Today is #IDAHOTB – International day against Homophobia, Transphopbia and Biphobia. In many ways we are extremely lucky in the UK with the progress we have made regarding #LGBT+ equality, and my thoughts on this day are very much with those living in countries less fortunate than myself and who are discriminated against and have no legal or community support at all.
Here in the UK, we however still need to make progress also and have to keep up with the times. There are sadly still too many horrible stories of Homophopbia, Transphobia and Biphobia and every occasion is one too many. I gave an interview, about my experience growing up as a gay man in a typical UK working environment and more importantly about the changes I think we need to embrace going forwards as employers and society. I hope my reflections help spark some thoughts and discussion:
Difference is something to be revered rather than feared. Many improvements have been made at Siemens in recent years to make the company a more welcoming place, but Juergen Maier, CEO of Siemens UK, informed by his personal experience, explains why more must be done to reflect a changing society.
Ever pretended to be someone you’re not, just so you can fit in? Juergen Maier knows what it’s like; after all, he hid his sexuality from colleagues for over 15 years.
Fearful that outing himself as a gay man would impact his progression within Siemens, he decided for “right or wrong reasons” to stay silent. Without role models, without people “like him” working alongside him, he felt it was safer to play into people’s assumptions. He was climbing up the career ladder, but didn’t want to risk everytvhing he’d strived so hard to achieve. “At that time, I thought it was easier for me to pretend to be heterosexual as opposed to expressing who I really am,” he admits.
It came at a price. Not only did the burden of inauthenticity weigh heavily on his mind, but his work suffered. “I’d been wrestling this for a long time,” he says, “and that meant my performance, my focus, and my creativity was affected in a negative way.”
Not being truly authentic, and feeling pressured to conceal an aspect of his character that he should have felt comfortable — and proud — to reveal, was becoming too much. It was halfway through his career, when he was 15 years in, that he finally had the confidence to claim — and own — who he really was.
Everything changed when he broke the act. “There is no question that after coming out and being allowed to be who I am, I became a much stronger individual,” he says. “I was more creative, a more confident communicator, and a better team player.”
Juergen’s experience is, Siemens hopes, an example of a bygone era. It’s a result of a less open and inclusive culture; a period when difference was feared rather than celebrated for the better outcomes that confident and inclusive teams generate.
And he doesn’t want any current or future employees to have the same experience he had – not a single one.
And he needs help.
Starting the conversation: The future is non-binary
We could reel off a list of initiatives and campaigns to show how much more inclusive Siemens has become over the years, but the reality is, despite things having improved immensely, there is far more to be done. “We’re just catching up to being more inclusive towards the LGBTQ+ community,” he says. At the same time society is progressing at a faster pace, this is especially prevalent in Generation Z (those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s) – to claim their difference and smash down stereotypes and traditional attitudes.
He applauds this group of young people who are expressing themselves in ways he felt he could not; with non-binary people in particular fighting back against the very concept of traditional male and female gender classification. “We don’t want people to have to conform to what might have been the norm some time ago,” he says, “and Siemens has a way to go before it truly represents the society it sits within.”
But he is honest. He absolutely does not have all the answers. In fact, he doesn’t even have the right language to sustain a conversation.
“We haven’t got a clue about the way in which Generation Z is presenting itself,” he says. “We have made progress but we don’t have the right language, culture or politics for this generation yet.”
He urges current and future employees to stand up and join the dialogue about how Siemens can adapt to more accurately reflect the needs and views of non-binary people. Young people are ripping up the rulebook, and it’s time for companies to take note
It won’t be easy. It won’t be solved in an instant, but that does not mean he’ll shy away from it. “This is going to be completely new ground and in very many ways uncomfortable, but we need to prepare ourselves for a different future generation.”
His personal experiences have taught him how vital it is to work in an atmosphere where you can be comfortable in your own skin. After all, if you can’t be your true self, you can’t be your best.
But it also reinforced how crucial diversity is for the success of a company. “Siemens’ customers represent society at large,” he says, “And therefore if we think in a non-inclusive way, we may be designing and creating the wrong innovations, services, and products.” Ultimately, diversity is the key to success at an individual and a company-wide level. Defying categorization and embracing difference – points of view, characters, and experiences – leads to the best ideas.
By admitting Siemens doesn’t currently have the right language right now, he hopes others will join the conversation and help the company to prepare for a more diverse, inclusive and equal future. But how? “Engage with us. Be yourself, and be confident that your difference is your strength rather than your weakness.”
So, over to you. What moves can and must be made in order to spark real and effective change? The conversation has started, Juergen welcomes you to join in.