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The Importance of Allyship in Creating Inclusive Workplaces

By Helen Jones, SVP Head of Audit & Assurance, GSK

You couldn’t miss the Spectrum stall in the main thoroughfare of GSK’s head office. Its bright and colourful palette, mixed with the equally bright, colourful and exuberant staff, was far from the usual dreary exhibition stand. 

What I didn’t realise then was that the people handing out rainbow lanyards from the Spectrum Employee Resource Group (ERG) were not just LGBT+ people there to support others who identified as LGBT+.

It was not until a few years later when I was asked to sponsor the group, that I started to appreciate the importance of allyship, and the critical role it plays in creating inclusive workplaces.

My first experience of the LGBT community

Growing up as a white, privileged northerner, I had very limited exposure to or understanding of the challenges faced by others just seeking to be themselves.

It wasn’t until I spent some time in Australia during the early part of my career that I can say I really got to know and spend time with LGBT+ friends and colleagues. One of those friends had moved to Sydney from the UK because he didn’t want his family to know he was gay.

It was the first time I really recognised the lengths that people were willing to go to in order to keep their true self hidden.

Thankfully, we have come a long way since then in the UK. We can now embrace difference, celebrate the richness that diversity can bring to our society, and continue to fight to ensure that bigotry and intolerance are not acceptable. 

I’ve had a brilliant career at GSK for over 10 years now, and am currently Head of Audit & Assurance, a role that comes with a lot of responsibility and influence. GSK, as a company, is committed to creating a truly diverse and inclusive environment, where everyone can thrive and be themselves. It makes business sense. There are now many studies that prove the more successful companies are those that truly take diversity and inclusion seriously. 

It was this mission that inspired me to look for ways in which I could use my influence, passion and experience to support marginalised people in the workplace, via groups like Spectrum.

Being an executive sponsor to Spectrum’s UK chapter provides me with a superb opportunity to channel all of these things and make a tangible difference to our LGBT+ employees.

For example, I can raise awareness of the challenges faced by the community and garner funding and support across the organisation to make changes to ensure our workplace is more inclusive. I also get to raise visibility and celebrate with my colleagues, through participation in events such as the colourful flash dance mob! My dancing may not be great, but it’s taking part that matters.

In recent years I have also had the privilege of joining GSK’s Global LGBT+ Council, one of four Global Councils at GSK driving our D&I agenda. The Council works closely with Spectrum, setting global objectives, sharing learnings and best practice across the company and providing support to further our ambition in certain countries where LGBT+ rights are still not recognised.    

Educating myself on the issues

I have often heard that one of the most important things an ally can do is listen and learn from the experiences of others. As a heterosexual woman, I don’t have the first-hand experience of what it’s like to be discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation.

But what I do have is the privilege to be part of the Spectrum ERG, where there are brave and courageous people who have been through it and are willing to open up and help me understand the challenges they face on a daily basis.

It is only by understanding these challenges that we can make things happen to address them, whether that be by refreshing policies to ensure we are truly inclusive, providing training that highlights how some behaviours may be disrespectful to others, visibly stepping in to support a colleague in need or ensuring we listen and create an open and inclusive environment where differences can be aired and valued. 

In the UK Spectrum has grown significantly over recent years and achieved so much, and it's thanks to the dedication of a passionate group of LGBT+ and straight ally volunteers who simply want to make a difference.

I can’t express how proud I was when Stonewall named us Employee Network Group of the year in 2019 and only last year we ranked 6th in the Stonewall Equality Index, our highest rank to date, with much of the marks coming directly from Spectrum activities.

Being an ally could be the difference

By joining an employee resource group and becoming an active member, maybe you will find small things you can do to ensure nobody is afraid to be themselves at work, be that by wearing a rainbow lanyard, volunteering to help on a bright and colourful stand or recognising where inequities or barriers to inclusion still exist and changing them! Allies need to be part of the continuing journey to create the environment we want where we truly value and embrace difference. 

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