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1 December 2016

Business leaders proudly join LGBTI list

When Optus SingTel chairman Paul O'Sullivan began his career he did not reveal he was gay. "When I started work in the 1980s, it was necessary to be very discreet and very private but times have changed remarkably and in the last 15 to 20 years," said Mr O'Sullivan.

Business Council of Australia CEO Jennifer Westacott, who is a lesbian, said it is critical that LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people feel safe enough to bring their whole selves to work.

And for Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who also began his career being discreet about being his sexuality, part of this normalisation is for young LGBTI people to have corporate role models.

O'Sullivan, Joyce and Westacott are among the high-profile executives who appear on The Australian Financial Review BOSS magazine's 50 LGBTI leaders list.

The list was compiled by Deloitte and features chief executives, chairmen and chairwomen, professional services partners and senior executives from across the corporate landscape. They know how important it is to be role models given research shows half of LGBTI employees feel they have to hide their sexuality at work.

"This is a great initiative to show people that there are so many different careers you can go into," Joyce said.

O'Sullivan's sexuality has led to him being both heckled and white-anted at work. In one instance he said a colleague was "slagging me off" about being a gay man at a work function, when other colleagues jumped in to shut the antagonist down. In another incident, a supervisor tried to use Mr O'Sullivan's sexuality to negatively influence a staff member, behaviour that ceased once Mr O'Sullivan directly confronted the supervisor. He said young people consider a person's sexuality a non-issue and that embracing diversity was simply good business. "I'm finding that in the population under 35 in Australia, there's a zero tolerance for any form of discriminatory behaviour of any issue," he said. "You are going to have to demonstrate you can behave that way if you want to hire the best people."

Westacott said: "It's not just being gay, it's about all sorts of things. We want people to feel like they can come to work and talk about their lives, feel in a safe place to say, 'I'm not very well'; 'I'm in a very difficult situation'." She emphasised this was a business, and not political, issue. "Establishing and maintaining an inclusive workplace, with a diverse workforce that taps into a broad range of ideas and perspectives, is a great competitive advantage," she said.

Another member of the list, the chief executive of consulting firm Partners in Performance, Skipp Williamson.

"It's tiring not being able to bring your whole self to work, and for many people that are not bringing themselves to work for whatever reason, I think it drains them of their power," she said.

Ms Williamson said, "Not fitting in was the driving force to form my own company." She said that changes in corporate attitudes towards LGBTI people were being driven by the increasing number of women in decision-making roles. "For me, being part of the gay community is only a small part of my life," said Ms Williamson, who has a wife, Carol, and two teenage children. "I only actively think about in terms of, say, in a first meeting with a client I wouldn't say my wife. Some of them, you can see the shock for them. You can see the adjustment period, 'Oh, how do I feel about this?' Which is fine. So it is shifting a bit. One of the big changes is that there are more female decision makers, and I really don't think they care."

She recalls incidents from early in her career that included being told, "It is OK to be gay, just don't mention it to clients."; being told to, "Grow your hair and wear skirts not trousers," and being prevented from bringing a same-sex partner to a company retreat. She felt there was a risk coming out in the list but that was far outweighed by the benefit of speaking out.

"I think the fact that so many people chose not to be on this list tells you that there are risks associated with publicly coming out in the corporate environment," Ms Williamson said.

"I've always thought that if the community plays it safe and lives in the closet, then the next generation don't see role models and the next generation don't see role models and the community never gets to live full lives."

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