When sexuality is normalised in the workplace, it filters through to our views and actions in everyday life. However, every member of the LGBTIQ+ community needs to feel their sexuality is valid. With cultural misconceptions consuming the bisexual community, bi women are in need of role models at work according to recent research.
Bisexuality is still an uncomfortable term for many people. Conjuring up thoughts and questions in people’s minds, namely if bisexuality is even a thing. In order to transcend these negative stereotypes, education and role models are key. But we need role models that are up to the challenge and it’s no easy feat. I for one can put my hand up and say I could have done better as a leader and a role model for bi women in the workplace.
I had a successful career in the Australian corporate sector for 12 years, working across financial services, telecommunications, travel and aviation. Most recently I was on a leadership team for one of Australia’s most well-known travel companies, and while I was open about being in a relationship with a woman, I wasn’t open about being bisexual.
The General Manager of our business was a proud gay man, as was one of my colleagues. It was an environment where you could be yourself and the leadership team was living proof of that. Having leaders that represent minorities is critical in demonstrating and reinforcing cultural values, not only within a business but outside it. As what people see at work, they talk about with families and friends.
But I was fearful of the stigma and criticism that bisexual people experience. That we’re straight and experimenting, or not ready to admit we’re gay. I wasn’t ready for the uncomfortable questions and conversations that would certainly follow. Although in retrospect, it was the exact conversation I needed to have.
A recent study conducted by PwC Australia and Pride in Diversity called “Where are all the women?”, looked at the low visibility and engagement of same-sex attracted women in the workplace. It’s one of the largest surveys of its kind, with 1,270 women from 18 industries Australia-wide participating. Thirty per cent of respondents identified as bisexual and 65 per cent as same sex attracted. Yet bisexual women were half as likely to be ‘out’ in the workplace than same sex attracted women (38 per cent compared with 78 per cent).
One participant said, “I’m bisexual but dating a man so feel it doesn’t count.”
Bisexual women were also less likely to believe that being out at work is important (50 per cent to 80 per cent) and had one of the smallest gaps in being ‘out’ at work versus being ‘out’ outside of work (43 per cent to 59 per cent). These numbers are upsetting because they’re a reflection of the dismissiveness bisexual people continue to face.
Phrases like attention-seeking, confused, promiscuous and greedy are not only stereotypes the bi community is confronted with in their everyday lives, they were also the responses given when participants were asked for three words to describe stereotypes in the workplace. Also, a fear of being judged and lack of understanding were risks identified as being more important for bi women in being out at work.
The overwhelming statistics challenged my own acceptance of my sexuality. It made me reflect on the opportunity I had to put another face and voice out there, to show what bisexuality actually looks like. But I shied away. My fear of the stigma greater than my ability to change it.
How would I survive the internal discomfort that would inevitably arise? Was I worried that it would lessen people’s views of me? Concerned my voice wouldn’t be valid because I’m attracted to women and men. This is the very essence of the infamous stumbling block. And according to the study, the most important attribute of role models was their general confidence and willingness to be themselves. More so than leadership presence and skills.
Role models come in all shapes and sizes, and the more role models we have at work, the more opportunities we have to show the many faces that make up our diverse community. It drives awareness, education and influences wider social change beyond the office. One of the study’s recommended actions for change was to “Empower same-sex attracted women to define how they want to be known”. I’d like to think I’m now up to the challenge.