Does coming out as gay or lesbian at the BBC harm your career?

Chantal Badjie, BBC Diversity Centre

Last year the BBC’s cult business editor Robert Peston posted a blog  in which Colin (Lord) Browne, former CEO of BP, speaking at Arup’s staff LGBT network , claimed that the arts and media were much more tolerant of gay and lesbian workers than other working environments such as business and finance.

Being openly gay was something Lord Browne never felt he could embrace, until he resigned from BP in 2007.

But are the arts and media really more tolerant?  Or is that just another stereotype? After all, according to author Geoffrey Macnab, in a recent article in the Independent, Hollywood – that supposedly most ‘liberal’ of work environments – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He claims gay stars still hesitate to come out .

In a recent episode of the BBC’s Hard Talk the actor Rupert Everett also warned young, ambitious actors not to come out if they wanted to play leading roles.  Presenter Clare Balding has said in interviews that she was initially wary of coming out when she was at Radio 5 Live although she concedes that ‘things have changed now’.

It may be that the industry is harder on presenters and those in the public eye. Geoffrey Macnab says that behind-the-scenes  gay executives have never had to hide their sexuality as much as on-air performers.

Indeed there is some controversial research around which seems to prove that gay executives actually make better managers.  When USC business-school professor Kirk Snyder published the results of a 5-year study of executives, ‘Why Gay Executives Are Excelling as Leaders . . . and What Every Manager Needs to Know’,   he caused an online frenzy.

Snyder’s study showed that gay execs deliver 35 to 60 percent higher levels of employee engagement, satisfaction, and morale than straight bosses. The research also developed and underpinned his thesis that gay execs tend to be over achievers, emotionally intelligent (partly because they may have been bullied when young and develop a more heightened antennae), have superior ‘masking’ abilities, something all CEOs need to be good at, as well as being more adaptable, entrepreneurial and focussed on innovation.  All of which adds up to better results for companies.

Some of the most vociferous online comment to kick against this came from gay websites and online fora with visceral stories about ‘horrible’ gay and lesbian former managers.   Other LGBT comment eschewed the ‘gays are special’ argument, claiming that it is more important for people to be the same rather than differentiated.  Nonetheless the business world sat up and took notice. And if it  helps to lend a more supportive and positive  work environment to out LGBT executives then the research should be welcomed.

So how about coming out at the BBC?  Is it career damaging?

The most recent figures point to around 5.2% LGBT representation at senior management level –  although it is hard to say if this figure is good, or not good enough. Collecting data on LGBT communities and sizes is a very complex business as research from the University of Kent shows.

However, while researching this article I spoke to a number of lesbian and gay colleagues in the BBC who said it ‘just isn’t an issue’.

Adrian Ruth, controller of strategy and chair of BBC Pride, the BBC’s LGBT staff network, says:

“I’m lucky, in that being gay has never caused me any issues in my career – at the BBC or elsewhere.  I appreciate that it’s not always so easy for everyone – I’ve met plenty of others who haven’t been so fortunate.  A tolerant, supportive workplace is one where employees can be themselves and truly excel, without any barriers holding them back.”

Amanda Rice,  head of diversity says,

“We’ve made good progress to ensure LGBT staff feel supported and Tim Davie’s leadership of the LGBT steering group has been crucial to keeping lesbian, gay, bi and transgender portrayal stories on the BBC’s agenda.”

She also pointed to the Diversity Centre marking LGBT History month this February with a series of posters aimed at staff: the Writersroom has launched a transgender comedy award; Rice is hosting a panel at the annual Lesbian Lives conference in Brighton featuring Jane Hill, BBC News presenter, Kim Thomas editorial policy and Kathy Caton producer and co-chair BBC Pride. The website has a blog specially written by Sue Sanders, the legendary co-founder of LGBT History Month . And in March the Diversity Centre will join with BBC Pride to offer staff at the BBC a deeper dive into the findings and implications of the LGB research recently updated.

So perhaps, as Lord Browne suggested, the arts and media –  including the BBC – do  indeed offer a more friendly environment for LGBT colleagues who decide to come out at work.  The Diversity Centre wishes everyone a great LGBT History Month.

Coming Out as LGB – Advice from Stonewall

Coming out as Trans – Advice from Human Rights Campaign


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