In order to create a truly inclusive culture for LGBTQIA+ employees, organisations need to ensure their efforts don’t stray into rainbow-washing. Two DEI experts explain some common pitfalls that HR should avoid.
Think back to the Pride Month events that took place in Sydney earlier this year. The skyline of Sydney’s harbour was awash with rainbow logos from various large organisations. Companies were promoting rainbow merchandise and profiles on LinkedIn promoted the LGBTQIA+ activities companies were doing to mark the occasion, which often took the form of a colourful morning tea.
Now, consider how many of these organisations are still visibility promoting their support for the LGBTQIA+ community. Of course, many companies are doing important, authentic inclusion work year-round to demonstrate their commitment, but Sydney’s harbour certainly isn’t emblazoned with all the colours of the rainbow anymore.
“Rainbow-washing is when an organisation seeks to capitalise off the LGBTQIA+ community by changing their logo or sticking rainbows everywhere. It’s shrouded in this idea that they’re seeking to create inclusion, but really it’s just about making money,” says Bree Gorman, Managing Director of Bree Gorman Consulting and diversity, equity and inclusion expert.
It’s also important that organisations understand exactly what they’re saying when promoting the rainbow flag, says Michelle Sheppard, presenter, advocate and trainer in the gender equity space.
“The rainbow stands for inclusion as a whole. What you’re saying when you’re wearing it is, ‘I will not tolerate discrimination,'” says Sheppard.
When we water down what that rainbow means, there can be serious consequences.
“A friend of mine was trying to go to the bathroom. In front of them was somebody wearing a rainbow lanyard,” says Gorman. “The person opened the bathroom door, turned and looked at my friend and said, “The men’s toilets are down the hall.” My friend did not want to use the men’s toilets; they were in exactly the right place.
“Not only was this an awkward interaction, it was also hurtful and harmful. And it hurt even more because that person was wearing a rainbow lanyard.”
“My friend had gone into a position of assumed trust that they were safe with that person, when they weren’t at all.”
Visibility is important, Gorman clarifies. LGBTQIA+ people want to see the rainbows.
“But they’re not going to trust that alone.”
Common mistakes that can lead to rainbow-washing
One of the first things companies do to demonstrate LGBTQIA+ inclusion is set up a pride network, which is important. But the execution of such networks often requires some fine-tuning.
“Most organisations have one person, usually with no diverse background or experience, who is running all of these [initiatives], and it’s usually a tick-box exercise,” says Sheppard.
A common misstep Gorman sees organisations make when developing a pride network is not having a clear goal in mind.
“They think, ‘We’ll just get our LGBTQIA+ folks to run a bunch of initiatives,’ but they don’t give them space [to do the work] or remunerate them for it. This just puts a high emotional and physical load on the shoulders of the folks who are most marginalised.”
“If people stumble through a question because they’re trying to ask something in a way that’s so PC, they’re not able to get the information they need and be more open to learning.” – Michelle Sheppard
Instead, Gorman suggests running focus groups with LGBTQIA+ employees, to learn about their barriers or challenges.
“In many organisations, people might say things like, “I feel accepted here, but I have a desperate need for social connection with queer peers.” The other aspects of pride networks can be to advocate for or implement an LGBTQIA+ inclusion plan. Those two things are very different activities.”
Sheppard says many organisations are too afraid to “do things outside of the square”, which can lead to them doing the same things year in, year out: cupcakes for International Women’s Day, rainbow paraphernalia for Pride Month, ‘bring a plate from your country of origin’ lunches for Harmony Day.
“Educate your HR teams; educate your communications and marketing teams,” she says. “Get them to start producing different types of content that start important discussions.”
Develop programs that will make a difference
Organisations need to dive deeper when it comes to the causes they choose to support, says Sheppard. She uses ‘Wear It Purple Day’ as an example.
“Most people don’t realise it’s not IDAHOBIT day [the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia]. ‘Wear it Purple day’ is actually focused on creating inclusive safe spaces that are non-discriminatory towards LGBTQ+ youth. So the question I ask is, ‘What does me raising $63.70 by wearing a purple top or hat do for a young person?’ What’s the purpose of us doing that? Other than making us feel good?'”
As part of her work in the transport, infrastructure and planning industry, Sheppard wanted to focus on impactful support she could offer LGBTQIA+ youth. So she designed a program that gave these young people an insight into the industry.
“They had the chance to see someone like myself, a six-foot-three trans woman who is very visible and very out. They get to come in and see the workshop where we do repairs; we get them to put a mud flap on a tram. They get excited to get their hands dirty.
“For kids coming from regional areas or the fringes of a metro area, I’m usually the first adult trans woman most of them have met. They get to see they can be something.”
Countering emotional labour
When leaning on the lived experience of those in the LGBTQIA+ community, you need to make sure people are recruited based on an expression of interest approach and expectations of people’s contributions should be clearly defined, says Gorman.
“Then you need to talk about how to compensate people for that time. It might come part of their position description then they can dedicate half a day or a day per week to it.
“We need to clearly define this stuff, otherwise people might be spending two days a week on this stuff and it’s stretching into their weekends.”
We also have to think about what these people might be missing out on when they agree to take on this extra work.
“We’ve got people from marginalised backgrounds doing this type of work, yet we don’t value it in terms of promotion criteria,” says Gorman. “Their cisgender, hetero colleagues are getting to focus on stretch goals in their spare time, or they’re studying to advance their career.”
When working with a new organisation, Gorman will ask: ‘Why isn’t inclusive leadership a core skill listed on your position description?’ If it was, people could say, ‘I’ve spent the past three years chairing the pride network’ and it would help them get a foot in the door for a leadership position.
“Our intent to create inclusion can broaden that privilege gap,” they say. “Getting allies involved in those activities is so important. They don’t need to drive the work, but they can do the doing.”
Bree Gorman and Michelle Sheppard will be speaking further on ‘rainbow-washing’ and LGBTQIA+ inclusion at AHRI’s Virtual DEI Conference on 31 October 2023. Save your spot today.
Communicating your message
When getting employees on board with an LGBTQIA+ initiative, it’s important to meet people where they’re at, says Sheppard.
“I work in a male-dominated industry. If I went in and said, “Thou shall never say ‘mate’ or ‘guys’ again”, I’m going to face pitchforks and torches.”
Instead, you have to take people on a journey and focus on what she calls the ‘moveable middle’.
“Sometimes I take it back to a 101 and use language they’ll relate to. For example, I don’t use ‘safe spaces’, I call them ‘brave spaces’, which means you can ask me things in your language.
“If people stumble through a question because they’re trying to ask something in a way that’s so PC, they’re not able to get the information they need and be more open to learning.”
Just embrace the awkwardness, says Gorman.
“Embrace getting things wrong. When I talk to HR people who come to me seeking advice because they’re having trouble with a particular employee or a gender affirmation process, they spend the whole time trying to justify that they have knowledge in this space,” says Gorman.
“Drop the facade. Be prepared to ask the questions that might make you look like you don’t know something that you think you should know. If we don’t put it out there, we can’t learn.”
And, perhaps most importantly, don’t assume you know what employees need.
“If somebody came to me and said, “How long did you need when you went and had breast augmentation, Michelle? Because we only have four weeks available.” Well, I couldn’t drive for six weeks. So clearly, four weeks wasn’t enough.”
Where should DEI sit in an organisation?
“We need to stop going to someone who’s got an HR background and dumping D&I onto them,” says Sheppard. “Engage someone whose background is diverse.”
She also encourages organisations to consider intersectionality, such as people’s cultural background, socio-economic circumstances or religious/spiritual perspectives, for example.
Gorman refers to a book by US author and DEI strategist Lily Zheng called ‘DEI Deconstructed’.
“Lily makes it really clear that our DEI initiatives hinge on the level of trust that employees have with HR and management. If there’s a high level of trust with HR and management, then HR can absolutely drive that work.
“But if it’s a low-trust environment, then no way. Employees will not be honest and vulnerable with HR.”
“Drop the facade. Be prepared to ask the questions that might make you look like you don’t know something that you think you should know.” – Bree Gorman
Gorman says that having a DEI team outside of HR often creates less conflict.
“Sometimes the measures HR have been held to are very different from what employees would want a DEI measure to be,” they say.
“One thing I hate to see is internal HR or DEI staff being the ones who are left to do the DEI training in an organisation. I think that’s really problematic – and I’m not just saying that because I’m an external consultant.
“I do a lot of mentoring and coaching with DEI professionals who find themselves in really challenging situations because they bring their lived experience to the work. And if it’s their job to manage up to the CEO to create inclusion for their own community that takes a huge toll.
“DEI and HR staff in organisations should absolutely be driving DEI work. But they shouldn’t be developing the strategy or educating the leaders. I think externals should do that.”