Book review: The Glass Closet by John Browne

John Browne is well-known for his role at BP between 1995 and 2007. He oversaw the diversification of the company and took it through sizeable mergers. He was widely considered a success and at the time he was one of the highest paid executives in the UK. He resigned from the company in 2007 and the book, The Glass Closet, covers some of the reasons behind this and also offers insight into Browne’s formative years.

While the book makes interesting reading about such a high profile figure, I think it is also useful in providing insight into how very senior people perceive and approach the environment they work it. Although the laws surrounding sexual orientation and public opinion in Britain about being gay has shifted somewhat, it still is the case that the majority of people in very senior positions choose not to be open about being lesbian, gay or bisexual. This book highlights that for many, it is the personal assessment of the risks that still prevents them from being honest about who they are in the workplace. There are examples in the book about people choosing to be closeted because they want to ensure they progress to a very senior level. For many, this is clearly a choice.

I would argue that if people at the top of organisations perceive their working environments to be antagonistic towards diverse identities, it doesn’t hold out much hope for people with multiple marginalised identities or those who have faced historic discrimination in the workplace and haven’t been able to hide – i.e.women, people of colour and those with visible disabilities. One IBM Task Force Executive gave a significant example. At a careers fair lots of women approached the organisation and the person was curious as to why – the stand was clearly marked LGBT friendly and they were hard pressed to believe there were that many people who identified that way at the event. When quizzed, one of the applicants said ‘LGBT is the toughest category for you to crack. If you value and include LGBT employees, then I know you will include Asians and women.’

At the moment many high profile LGBT+ organisations such as Stonewall have applauded senior managers who have stood up as LGBT+. The argument is that openly LGBT+ senior management have a significant opportunity to demonstrate that being out does not limit one’s chances for success. But in fact, if they did not come out until they reached a senior level, then actually it does not imply that at all – it just means you have to hide until you reach a senior level. I mean, would they have reached a senior level if they had been out from the beginning of their careers? This is the question that continues to perplex younger people, uncertain about how to behave in a new workplace. Stonewall studies continue to show that young people who are open about their sexual orientation and gender identity, often go back in the closet when they get their first job. Because regardless of the policies an organisation has, it always comes down to being able to network doesn’t it? There are very few senior managers who got to where they are by simply relying on hard work. Many have mentors and sponsors and influencers etc. So, how likely are you to be able to ‘network’ if you are openly LGBT+ in an organisation that has only just started being LGBT+ friendly?

While this book argues for a top-down approach to workplace LGBT+ inclusion, I would argue that unless it is organisation-wide, across hierarchies, then it simply won’t work. Employees need to see that they can be themselves whatever their position in the company, and still make it, and still be treated fairly.

Below are a selection of quotes worth highlighting from the book:

‘In the closet you always need to ask yourself how you are behaving and if people will perceive something that you don’t want them to perceive … it’s like being on stage, but in your head, it’s not a matter of whether or not the audience likes you. It’s a matter of whether or not you have job.’ (p 67-68)

‘My fear of being discovered arose from my belief that I could not do business as an openly gay person in a country that criminalises homosexuality. That was true in places as far apart as the Middle East, Angola and Nigeria. I viewed being in the closet as a practical business decision (p.76).

 

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