Photo: Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba/OutSpoken Arts/Queer Champions
When a colleague approached Lisa Charlwood-Green to seek her advice about coming out at work, the experienced advocate for LGBT+ rights in and out of the workplace thought it would be straightforward.
“She told me that she was in a new relationship with a woman,” explains Lisa. “She had only ever been in relationships with men and was used to talking with her co-workers about dating and boyfriends and things like that and felt very odd, to not be talking about this new love who she was very excited about, and was having to edit what she was saying and be very careful… she was feeling the stress.
“At first I was very excited and then I thought, ‘Well, you know, there must be some kind of resources there for her,’ because it’s not that uncommon to want to come out at work, there must be something.”
But the more the Glasgow-based activist investigated, the more she saw a gaping hole where support for women at work should be. And out of that was born The WOW Network, a nationwide group aiming to “support, guide and connect with LGBT women in the workplace”. Just one year old, the initiative has grown from two members (“me and my wife”) to 150, with a website, a Facebook forum and social events.
A survey carried out in 2016 found that 64% of lesbian and bisexual women were too afraid to come out at work. “Women said that they were worried about being stereotyped, worried about hurting their chances of promotion, worried about being the subject of office gossip,” says Lisa. “I was appalled at such a high figure. It’s something like 19% for men, just as a comparison, so it’s a big difference.
“I was in my workplace for almost a decade and for that whole time I was the only out LGBT person in my office and that was around 600 people,” says Lisa, a powerhouse of a woman whose background is in the traditionally male-dominated construction sector, then education. “That was very isolating and very, very hard, and I remember things certainly started to improve for me when I had somebody to talk to.
“I think a lot of other charities do a fantastic job but they’re often very much geared towards men. I thought there’s something in this, this is very interesting. I also wanted to make sure, when I started to have the idea of setting something up I wanted to make it accessible to everybody. Because a lot of professional networks, like myGwork, they are very much geared at professionals, which is fine and I probably come under that banner in my day job, but what if you work in the corner shop? What if you work as admin? You don’t get any support then.
“And often when we reach a certain point in our career, we possibly don’t need the help quite as much as somebody who is just starting out… and there’s quite a few studies where people who, once they graduate, go back in the closet because they’re unsure of the territory of the workplace.”
Lisa is adamant about making the network as inclusive as possible. “That includes trans women, I’m really passionate about that. We’re about 10% trans in our members, which I’m really pleased about, and we do do a lot of work with the trans community. We have Trans Pride Scotland coming up at the end of the month [on 31 March in Edinburgh] so I’m doing a workshop there with one of our trans members.”
One of WOW’s high-profile patrons is trans role model Jacqui Gavin, together with Diva founder Linda Riley and Livingston’s SNP MP Hannah Bardell. “We wanted to make sure we had some real strong icons for our members to look up to,” says Lisa. “I’m really proud of all three of them.”
Having had a presence at Birmingham and Glasgow Prides, WOW is looking forward to returning there this year and adding Pride in London (“I adore Pride in London, and it’s the favourite of my two children, everyone high-fives them in the parade and it makes them feel famous!”) and Edinburgh.
Using these events to meet members is vital for Lisa. “Birmingham Pride was a particular high-point for me, I got to talk to some members who were having real difficulties in the workplace and being able to give them that face-to-face support was invaluable.”
It’s the kind of support that helps not hinders companies, Lisa says: “People remember inclusive workplaces where they know that they can feel comfortable being themselves… companies sometimes don’t get it that productivity levels and staff hiring and retention [are affected]. I feel like I used to bang on about it so much, ‘You’re losing really good people because you’re not inclusive.’”
Next comes building the network even more. “The fact that we are all women working towards a common goal, that’s really appealing to our members, and that’s why they join and that’s why they stay with us,” says Lisa.
To find out more, visit thewownetwork.co.uk.