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Opinionista

Corporates should pin their rainbow colours to the mast (and it makes good business sense)

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Craig Barnes is a Customer Insights Analyst and Chairperson of the Nedbank LGTBQI+ Forum.

Discrimination aimed at the LGBTQI+ community persists throughout society, particularly in more conservative and rural areas, and the legislation intended to address it is not consistently implemented and enforced.

When it comes to discrimination, South Africans know a lot. Some would say that after hundreds of years of racial oppression, we know far too much about what it means to be mistreated because of a characteristic over which we have no control.

This no doubt fuelled my own apprehension when I completed my schooling and approached the world of work. As a young gay man from Gqeberha, would I get the chances I dreamt of?

As we enter national Pride Month, it’s important to remember that the architects of apartheid didn’t stop at race in their efforts to maintain control and enforce a strict moral code. The 1957 Immorality Act prohibited same-sex relationships, leading police to frequently raid venues and events attended by LGBTQI+ individuals. During this period, being queer was mischaracterised as a mental disorder, with misguided attempts to “treat” it through conversion therapy and psychiatric measures.

The workplace wasn’t protected from the rising tide of discrimination in the second half of the 20th century, and thousands of people were excluded from employment opportunities due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a groundbreaking shift, the 1996 South African Constitution prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Modern labour laws have been implemented to shield LGBTQI+ individuals from workplace bias. Since 2006, same-sex marriages have been legally recognised.

Additionally, as of 2019, the Department of Home Affairs has empowered individuals to update the gender marker on their identification documents without the prerequisite of gender-affirming surgery.

So far, so progressive, but passing a law doesn’t automatically eliminate prejudice or stigma. Discrimination aimed at the LGBTQI+ community persists throughout society, particularly in more conservative and rural areas, and the legislation intended to address it is not consistently implemented and enforced.

In other words, the struggle continues, even to the point where the National Assembly decided that a new law is needed to prevent and combat hate crimes and hate speech. The bill includes gender or gender identity, gender characteristics (including intersex), and sexual orientation as attributes that can attract hate crimes. First-time offenders could face prison terms of up to three years.

Will the implementation of this law halt hate crimes immediately? Unlikely, and that’s precisely why activists still rally behind events like Pride Month every October and its global counterpart in June.

The essential act of acknowledging the significant contributions of LGBTQI+ community members throughout history and promoting unity in a marginalised segment of society remains vital. This is made clear in the findings of a Deloitte survey this year which asked nearly 5,500 LGBTQI+ individuals in 13 countries, including South Africa, how they experience inclusion (or the lack of it) at work.

Responses by South African millennials indicate that workplaces still have a way to go before they are free of prejudice. “What if coming out would hinder my progression at work? You never know people’s agendas,” said a respondent who described themselves as transgender and pansexual.

“I wish we had a support network at work, a place we can call our own [where we can] talk to people that understand,” said a non-binary, bisexual person.

Four in 10 respondents globally said they had experienced non-inclusive behaviours at work, with the most common being unwanted comments or jokes of a sexual nature; unwanted jokes at their expense; feeling patronised, undermined, or underestimated; disparaging comments about their gender identity or sexual orientation; and being excluded from informal interactions or conversations.

The same proportion of respondents said their employers did not demonstrate a commitment to LGBTQI+ inclusion, and less than half said they felt comfortable with everyone at work knowing their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Fear of being treated differently because of their LGBTQI+ identity was the top reason for respondents keeping it secret. The consequence is that a third of respondents were actively looking for a new job at an organisation with more diversity where they could get involved in furthering inclusivity, and where they could freely express their identity.

These findings should be a wake-up call for employers, particularly those that haven’t grappled with the opportunity of advancing LGBTQI+ inclusion or the risks of ignoring it. Only three-quarters of South Africans who took part in a 2021 survey said they were “only attracted to the opposite sex”, which means one in four employees potentially fall into a group where restlessness is common.

The LGBTQI+ forum at my place of work has championed changes, including introducing gender-neutral bathrooms and email pronoun displays to comprehensive shifts in leave policies. By modernising terms like “paternity leave” to the gender-neutral “parental leave” and “commissioning surrogacy maternity leave” to “commissioning parental leave”, we are signalling a more inclusive approach that protects true diversity.

To some, these may appear to be minor changes, but their power lies in the signal they send that inclusion is at the heart of the company’s culture and its relationships with staff and customers. During the journey towards inclusivity, it’s also become clear that it is a vital business imperative, helping us retain staff who might otherwise have sought pastures new.

The message for South African employers is clear: inclusivity is not just another box to be ticked. It is a key strategy that must translate into meaningful, visible change if they want to attract and retain the best talent and create a tolerant, welcoming workplace. DM

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