CIPD Podcast 112 – Interview with Liz Bingham

CIPD 112 Liz Bingham
Philippa Lamb: I thought we might just start off with a little kind of mini, potted
version of your career.
Liz Bingham: Oh gosh my 30 year career.
PL: In short where did you start? Where are you now?
LB: So started from an unusual background of being working class, state school
educated and not a graduate, coming into a professional services environment, was
lucky enough to have been given a break. And found myself in a space working in
restructuring which really suited me: it’s a mix of law and finance and general
business common sense. Very fast paced, very varied, absolutely loved it. Had a
flourishing career until rather shockingly when I turned 30 I fell in love with a woman
for the first time. And back in the day was when there were no gay role models in life
really, let alone in business. This was a point in time when Elton John was married to
a woman and George Michael was straight. And so it was not an environment where
I felt comfortable in coming out. I started to feel very uncomfortable at work started to
doubt whether I was in the right place: my career sort of really stalled as I struggled
to stay in the closet, if you will.
And then my boss had a conversation with me and he asked me if the flatmate that
I’d introduced him to was in fact my partner?
PL: How did you feel about that?
LB: I was really shocked. But then I thought well I could lie, because I've been lying
quite successfully for two years, but I realised I didn’t want to lie and so I told him the
truth and we had a great conversation. And then at the end of that conversation I
asked if he would respect my confidence because nobody else in the office knew and
it didn’t affect my work and he told me that I was wrong…
PL: Wow.
LB: …that it would affect my work if I wasn’t being able to be open and honest with
my colleagues, my clients, that it would diminish my effectiveness as a leader. And it
was my first instruction, if you will, into the notion of authentic leadership. And so I
very tentatively stepped out of the closet and told a few people. And amazingly
enough the sky didn’t fall in and so I told a few more and that was really positive. But
the more conversations I had, the more my confidence built and the more normalised
it became and my career got back on track and actually probably flourished and
accelerated even faster than it had beforehand..
PL: So you said your very smart boss said you wouldn’t be as effective and
successful if you weren't authentic about bringing the Stonewall idea, bringing your
whole self to work. Have you found that to be true? Do you think you flourish better?
LB: Absolutely yes because all of the fear disappeared the fear of being found out.
And I felt with every conversation I had I felt I was claiming back the power, power
with a small ‘p’. I think when I was in the closet the power was all with everybody
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else, you know in terms of the potential to find me out and then for bad things to
happen, so reclaiming that power was very liberating.
PL: And you must have spent a great chunk of your energy in hiding that truth?
LB: Yes, yeah, trying to avoid using pronouns and names and being very vague
about what you did at the weekend and so on.
PL: Do you find there's any sort of generational difference between older colleagues
or people of a similar age, or younger people? Are attitudes largely across the board
now just accepting and inclusive?
LB: I think the younger generations definitely are more inclusive than my babyboomer generation but my fear is that it’s when they come into the workplace that is
the first time that they will start to see some kind of bias or prejudice or worse against
individuals because they are gay, because they are of a different ethnic minority or
because they are women.
I think the Human Rights Campaign did some research and I think it’s 63% of out
graduates go back into the closet.
PL: You see that is interesting. So when you say as many as 60% of young people
even discussing the fact that maybe they need to be back in the closet if they’re jobhunting, there's clearly something about the way work, the workplace, the working
world, is presenting itself to these smart young people: we’re talking about graduates
mostly here, coming into your sort of workspace, have you any sense of where those
messages are coming from
LB: I think it’s everywhere actually. I think it's in the media. There’s still snipey
comments. So there’s a kind of a societal thing which doesn’t help and I think there's
insufficient role models in business that actually say, “Look I'm like you, whether
that's because I'm a lesbian or because I'm working class, or because I'm not a
graduate,” or whatever it might be.
PL: What gets in the way of feeling included at work for you? Is it around language?
LB: I think there is a vocabulary barrier. So people can be fearful of overstepping
some imaginary legal line and then bad things happening. For UK business we are a
very class-conscious society and British business is very hierarchical and that's kind
of what drives a lack of inclusion, to my mind, is because it’s always the most senior
person in the room who is expected to come up with all the ideas and so therefore
regardless of your personal identity you just don't feel that you’re in an environment
where you can make a full contribution.
PL: So tips for well-intentioned HRs, recruiters, line managers, what should they be
doing in order to bring a truly diverse community through their doors?
LB: I think be brave and ask questions. Engage with everybody in a way that you
would like to be engaged with. And being careful with language yes but don't be
hypervigilant. If you trip yourself up apologise, you know I had no intention to cause
offence, I'm very sorry, blah, blah.
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PL: EY looks very different just walking through your offices now I remember the first
time I walked through an EY office, Ernst and Young as it then was 20, 25 years ago,
is it where you want it to be? Are we still on the journey in terms of diversity?
LB: Still on a journey definitely. We’re almost at risk of declaring victory too soon
because it does look very different but we’re a country mile from really understanding
how to include everybody in the best possible way. And I found this recently with a
colleague who is a Spanish national, so English isn’t his first language, his English is
excellent but quite heavily accented. He's a white man, straight white man but
because he's not a native English speaker he's finding that there are biases against
him. So it comes in many different shapes and forms. So yeah we’re still on a journey
but we have got to keep on focusing on this.
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