure.

I came out quite late, so the lived experience of having to hide a big part of my identity and personality for a number of years, consciously or not, affects how I think about other people’s experiences. Whether it’s about making space in the organisation to talk about difficult issues or challenging topics, it’s in the back of my mind that there are probably things we don’t know about people.

We all have a duty to be accepting and supportive of people, whether we know them fully or not. And it’s particularly important for leaders to embed that in their approaches and in their organisation's culture. Having lived that experience of carrying this type of weight on my shoulders, I try to translate that into how we run the company and how I think about our policies and values.

JR: It's interesting you say perhaps it's not something that you’re conscious of all the time, but it’s an experience that affects your approach. Jen, I’d be interested to hear if you feel the same?

JB: I feel quite similarly. It isn't so much an LGBTQ+ kind of lens, but there’s definitely the experience and acknowledgement that as we enter the workplace, we, unfortunately, start to understand that acceptance isn’t necessarily a given. That goes for so many types of diversity and lived experiences.

You can feel like an outsider, very aware that in any space it’s likely to be laden with preconceptions of who you are. Even by the seemingly simple choices of how you choose to dress, how you carry yourself, maybe your hairstyle. We know these choices in particular are important moments and important decisions for many in the LGBTQ+ community. Sometimes those choices are political, sometimes not. But either way, you’re always aware that people may not react positively to you, your lifestyle or your choices.

I think my own experiences make me particularly conscious of creating an accepting workspace and being aware of those potential moments of feeling like an outsider. We want to co-create with our people, a safe space where you can bring your whole self to work if you choose to do so. The really fine line is making sure that people don’t have to bring their whole self to work. Creating an environment that’s accepting of all choices is the challenging part and so important to take seriously. Of course, people can choose not to bring their whole selves to work. But I do want to ensure that they feel like they can participate fully.

JR: We've all heard it said before, but the notion of ‘coming out of the closet’ is something you’ll do time and time again. How have you broached this through your working life?

MS: Every time you start a new job, meet a new client or socialise with a new group of people, there's always a bit of anxiety in the back of your mind. And really, in any new social situation, it’s normal that somebody's going to talk about relationships. And then you're going to feel like you have to come out all over again. That anxiety never really goes away.

The more comfortable I am in my own skin, and the earlier I have the opportunity to bring it up in conversation, the less awkward it feels. I’ve been lucky enough not to have much of a problem in any of the places I’ve worked, largely because a lot of the work that I've done has been in the public sector, which has a very accepting ethos.

JB: Continued visibility is important, partly for me, but also for others. It’s important for those of us who can stand up and openly share who we are and what we stand for, so that others who can’t, be that for personal or political reasons, are part of paving the way for change. Whether that's your pronouns on Twitter or a flag in your bio.

Part of the responsibility is shaping narratives around what LGBTQ+ people look like. Work has been an incredibly safe space for me in the last 15 years. It’s been the other spaces, the supermarket or hotels, where people look at my family unit and can’t quite figure it out. I still expect the world to be not quite as accepting of me as I'd like it to be.

MS: I totally agree with you, Jen. One of those difficult social situations for us is planning holidays. We do think about it quite diligently, and it’s something that not every community of people needs to consider. Are we going to a country with laws against our sexuality? If so, we’re not going. Period. Culturally speaking, are we going to get that uncomfortable feeling walking into a hotel because they're not that accepting? We’ve definitely experienced subtle homophobia in hotels ‘are you sure you don’t want two beds?’, these situations are still way too common.

We do a lot of research. There’s really an opportunity for leaders of those supermarkets, hotels, those very normal, regular places of the world to be mindful of those experiences for people. I would hope no one ever walks into a FutureGov office, or works with us on a project and feels uncomfortable. I would hope leaders of all kinds and at all levels have the same mindfulness about their spaces.

JR: Looking forward to FutureGov or perhaps more generally, where’s the next challenge in making workplaces more inclusive?

MS: There’s been so much change in the world over the last year and a half, in so many ways. Deeply important conversations surfaced, and if I’m brutally honest, they were conversations internally that we weren’t quite ready to have. We’ve been open about sharing our gender pay gap, and we’ve recently done a piece of work bringing in an external agency to help us look really closely at our diversity, equity and inclusion. I’m really conscious that we need to do more than the seemingly quick and easy responses.

We cannot take surface-level action around these issues. It’s truly a challenge to understand what is possible, but also what will have the greatest possible positive impact. We’re purposefully having this conversation more broadly across our organisation, challenging our other leaders to take time to think about what changes and what action we can take, now and in the future to make real change.

We’ve done a lot to create space for conversations, looking at the platforms, forums and tools we have internally to support people to have more open conversations. Be that formally at a team meeting or very informally at a team breakfast, being as supportive as we can to create space for discussion. But by no means have we done everything possible for all of our diverse communities. I’m not sure any organisation really has it figured out yet, but I am determined to continue to make it better.

I feel strongly that we have an opportunity to lead our organisation to think about how these challenges aren’t just applicable to one group or community alone. There’s a whole diversity spectrum. How do you make sure you’re supporting the people you already have to the best of your ability?

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