Fostering acceptance with LGBTQIA+ networks

“In my lifetime I have seen enormous progress in LGBTQIA+ rights, awareness and acceptance. It's a journey for each country, society and workplace. For example, when I left New Zealand in 1987, it was still 'illegal' to be gay. And as a young graduate, I recognised I needed to be in a place where I could grow both personally and professionally - so I went to London.

But when I came back in 2001, real progress had been made. The country recognised my same-sex partnership, and in 2013 our marriage. Attitudes in New Zealand and elsewhere have changed massively over this period and it gives me hope that we can continue to progress our society as one embracing, celebrating and accepting diversity in all its forms. But it needs strong leaders and role models to drive reform and legislation.

In and out of ‘the closet’

Coming out at work took me on a very interesting journey. I was already ‘out’ in my personal life, but went firmly back ‘into the closet’ when I joined the UK pharmaceutical industry in 1992. I didn’t know what kind of environment I was walking into; I didn’t know if it was safe and accepted, or if being gay would hinder my career, so I kept it a secret for five years. It was a difficult time. I hated not being able to be open and honest with my colleagues.

In 1998, the General Manager of Pharma Roche UK realised that two of his leadership team members were gay, but not 'out' at work. Given our major presence in HIV at the time, the hypocrisy of the situation was pretty obvious. So with our support, he made a very strong and public comment stating clearly that all Roche employees deserve the right to a safe work environment where people can be their authentic selves.

I felt such immense relief and comfort knowing I had the backing of senior management. I could, at last, bring my authentic self to work. Change comes from the top, that is where it starts; leaders are the key players in creating a safe environment for all employees, regardless of who you are, where you are from, or who you love.

The risk of being our true self

In my own early experience, I saw risk in coming out before I knew that the environment was safe. So the process starts with creating a positive, accepting workplace.

I know there are still plenty of countries where being gay is very detrimental to professional growth, or in some cases can even be illegal. As a global company, I believe we have a duty to try as hard as possible to foster diversity, and that means being able to be yourself at work.

I see a huge opportunity as we expand our OPEN network beyond borders. For example, I am very happy that our Australian OPEN group can act as a contact point for anyone in the Asia Pacific region who wants someone to talk to. It’s a powerful network that we have, and we should use it to find friends and allies, and support each other. Just as my General Manager in the UK supported me all those years ago, I also see the strong role I can play in fostering an inclusive workplace environment.

Rainbow leadership

For me there is no doubt: there has to be a consistency between what you are feeling and how you act on a day-to-day basis, a complete congruence between who you are and how you behave as a leader. Twenty five years on in my leadership journey at Roche, I now allow myself to be much more vulnerable; I talk quite openly about my fantastic partner of 30 years and the life we share together.

And what I have found interesting is that the more I do that, the more connections I build with people. No one wants a distant, lofty and unrelatable leader who stays on a pedestal. We want humility, openness and honesty.”

*Story updated in May 2023

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