At the end of September an unexpected and, looking back, stimulating learning opportunity arose: at the Gucci Hub in Milan, the “LGBT people at work” Park Forum was held. Parks - Liberi e Uguali is an Italian non-profit organisation, founded in 2010 to promote diversity at work and within companies, along with management models which encourage inclusion and equal opportunities at work for the LGBT population (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans).
General Electric is among the 42 international corporations which supports Parks: in 2013, there were only 19 companies involved in Parks’ initiatives. This fact is worth highlighting because it shows how the attention given to this subject has grown.
Inside the incredibly stylish conference halls, decorated with swans painted on the light green walls, the introductory words of Igor Suran, executive director of Parks, provided some more illuminating information: “For companies, the success factor is universally identified by the human factor: hence it is vital for companies to protect individuality and humanity. Everyone must feel represented, fulfilled and valid in their own work.”
During this introduction, words such as shame, fear, resentment, exclusion and abnormality were heard which usually are unlikely to be associated with a working environment apart from in exceptionally serious cases. But this forum, the Parks association and the audience of managers and academics provided evidence that, for some people, these are words which represent their everyday experience at work.
For anyone who is not aware of the numbers and seriousness of this situation, it is worth considering that according to the Italian national statistics body ISTAT, in 2011 nearly one million Italians identified as homosexual, whilst in 2012 more than two million had reported having had a homosexual experience during their lifetime; in spite of this, there is currently no law in Italy against homophobic or transphobic discrimination.
To back these numbers up, the European Special Eurobarometer report confirmed that according to 73% of Italians homosexual-related discrimination is widespread, versus the European average of 58%.
However, there is a cultural change under way, one which is supported by the data: according to the Pew Research Center acceptance of homosexuality in Italy has risen from 65% in 2007 to 74% in 2013. According to the same study, the over-50s in Italy are less likely to accept diversity, compared with youngsters: 67% versus 86%.
Simone Pulcher is studying for a degree at the University of Milan with a dissertation entitled “Bringing Lesbian and Gay-Friendliness into the Corporate World”; he was among the audience at the Parks Forum and during a break he explained that “the Arcigay LGBT association, based on a 2012 interview of 1,462 LGBT workers, discovered that around 27% of them hid their sexual orientation at work. Today the percentage has not come down much; fortunately associations and initiatives like these, together with political pressure in Europe and laws passed in Brussels, have reawakened interest and positive action on the issue of gender and sexual orientation based discrimination in the workplace. This has also driven the cultural change in Italy but there is certainly still a long way to go.”
At the Milan forum, many different discussions and round tables were held on the stage; with pride, the first round table entitled “On joking: people, mysteries and stereotypes” included contributions from a colleague of ours from Avio Aero who is well-known and respected for her professionalism: Rosanna, a mechanical transmission testing principal engineer at the Sangone Test Centre.
The moderator of the round table who invited Rosanna onto the stage was Patrizia Zambianchi, Head of Retail Products at Deutsche Bank, one of the companies which has always supported Parks. “According to some psychometric studies, it only takes eight seconds for our mind to create an instant and defined impression. In some cases, a prejudice”.
“Personally, when I began to suffer stereotypes, I realised that I had a lot of them myself” began Rosanna’s speech to the forum. She doesn’t mince her words, as those who work with her will know, she is direct and pragmatic and it is both entertaining and incredible to see her standing proudly on the forum stage between bankers, business managers, people who work in offices or even in high fashion. She is someone who has lived in factories for more than 20 years, with the smell of oil, within aeronautical engine transmission test benches and who, as her friend always said, is first an engineer, and then a woman.
Her contribution to the discussion is as sincere as she is: she speaks about her career which began in 1993, after completing her degree in aerospace engineering at Turin polytechnic; a lover of electronics, mechanics and travels, she was interviewed to join the engineering department of what is now Avio Aero. Back then it was different, she was a young graduate with an enormous passion for her new working life but she was also a person dealing with her own crucial journey of transformation. “All in all, I am happy that my transition occurred at the end of the ‘90s” she said with an expression that shone through with candour, “at that time it was perhaps a bit more ‘unusual’ compared with nowadays but a number of things supported me: the company, my bosses, passion for my work and the typical 'cultural sobriety' of Piedmont. It all allowed me to pursue in parallel my identity journey whilst at the same time giving the right priority and importance to my work.” As they say: that’s all very well but when there’s work to be done, you work.
"Today it is absolutely remarkable how much talk and promotion there is of diversity, as well as encouragement for women in jobs which were traditionally male, but we mustn’t risk over-emphasizing"
The impression that you get when talking to Rosanna is of a person with an intense connection to her profession, her life, her husband and the family she has built, as well as to her journey: you recognise that at times she is even indifferent to ‘modern parlance’, to what is currently ‘politically correct’, to the over-emphasis in communication on diversity inclusion practices. In addition to addressing the Parks Forum about her company and her experience, she has for years been the chair of the Circolo Maurice LGBTQ anti-discrimination organisation in Turin, an educator on the Turin Pride committee, co-founder of TransGender Europe and a member of ONIG (national monitoring centre for gender identity, which brings together professionals who work with transsexualism).
“Obviously, in the past the situation was worse: prejudice and hostility in the workplace were tolerated, even justified” explained Rosanna. “Today it is absolutely remarkable how much talk and promotion there is of diversity, as well as encouragement for women in jobs which were traditionally male, but we mustn’t risk over-emphasizing, being over-protective: you run the risk of a boomerang effect which would benefit no one”.
“In contrast”, she continued, “giving it too much emphasis runs the risk of being an end in itself: it may satisfy the person who does it, but you then need to see the extent to which inclusive practices have really taken root, how much they actually spread throughout the fabric of the business, at all levels, not just the upper echelons: in the end, this too can become a stereotype.”
She is pragmatic, using disarming logic to explain to you what it actually means and how we should behave at work and within the society when the situation calls for diversity. Because diversity is an integral part of humanity, something which Rosanna understood a long time ago, talking about it with her colleagues, including the younger ones. Whether still undecided or simply uninformed, in Rosanna they find not only a technical and professional advice but also a remarkable source of human guidance. “Try and play the diversity card, it’s a winner one! This also goes for women: I don't like it when I hear someone say or think that being a scientist, engineer or even industrialist is not for them purely for reasons of gender.”
Rosanna learned this at work, during one of “the best and most important experiences of my life.” In 1998, she went to La Spezia to oversee a long job on the gas turbines of a power station, a job which lasted two years. “Many of the people who I met were less educated, perhaps less open minded, than my colleagues in Turin. The experience was a really tough one, I had to face up to it and I did so despite the pain because it is never pleasant to be criticised or discriminated against for personal reasons. But I have always preferred it this way: confrontation, even conflict, compared to the ‘politically correct’, flattery or hypocritical comments behind my back. I cannot tell you how nice it is to see people I worked with in La Spezia change, talking to me and valuing me professionally after having overcome their prejudices.”
Photo credits: Mattia Marinolli.