Gay staff forced to 'hide sexuality'

December 1, 2006

Despite the sector's dozen 'diversity champions', there are still concerns not enough is being done elsewhere to assuage career and bullying fears. Olga Wojtas reports.

Gay academics are reluctant to be open about their sexuality in the workplace, according to Stonewall, the gay rights campaign organisation.

The organisation fears that universities are insufficiently proactive in tackling equality for gay men and women because they are assumed to be liberal workplaces without any problems.

But Stephen Frost, manager of Stonewall's workplace programmes, said: "We increasingly get calls from staff saying this is not the case."

Many gay staff felt they had to conceal their sexuality, fearing it may hamper their career or lead to bullying, Mr Frost said. "People who aren't able to be themselves aren't operating at their best."

Stonewall has published its latest Starting Out Recruitment Guide , which lists UK employers who support equality for gay men and women. The guide is distributed to UK student unions and university careers services.

Some 12 universities are listed as "diversity champions" committed to encouraging a positive environment for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff.

These include Birmingham University, where Paul Rodmell is senior lecturer in music. "All my colleagues and students know I'm gay. But, as far as I can see, sexuality is a total non-issue here. That's the pleasantest situation in which to work: you're not self-conscious in either a positive or negative way," he said. "I don't know if it's different in other parts of the university because there's always the old chestnut that arts subjects tend to be more liberal."

Dr Rodmell said that while he had encountered no problems, he had never encountered any outreach specifically aimed at lesbian and gay staff.

Mr Frost urged institutions to set up staff support groups or issue diversity newsletters. There tended to be a lot of focus on support for lesbian and gay students, but not for staff, he said.

He added that most universities would be unable to answer questions on equality for gay men and women since this was not monitored, unlike race, gender and disability.

No university made it into Stonewall's top 100 employers. The list includes the Department for Education and Skills at 15 and the British Council at 30. Topping the list is Staffordshire Police, which in 2001 reported that 3 per cent of its staff were lesbian and gay. The figure has risen to 9 per cent this year.


Positive policies in action

Frankie Williams, senior lecturer in community and youth work at Sunderland University, has for the past year been the LBGT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) co-ordinator for the university's equality committee.

Sunderland is one of the first higher education institutions to set out a specific policy on sexual orientation, and Ms Williams praised equality and diver-sity manager Paul Andrew for stressing that discrimination would not be tolerated.

Ms Williams previously opposed any monitoring of LGBT staff, believing this could foster a "box-ticking" approach.

"But as long as you have everything else in place, I think monitoring produces visibility."

Sunderland stressed that individuals had the right to choose whether to be open about their sexuality. Threatening to publicise this without permission would be considered harassment, it said.

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