Think at London Business School
The doctor pushing LGBTQ+ up the agenda in banking
By Alison Benson
We chose “look back, act forward” as the theme for the 2020 EUROUT conference because we felt it was important that we reflected on the successes of the LGBTQ+ community in 2020 while reminding ourselves that there’s still much work to do.
If we learned anything from 2020, it’s that we must work together to achieve greater good for society. Populism, ideological leaders and a global pandemic have in many ways split the world apart. With lines being drawn on various issues amid an increasingly divisive political atmosphere, it can be easy to feel isolated – particularly in the LGBTQ+ community, where one in three face discrimination every year.
2020 saw continued advancements in LGBTQ+ rights worldwide, but also rollbacks and increased homophobia. Northern Ireland and Costa Rica legalised same-sex marriage, Switzerland banned discrimination on the basis of sexuality, Croatia made fostering legal for gay couples, and Sudan lifted the death penalty for homosexuality. Poland, however, proposed a constitutional ban on gay adoption and even created ‘LGBT-free zones’.
“With lines being drawn on various issues amid an increasingly divisive political atmosphere, it can be easy to feel isolated”
It seems that for every person who finally feels comfortable with the idea of letting people love who they love, another wants to take that love away. Combine that with economic uncertainty, quarantine and leaders who seek to divide and it’s no wonder that many LGBTQ+ persons never reveal their true authentic selves.
Out in Business (OiB) welcomes everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We work to bring LBS students, alumni, staff, faculty and professionals together to consider the challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community and its intersection with business. As we look to 2021 and beyond, our efforts are focused on three main areas where we hope to grow our community at LBS and in the broader business world.
You cannot be what you cannot see. Coming out – existing, openly – is one of the most powerful tools we have to change hearts and minds and foster a more inclusive environment. Whether at LBS or in the business world, visible LGBTQ+ leaders are critical to advancing LGBTQ+ rights. With one of the most globally diverse student cohorts in the world, we’re committed to shaping positive perspectives on the LGBTQ+ community that will be carried home to 70+ countries.
And we champion companies that make efforts to promote LGBTQ+ visibility globally. Investment management firm PIMCO, for instance, has been leading the charge on LGBTQ+ visibility, and was recognised by the Human Rights Campaign in 2020 as the best place to work for LGBTQ+ equality for the fourth consecutive year.
Allies are a critical part of the LGBTQ+ community, and the activism from students across LBS is what really empowers OiB. But being an ally is not just an act; it’s a mindset. True allyship comes when we’re not just pro-cause, but anti-discrimination.
In 2020, we formally launched Out in Business’ ally programme, engaging the broader LBS community on themes ranging from corporate inclusion, LGBTQ+ in sports, coming out, transgender rights and more.
“We all have more in common than we think, and each of us is made of the same stuff regardless of how we define ourselves”
And in 2020, OiB again had some of the world’s leading companies sponsor our club. BCG, Google, PIMCO, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Levi’s, Bain, HSBC and more demonstrated how continued advocacy enables the LGBTQ+ community to thrive. Through our association with alumni, faculty, professionals, and companies around the world, OiB reinforces support networks that empower and protect.
Research shows that those who know just one LGBTQ+ person are more likely to support equality. Finding ways to interact with the community is therefore a critical part of OIB’s purpose.
OiB’s shapes events throughout the year where students can participate in many ways – whether that’s through sports, career panels, conferences, or even an event at an LGBTQ+ establishment. It’s about creating multiple access points to our community so that we can educate and encourage.
Last year, our EUROUT conference was the largest ever, with more than 900 attendees. Though the digital format wasn’t the ideal way to host a conference, our message of inclusion and engagement was heard around the world reaching more people than ever before (perhaps a silver lining of staying safe at home).
While the start of 2021 still brings uncertainty, we must remember that when we have each other’s best interests at heart and realise that we’re greater than our differences, we truly can make the world a better place. We all have more in common than we think, and each of us is made of the same stuff regardless of how we define ourselves.
2020 was a year in which the world grappled with racial inequalities in a way few could have predicted. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US and the devastating impact of the COVID pandemic further exposed the systemic inequalities facing the Black community.
These events catalysed real and open conversation about race and racism globally, and many people have become more open to listening and learning. And while there has arguably been some lip service paid, many organisations have started to take meaningful action.
Adidas and the Estée Lauder companies, for example, have committed to making sure their employee demographics at least mirror those of the markets they serve. Facebook has committed to increasing Black people in leadership roles by 30% over the next five years. Major companies, banks and venture capital firms have committed billions to support Black entrepreneurs through direct funding, training and other forms of support. Although the bar hasn’t been set high, these changes have brought a sense of cautious optimism about transformation in business.
“The message is simple – the future workplace needs to better reflect the diversity of our societies”
But despite all this progress, Black people continued to be underrepresented in the upper echelons of business in 2020. In the UK, where 3.8% of the population is Black, 0.7% of Chair/CEO/CFOs and 0.9% of executives at FTSE 100 companies were Black (versus 1.3% and 1.3% in 2014) in 2019 . Even in South Africa, a country where 81% of the population is Black, only 15% of CEOs at JSE Top 40 companies are Black. The message is simple – the future workplace needs to better reflect the diversity of our societies.
Moving forward, there are three main areas where we’d like to see more progress: representation, inclusion and allyship. In terms of representation, we want to see better reporting on diversity and inclusion (D&I), and a move towards more detailed reporting of workforce demographics, D&I policies, and targeted initiatives aimed at developing Black and other minority senior managers and leaders. The presence of quantitative data benefits everyone and will lead to better-informed dialogue and accountability.
Further to representation, we want to see companies focus on creating more inclusive environments where employees can thrive, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or socio-economic background. The business case for diversity has been corroborated many times over, and a focus on cultivating a sense of inclusion and belonging will only work to benefit all.
Lastly, allies will be central to achieving all these goals. In the Harvard Business Review, Melaku et al. described allyship as a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace . The future workplace needs more brave allies who are willing to go beyond the talking and do the hard, uncomfortable work where it’s really needed.
“The business case for diversity has been corroborated many times over, and a focus on cultivating a sense of inclusion and belonging will only work to benefit all”
At Black in Business (BiB), we’re using our platform to achieve three things: to amplify Black voices on campus, to become a centre of community for Black students and to promote the representation of Black students on campus and in the business world. It’s incredible to think the club started in 2020 and in such a short time we’ve already launched several initiatives.
These include our speaker series with top Black professionals including Wol Kolade and John Amaechi, our Black History Month celebration, Think articles, corporate partnerships and broader collaborations with faculty and staff. By the end of the year, we’d like to be the recognised hub for Black talent at London Business School, and maintain our momentum and establish the infrastructure required for BiB to thrive for many years to come.
While we saw some progress in the business world on issues facing the Black community in 2020, we can’t take our foot off the pedal: there is still significant work to be done to promote a more equitable world. And the key to lasting change is allyship.
Tsedale Melaku et al. best describe the act of allyship as “[promoting] equity in the workplace by fostering supportive relationships, and both private and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy”. We want to see more people educating themselves about racial inequality and becoming allies who can help alleviate the ‘double-burden’ of the Black community who not only suffer discrimination but also bear the brunt of educating others about their experiences. We want these allies to push conversations in their workplaces and beyond, and commit to concrete actions to pull down the barriers facing the Black community today.
 Green Park Leadership 10,000 Report: https://www.green-park.co.uk/insights/green-park-leadership-10-000-2019/s94929/
HBR Article (Tsedale Melaku et al): https://hbr.org/2020/11/be-a-better-ally
2020 brought about great hardship in the lives of most, but it can’t be underestimated the extent to which women have struggled. The global pandemic has forced working women to take on even more responsibilities with added pressure from a childcare and household standpoint. Women are now said to be working a “double shift” or, as Sheryl Sandberg puts it, “a double-double shift”. 
While the distribution of housework and childcare between men and women has continued to be a barrier to gender equality, some estimate that the pandemic has pushed us back decades in the pursuit of gender parity. In 2020, McKinsey calculated that two million women were considering leaving the workforce in the US alone. 
“Now is the time for governments, corporations, and individuals to double down on their gender equality and diversity efforts”
But in times of immense hardship and struggle, new opportunities emerge. The pandemic presents the rare opportunity for us to collectively reflect, assess and reimagine the future of work and how it can better promote and support diversity. Now is the time for governments, corporations, and individuals to double down on their gender equality and diversity efforts.
Gender inequality is a complex issue with deep roots in many areas of society, and while we need to address each of these areas, specific change can have a powerful domino effect. Having more women at the top of organisations will shift perceptions of what women can do (anything) and who women can be (whoever they want to be) and positively impact unconscious bias and how future generations are treated.
The McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2020 report highlights that in 2020, only 28% and 21% of senior vice presidents and C-suite executives were women. This issue links back to the promotion pipeline from entry- to manager-level roles, with 62% of management level roles carried out by men. Business schools like LBS can provide an avenue for more women to develop the requisite skills and confidence to accelerate their career progression. 
This year, the Women in Business (WiB) club had three core priorities: the first was to effectively pivot to a virtual format that offered our students the same quality of professional and personal development tools and community-building as in previous years. The second was to collaborate with the School’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and other LBS affinity clubs on research and programme development to help eliminate some of the barriers women face in considering a business school education. Our third priority was to expand our reach, and drive change by joining forces with internal partners like our Manbassador team and external partners across various MBA programmes.
Moving to a virtual environment has given us significantly greater speaker prospects for events, with geographical barriers now removed. We’ve taken this opportunity to establish a network with other Women’s Societies at other top European and North American business schools to share our learnings and best practices, collaborate on diversity and inclusion initiatives and expand our audiences for key events.
“If there’s one thing we hope to see at the end of 2021, it’s a higher percentage intake of women into LBS programmes”
Our diversity and inclusion efforts span all aspects of the student experience and are focused on fostering an environment that is attractive to and supportive for all women looking for the necessary propulsion in their future careers. If there’s one thing we hope to see at the end of 2021, it’s a higher percentage intake of women into LBS programmes. When we achieve this, we can then focus on diversity and inclusion collaborations with external companies in an effort to further counter the management pipeline issues that persist today.
It’s said that times of disruption are perfect for change, and if there’s one thing that 2020 succeeded in doing it was bringing these vital topics to the forefront of our discourse and crystalising the need for action. We hope to continue our endeavours to drive equality in business and beyond and invite you to reflect and question how you can drive the conversation of allyship and awareness forward in your life too.
 Wired Article, (Sheryl Sandberg, 2021): https://www.wired.co.uk/article/coronavirus-gender-equality-tech
 McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2020 Report, (Coury, Huang, Kumar, Prince, Krivkovich and Yee, 2020): https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
Diversity and inclusion should be at the heart of all businesses and, when true diversity is achieved, I genuinely believe we will thrive as a society because the brightest minds will be encouraged to lead us – not just those born into a certain background or those who identify with a particular group.
I’m a second-generation immigrant born into an Indian family in Leicester, the truest of UK melting pots. I was taught from a very young age that ambition and hard work are key to success. However, I started noticing that these are not the only factors: as the first person to attend university in my family, my family and close network weren’t well-equipped to advise me on how to present myself at graduate interviews, how to write my CV or how to pick up and responds to the unique social cues I was seeing more and more during ‘networking’.
I remember telling my mother that I felt I stuck out at law school because I often felt lost in conversations and lacked the experiences to contribute in a meaningful way. But as I began settling into my career, I really did learn that my uniqueness is my strength – I had a different perspective and drive to my peers which made me stand out for the right reasons.
As a result of this, I strongly believe in the power of diversity and the positive impact different perspectives can have on a business. As a Laidlaw scholar, I was selected to receive a scholarship looking to promote women who don’t have the financial means to fund their executive education. This scholarship not only made the MBA possible for me financially but reinforced the idea that I needed to take a leap of faith in myself and my career prospects. I hope to be part of the pipeline of future women leaders in business with a unique perspective that will help shake up the future of business and be a key part of the recovery from the pandemic and global emergencies like climate change and the gender gap.
“Businesses should ensure that diversity is seen through many lenses and intersections: intersectionality is more important than ever – with BAME being a case in point”
When thinking about diversity, it’s important to remember one ‘box’ is not the same and intersectionality is more important than ever – with BAME being a case in point. As the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted, my experiences as a second-generation British Indian woman are very different to the experiences of a second-generation Black African man in the UK: statistically, I’ve probably been offered more opportunity, faced less discrimination and experienced more privilege. Businesses should ensure that diversity is seen through many lenses and intersections.
We also need to build and maintain the pipeline. Businesses are making concerted efforts to recruit from diverse backgrounds at graduate levels but we’re still seeing a significant drop-off before those individuals reach senior manager and partnership roles. Businesses thus need to review their structures to ensure they’re providing equal mentoring and progression opportunities, as well as building more flexibility into what the ‘career’ ladder should be. They must also start casting their net wider – this includes recruiting from non-Russell universities, reaching out to a range of socio-economic communities and offering career mentorship programmes, and advocating and displaying their diverse role models.
“From a recruitment perspective, businesses must start casting their net wider”
Ultimately, success in business and all aspects of life should be based on meritocracy but, in order to get there, we need to level the playing field. To achieve gender equality, for example, we need both men and women to feel they can take time out on parental leave. Many companies have made moves to offer equal maternity and paternity leave; however, men have felt that societal norms dictate that they can’t take advantage of this benefit because they aren’t allowed to take extended periods of time away from the career ladder. Policies should be nuanced to encourage equality but we also need to empower everyone in the community by dismantling damaging and pervasive stereotypes. Progress has been made but there is still some way to go.