Has retail reached an impasse on LGBT inclusion & representation?

Recent years have seen improvements in boardroom representation and inclusion initiatives for women, disabled and culturally & linguistically diverse people working in UK retail. But what about LGBT people?

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pride in retail

It’s that time of the year again. Retailers around the UK have temporarily slapped the rainbow colours on their logos or on their shopfronts to celebrate Pride. And once again, debate is raging as to whether they’re acts of solidarity, tokenism or pinkwashing.

June is traditionally Pride month around the world, as it coincides with the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York – an event widely viewed as the birth of the global civil rights movement for gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and queer people (LGBT).

In the UK, the rainbow season starts as early as May and ends in September with more than 100 cities and towns taking turns each weekend to host their own Pride festivals. However, it arguably reaches its peak when the two biggest pride festivals take place in London (July 6) and Brighton (August 3), so it’s no surprise that retailers only begin to change their logos or launch Pride-themed campaigns in June.

Despite this, when the Workplace Equality Index was unveiled earlier this year, not a single retailer made the list.

The index, compiled by advocacy and charity group Stonewall UK, has become the UK’s official tool for identifying the top 100 LGBT-friendly employers. In 2016 and 2017, only two retailers made that list: Asda and the Co-op. In 2018, it was only the Co-op. But this year? None.

“It would be a really positive sign to see the retail sector better represented [in the Top 100] in years to come”

Stonewall executive director Sanjay Sood-Smith highlighted that retailers do indeed take part in the index, but the benchmark standard to be listed in the Top 100 improves every year – therefore making it increasingly competitive to earn a spot.

“Businesses with high-performing staff typically have inclusive policies, benefits that apply to everyone, and a workplace culture where diversity is not just welcomed but championed on all levels,” he told Retail Gazette.

“Unfortunately, at the moment, our Top 100 does not include any major retailers. We do however work with retailers as part of our Diversity Champions programme and are keen to work with more to help them improve diversity and inclusion for their workforces.

“LGBT people work in every industry and it would be a really positive sign to see the retail sector better represented in years to come.”

Sood-Smith believes any retailer can create an inclusive and equitable workplace, adding that there was a “clear business case” for them to invest in making things better for their LGBT staff and customers. However, this is not just saying it and having a paragraph as part of a corporate social responsibility or staff handbook. It was about creating a sense of empowerment among employees and secondly, by setting an industry standard that can pave the way for change.

“Leadership of store managers is crucial to success, but we know from experience that sometimes store managers aren’t equipped to challenge instances of anti-LGBT abuse or banter,” Sood-Smith explained.

“For example, machinery is ‘gay’ when it breaks, customers are refused entry to changing rooms that align with their gender identity, and security guards still aren’t sure whether they can respond to customers who complain about two women who are holding hands while doing their weekly shop.

“Training for managers is key: getting them to use the right language, understand the issues and be empowered to challenge inappropriate behaviour all lend themselves to a culture where diversity is celebrated and inclusion means teams work together better because of their differences, not in spite of them.”

“We still see a chronic lack of diversity in the people who lead our major companies, and that matters”

Retailers, as with many other businesses and civil organisations, are without doubt a major driving force in the march to equality. They create the spaces where customers, staff, service users and the wider LGBT communities are accepted and interact.

Yet recent research from Stonewall revealed that 35 per cent of LGBT staff have hidden who they are at work for fear of discrimination. In addition, one in 10 black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT employees have been physically attacked by customers or colleagues in the last year.

“These figures paint a troubling picture, which is why it’s important retailers develop zero-tolerance policies on homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination, and communicate clear routes to report anti-LGBT bullying at work,” Sood-Smith told Retail Gazette.

He added: “Being recognised as a Top 100 LGBT-inclusive employer sends a powerful, positive message that a business is committed to LGBT inclusion.

“Every organisation who submits themselves and enters the Top 100 recognises their responsibility to improve the lives of their LGBT staff and customers.”

However, Sood-Smith acknowledged LGBT retail staff were underrepresented at senior management tiers – much more so since the resignation of Christopher Bailey from the helm of Burberry last year. After all, he was the first out gay chief executive of a FTSE 100 company.

“We still see a chronic lack of diversity in the people who lead our major companies, and that matters,” he said.

“We need to support more visible LGBT representation across society, and more LGBT role models in the workplace at all levels.”

Sood-Smith said that while it’s positive to see retailers increasingly strive for LGBT visibility through the solidarity of rainbow logos and shopfronts, Pride-themed products and promotions or even a contingent in Pride parades – it shouldn’t stop there. Otherwise, they risked being viewed as tokenistic or worse yet, criticised for promoting LGBT-friendliness while downplaying or softening other aspects of their businesses considered negative – otherwise known as pinkwashing.

“Being an ally is first about showing up, and then being active,” he explained.

“Being an ally is first about showing up, and then being active”

“So it’s important that organisations’ support goes deeper than visibility and shows a real commitment to the LGBT community and their staff.

“This can be either through supporting local community groups and LGBT charities or ensuring inclusion is reflected in workplace policies, practices and procedures to create a more welcoming and accepting environment.

“We know that people perform better when they can be themselves, so it’s essential retailers show their support for LGBT equality and take the lead in embedding inclusion in their business year-round.”

So what are some tips or strategies that retailers can implement to ensure their workplaces are inclusive and equitable, rather than just as a tickbox exercise?

“No workplace is the same, so diversity and inclusion cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach,” Sood-Smith explained.

“Which is why employers need to listen to the needs of their LGBT employees and address the challenges they face.

“This means creating safe spaces for LGBT staff to come together, discuss their issues and offer their own potential solutions.”

He added: “Companies who are the most successful at this actively involve their staff and very visibly live and breathe inclusion as a concept.

“Collaborative efforts between employers and employees help ensure that no-one is left behind, LGBT staff are treated with dignity and respect, and ultimately, everyone can contribute.”

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