I had an interesting call the other day from a professional career adviser and recruiter, with whom I have a longstanding relationship and consider a dear professional friend. She has advised me over the years when I changed roles, and she’s always a touchpoint for me when I need someone to cast an eye over my CV. She’s incredibly knowledgable in her field and I have the greatest respect for her and her opinions.
Her call came out of the blue as our next scheduled catch up is a couple of months away. But then, she’s not known for beating around the bush.
‘Have you lost your mind?’ she thundered down the phone line.
All I could master was a ‘Who’s calling?’, because I didn’t immediately recognise her voice, and given the introduction I was sincerely hoping it was a wrong number situation.
‘It’s Lily*! Had I taught you nothing?!’
Now she really piqued my curiosity, as I was trying to figure out what I may have done to bring such an unprecedented reaction from her, the type I have not seen during our professional association spanning almost a decade and a half.
‘You know I love you sweetie, and I am with you all the way, but what’s all this gay stuff?!’ she continued to thunder down the line.
‘What are you talking about?!’ I asked gobsmacked knowing that she’s one of the most loving and accepting people I know in the professional world.
‘All this marriage equality and gay rights stuff you have been writing about recently on The Vue Post and your other social media?! You realise you are cutting your potential employability by about half?! I love you, and admittedly a lot of companies are becoming active in this area of diversity politics but, make no mistake, half the market will still not touch someone who they see as a “gay activist”! They will just see you as a trouble maker! Why would you want to deliberately reduce your career opportunities?’
‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘she does know the professional market inside out, so her advice can’t be dismissed easily’.
‘You really think if I was in the market for a new role, I might be quietly rejected because of my stance on these issues?’ I asked as she slowed to take a deep breath.
‘To be honest, yes. I would say you just reduced your future career opportunities by about half, at least for the foreseeable future. There are some exemplary organisations now that have truly embraced diversity and you may not have an issue there, although even in places like that you will come across some Neanderthal every once in a while and, company policy or not, they will find a “reason” why you are “not the right fit” for a role. And to be honest, there is a huge section still in corporate Australia that’s still struggling with the idea of women, let alone LGBTI, inclusion, no matter what the glossy brochures might say.’
‘Wow,’ I thought again. That was quite a reality check at 8.30 in the morning.
‘You are in a wonderful bubble of acceptance where you are,’ she continued, ‘and I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s not like that everywhere! I think you may have lost your perspective a little because of the accepting environment you are in. I think it’s too late now to dial it back but, be prepared, this may come back to bite you later!’
‘I understand,’ I responded as she stopped to take another deep breath. I could really feel the concern in her voice and it dawned on me that she’s probably right. I do exist in a bubble of acceptance, and perhaps I failed to truly appreciate that acceptance and tolerance are not as universal as one would like to believe, even living in an allegedly modern and progressive society.
‘Look,’ I said to her, ‘you know that I am a very confident person, not just in my professional abilities, but also in who I am. I have a very strong sense of self and part of that self is the reality that I am gay and I have been in a same-sex relationship for almost 17 years now. Admittedly, in the past I have spent time in the closet because I felt that coming out would have seriously impeded my professional career. But at this stage of my career and life, I have no desire to pretend that I am anything or anyone else than what I am.’
‘I understand, but …,’ she tried to interrupt.
‘Hold on for a moment, let me finish my line of thought. I tell you the truth, being open about who and what I am may reduce my career opportunities, for now, but I sincerely believe that things will continue to improve and society will continue to embrace gay people in larger and larger numbers. I can realistically see the day when homophobia will be right up there with misogyny and racism as largely unacceptable behaviour, except by a negligible and, frankly, unimportant and irrelevant, section of the community. In the meantime, at this stage in my life and professional career, would I really want to work for an organisation or with a person who is a homophobe, or “not comfortable” with gay people? Honestly, no. Would I be prepared to go back to the closet or hide my partner of 17 years just so I can have a coveted professional role? My answer is an emphatic “no” to that one. You realise this works both ways? They may not would want to work with me because I am gay, but why would I want to work with them if that’s their world view?! Not in a million years, to be honest! They can keep their coveted role and give it to someone else who’s comfortable in such an environment. But I guarantee you, such a place would be a horrible working environment for anyone; gay or not.’
She went silent on the other end of the line. ‘That kind of makes sense,’ she said after a few seconds. ‘I suppose I wouldn’t want to work somewhere that’s full of misogynist Neanderthals, so why would it be different for you?!’
‘Exactly,’ I responded, ‘a so-called professional “opportunity” in such a dated and backward environment wouldn’t really be an opportunity; in fact it sounds to me more like punishment; and why would I want to do that to myself? Plus, in an environment like that half my energy would go to coping, rather than excelling at what I do. That would be professional self-harm. I would rather be upfront about being gay, and in a long-term same-sex relationship, so if they don’t like it, they can find a reason, any reason, not to even approach me in the first place or not to give me the role. That would be the best outcome in such a situation, for everyone’s sake.’
‘I see,’ she said. ‘I think perhaps I got over excited a little, but you know I was just worried about your future prospects? But I understand the point you are making and it’s perfectly sensible and spot on. Sorry!’
‘Not to worry,’ I said smiling, ‘see you in July?’
‘Yes! I look forward to it.’ She sounded calm now.
‘In the meantime, I will send you a link to a piece I wrote a while back. I think you probably missed it back then, or have forgotten about it. It talks about being yourself on social media, and in life generally, rather than creating a “manufactured personality” you think may appeal to future employers.’
And with that the call was over. After she hung up I sent her a link to a piece I wrote back in 2011, titled ‘Be yourself online … or suffer the consequences!‘
So, did I just reduce my career opportunities?
But I see it as saving myself from an intolerable career misstep, and only a loss to the organisation that would reject me, or the organisation that has people who would reject me, because of who I am.
I can’t wait to see Lily in July, as I suspect we will have a fascinating follow-up conversation over lunch.
* Of course ‘Lily’ is not her real name, and it’s not her first appearance at The Vue Post either. You may recall her from ‘The wisdom of human resources …‘, a piece I wrote in May 2013.