Financial Services Working with the LGBTQ+ Community

Graduate Mentor are delighted to showcase how things are changing in financial services as demonstrated by Canada Life and how they are embracing diversity as explained by Gavin Withers, Head of Talent Acquisition.

GM: What have been your own experiences with regard to attitudes towards LGBT+ communities in the sector?

GW: I know from personal experience early on in my career that it can be really exhausting to constantly be on your guard, or nervous about whether others know or suspect something about you that you don’t feel comfortable or empowered to share.

I began my career in the 90s, starting out in the Professional Services industry as an HR Coordinator. Everyone was really friendly, but I was not aware of any other ‘out’ gay colleagues in my office. At this point in my life, I just wanted to ‘fit in’ and build my career. I thought that somehow being open about my sexuality would negatively impact my working relationships and reputation. I didn’t feel comfortable or empowered sharing with others at this stage. As a result, I found that early on in my career it felt exhausting to constantly be on my guard and I remember feeling nervous about whether others knew or suspected something about me that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing. Looking back, I regret that somewhat now. It takes just one person to start a movement, and I think that the reality may have been much better than I feared.

I’ve worked across different industries – including Professional Services, Management Consulting and Financial Services – and always in HR and Recruitment. My experiences of attitudes towards LGBT+ communities have varied, but overall, I feel as though most companies I’ve worked for have evolved, progressively over time, and many now have great role models to look to for support and inspiration.

I’m really pleased to see that conversations around LGBT+ inclusivity continues to build momentum steadily. There’s so much great work being done to advance ambitions in this space, and the engagement I personally receive across the industry and within the organisation around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion continues to inspire me.

GM: How have attitudes evolved in the sector?

GW: I joined the workforce in 1997. Even back then, I was impressed by how open-minded my colleagues around me were. Perhaps I was lucky as I know that wasn’t everyone’s lived experience at that time. However, there wasn’t as much support, the conversation wasn’t as advanced as it is now, and there wasn’t the level of resources available as we see today.

It’s important to mark how far we’ve come, in society and in the Financial Services sector. As a case in point, throughout the month of June, we’ll not only be celebrating PRIDE across Canada Life in the UK, but as part of our global organization to mark our commitment to stand with our LGBT+ colleagues and allies, our customers, and those in the communities in which we operate.

For those not entirely familiar with the concept of Pride, it’s about people coming together to show how far gay rights have come, even if in some places there’s still some work to be done. Pride month is about teaching tolerance, education in pride history.

Celebrating Pride month is a good example of how attitudes have evolved in my sector. But, it’s also important to keep the conversation going beyond the celebrations and remembrance dates. Sometimes that can be hard when we’re worried about saying the ‘wrong thing’, and inadvertently offending someone. Everyone starts somewhere with this, and in my experience, people don’t get offended when there’s the effort made to engage in the discussion. Especially if you’re honestly and authentically coming from a place of positivity, support, open-mindedness and learning. So, whether you feel confident engaging with others on the topic of Pride, or you feel you need some practice, I would encourage everyone to join in on the conversation as every interaction makes a difference.

GM: What is the sector doing well and where does it need to up its game?

GW: With respect to the company that I work for, we’re making real, concerted efforts to create a culture of inclusivity. I’m fortunate to be the Co-Chair of Canada Life’s LGBT+ network – Proud. When we first launched the network in 2022, I was really encouraged by how many people came forward to join or be involved. What really (pleasantly) surprised me was the number of allies who took an interest in our agenda, who were seeking ways to make a real difference.

The networks ethos is to promote the inclusivity of our LGBT+ colleagues, customers and the community. To create an environment where everyone can bring their whole self to work, to achieve their full potential.

The Proud network provides a voice to our LGBT+ colleagues and allies through education and networking. We value and celebrate our differences so that together, we make Canada Life more dynamic and stronger.

There’s always more we and our industry can do of course. At Canada Life for example, we’re working through a set of objectives aimed specifically at LGBT+ centric policies, processes and principles, which will make meaningful and lasting improvements to how it feels to interact with Canada Life as a colleague, customer or stakeholder, whether you’re LGBT+ or an ally.

Whilst I think a lot of companies are on board with driving forward Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, it’s important to not just pay lip service to the cause. In order to truly live and breathe an inclusive culture, I think it’s important to continue to offer education and insights, particularly on topics such as Allyship and Unconscious Bias. Everyone has lived a life of bias. This is because our framing of certain situations is influenced by our own experiences. What’s important is that we take the time to recognise our own biases so that we can ensure they don’t play a part in the decisions that we make on behalf of the organisation. Last year we launched Bias Awareness learning to all our colleagues across Canada Life and we’ll continue to do more in this space.

GM: Do you feel encouraged and enabled to bring your whole self to work?

GW: It’s an exciting time to be a part of the Canada Life story right now. We all have a part to play in creating an organisation where everyone can thrive, contribute, and feel free to be themselves. As someone who has spent over 20 years connecting people with roles and organisations, I know first-hand how important it is to bring your whole self to your role. We’re more likely to reach our potential if we’re not holding any part of ourselves back. I’m a firm believer that bringing our whole self to work is critical – for our customers, our colleagues, and most importantly our personal success and wellbeing.

That’s why it’s so important for organisations to create and maintain a culture where everyone can bring their whole selves into work. After all, if we’re not using up our brain power worrying about an aspect of our identity, we have more time, energy and focus on contributing great things to our organisation. I’m committed to ensuring fair and equal recruitment practices that support everyone’s talent and whole self.  It is critical to what I do, and I’m proud to work for an organisation that embraces that ethos.