Link: Visibility crucial to fostering a more open industry culture

Executives leading the LGBTQIA+ insurance networking group Link spoke in a recent interview about the challenges members of their community feel in being open about their identities at work, and emphasized how crucial visibility is in driving industry cultural change.

The executives were speaking to The Insurer in an exclusive interview, in which they talked about the enormous progress the group has made in the decade it has been around, to the point where the group now boasts a 2,000-member distribution list and throws monthly events that are heavily attended.

“For anybody LGBTQ today, it’s tough coming out just in general, to your family and friends,” ChrisReilly, the national practice leader for retirement and benefits at wholesaler Amwins explained.

“Coming out professionally is different. I’ve often said that [professionally] it feels like you’re kind of always coming out because you don’t know if you can go into a meeting with new people and whether you can be out and have a conversation about your partner, your husband, [or] your wife, who is the same sex.”

The executive noted that it could sometimes be challenging knowing how to field a question, such as, “what does your wife do for a living?”

“It’s probably not specific to the insurance industry, but I think just in professional life you are always feeling like you’re coming out. ‘Am I gonna lose a client or am I going to gain a new account from this? You just always have to be aware, until there are truly no labels,” he commented.

Reilly said he thinks professional culture has evolved where it has gotten easier for LGBTQIA+ colleagues to feel more comfortable in their own skin at work.

“I think we create our own anxiety within ourselves about what we think people’s reactions are going to be, and I think more so than not, reaction (from colleagues) is positive. I think sometimes people think to themselves, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done this sooner’. But you’re not ready until you’re ready, whether personally or professionally, so everybody has to do it on their own time, but organizations like Link can help some individuals.”

He added that Link has played a positive role in driving change: “And I think it can help companies to better become an organization that can help other employees.”

“In the US we’re obviously just scratching the surface here, and we can’t wait to really dig and learn from the UK and the programs and the successes that they have had there.”

A support network for colleagues to come out at work

The executives also talked about being a support group for professionals that have found it challenging to be open about their orientation within what is generally perceived to be a more conservative work environment.

“I know in the lead up to our launch in New York City I had a couple of people LinkedIn message me saying that they were nervous about coming,” Erik Johnson said. Johnson is among the group’s original founders in the UK and joined MIC Global Insurance’s Syndicate in a box (SIAB) 5183 at Lloyd’s.

“I said ‘I’ll be there, you don’t have to use your name’. These are things that I forget about, I haven’t had to do that,” Johnson said of his own experience. “So I do think there’s space for Link to act as a support network.”

Maurice Rose, a senior manager for enterprise risk management at MS Amlin and a co-chair of Link, echoed those comments, saying the group has even been a source of support for colleagues who don’t even necessarily attend its events.

Rose also recounted experiences of colleagues who have attended events and after seeing how supportive their firm was of the LGBTQIA+ community, were then inspired to come out at work.

“It’s symbolic for them,” he said of the group’s work as a support system. “So there’s that softer element to it, but there’ve been people who have come to events and post-event they’ve actually come out at work.”

“It’s really powerful in terms of creating a safe space and a network to support people. It’s an opportunity for people to connect and where there’s something in common, to really support each other as well.”

The executives acknowledged that the greater openness among the LGBTQIA+ community is much more a feature of younger generations that have entered the workforce, saying that high-ranking executives have tended to adopt a more conservative approach in broadcasting their orientation.

Rose commented that more senior colleagues in the industry tend not to necessarily deny their orientation, but might generally be less inclined to promote it or be “out and loud” about it. “I think that’s probably where they’re more conservative.”

He added that one-on-one, a C-Suite executive would be willing to talk about their partner, but that when it comes to speaking at an event, they may be more reluctant.

“I think the issue they have is role modeling the advocacy and the ‘shouting’ about it,” Rose said, speaking generally about older, more senior executives in the industry.

Visibility, and representation are important

Executives among Link’s leadership emphasized the importance of colleagues and industry leaders understanding how crucial “visibility” is in making progress that drives further industry diversity and inclusion.

Jessica Nguyen, who co-leads the Link chapter in Canada along with Christopher Aloussis from the insurtech Boxx, and also works for Beazley in Vancouver, explained how crucial visibility was in shaping a more open culture in the workplace.

“That’s why representation is so important,” Nguyen explained. “If I’m not seeing someone that represents me or look like me in my community, how do I engage with my heteronormative peers and not be demonized for having a lifestyle that contradict to heteronormative society?”

Nguyen sees more opportunity for LGBTQIA+ colleagues to feel included in the workplace.

“There is still a lot of opportunity to create safe space for BIPOCs (Black and Indigenous People of Colour) and particularly for BIPOC Transgender people, who are at the highest risk within our community,” she said. “Across the Canadian industry, there’s still opportunity for more nuanced conversation. I think, also normalizing these conversations, too, and so that we can create a safe space.”

To that end, Nguyen says seeing other colleagues representative of them is a pathway towards driving a more diverse culture.

“Us having that visibility is so symbolic to people because the spectrum is so wide,” she noted.“People are still discovering their sexuality and their gender on a daily basis, whether they’re five years old or whether they’re 40 or 60. And so having that visibility is the first step.”

Nguyen said once those in the LGBTQIA+ community have that visibility, “that’s where we can really start to rally and start to create these spaces for people who are still closeted or still have their reservation of being proud and being open.”

That said, Nguyen also acknowledged that the topic of increased representation, especially among the LGBTQIA+ community, isn’t necessarily the easiest to navigate.

“Those conversations get really complex because, for anyone who is a [member of a] private community or wants to identify with a private community, there’s a point in time for them to have the conversation with themselves, with their peers or with people who represent them will have that same visibility.”

“So I think speaking to people who still aren’t sure about being open in the workplace or being open in their own lives until they are able to see that visibility, that is the mechanism or the catalyst that they can say, ‘okay, hey, I can identify with these groups of people’ and so their journey begins there in trying to identify themselves and express themselves.”