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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Being gay in the world of big business
When Lord Browne resigned as chief executive of BP after a judge criticised him for lying about how he met his former lover, it sparked a debate about whether there is a "pink plateau" in British business that prevents gay people from reaching the highest echelons.

Ashley Steel
Five years ago, I took the conscious decision to be honest about my sexuality, and started quietly letting people know

Here Ashley Steel, KPMG partner and UK board member writes about her experiences.

Even in the liberal twenty-first century, an individual's sexuality can have far-reaching consequences.

I know well the issues that sexuality can create - I am gay and a partner and member of the UK board at KPMG, one of the so-called "big four" international accountancy firms.

For the first 15 years at KPMG, I concealed my sexuality. I told myself that work and private life were separate issues which should remain just that. It was of no interest to my colleagues what my sexuality was.

There is some sense in that argument, but there is no escaping the fact that I was also worried to "come out" because I did not know what reaction I would get, and whether it would hamper - even ruin - my career.

Then, five years ago, I took the conscious decision to be honest about my sexuality, and started quietly letting people know.

City workers
I fear that even now there are thousands of gay people in the City and elsewhere who have not "come out" and who feel they cannot reveal their true sexuality

It was the best thing I ever did. At last I could be true to the person I was, at work as well as in my private life.

I was lucky, because KPMG has a culture of openness and understanding, where people are valued for the skills they bring to their work, not labelled or disparaged for perceived differences of character or taste.

KPMG also - like some other City firms - has an active gay and lesbian network, Breathe, and is a corporate member of Stonewall, which campaigns for equality for gay and lesbian people in the workplace and elsewhere.

But I fear that even now there are thousands of gay people in the City and elsewhere who have not "come out" and who feel they cannot reveal their true sexuality. They are simply too worried about the perceived trauma of it, and the negative or hostile reception they may get.

This is, I am sure, costing UK plc huge amounts in wasted talent and unrealised potential.

Of course, coming out is not easy and it is a very personal thing. One is likely to encounter some tricky moments along the way. KPMG was tremendously supportive of me, but that does not mean that everybody on an individual basis responded well.

Wig and gavel
Whilst laws provide rights, they do not necessarily change minds and behaviours

The fact is that businesses need a diverse workforce, to reflect the diversity of the society in which they operate. Imagine a company where every last person was male, or female, or white, or Church of England, or some other random thing. It simply wouldn't work.

Companies need diversity. They need to have much clearer and better defined policies to encourage and facilitate it. People at work need to be free to come as the people they are, not the people they are told they should be. Otherwise you will never unlock their full potential.

Business leaders, from chief executives and chairmen downwards, need to take more responsibility for this within their own organisations. They need to set the agenda for change.

Yes, there are laws in place that ban discrimination. But whilst laws provide rights, they do not necessarily change minds and behaviours.

If we are to change behaviours, and prevent the slow waste of so much talent in our workforces, we need the example to be set from the very top.

There is really nothing to fear, and so much that could be gained.



SEE ALSO
'Perjury' threat for ex-BP boss
02 May 07 |  Business
Does the UK have a 'pink plateau'?
02 May 07 |  Business
BP chief executive Browne resigns
01 May 07 |  Business



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