"My biggest career barrier was my own reticence to be completely out at work

Written by
Mary Appleton

29 Nov 2016

29 Nov 2016 • by Mary Appleton

Once I decided to come out fully, speak openly about my wife and to bring all of myself and my life to work, I enjoyed work more and had a much more open relationship with everyone around me. That openness has made me a far better leader and my career blossomed from that moment.

I primarily use my role as a member of Aviva's Group Executive to normalise being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) by being a role model as a happy, openly gay woman. I am also the executive sponsor of Aviva Pride, our LGBT network in the UK. My focus this year is on working to take our pride network to countries outside of the UK, linking it with other networks and addressing trans issues in the workplace.

My personal aim is to be the best role model I can possibly be and to challenge any form of discrimination. I passionately believe that the progress we have made in LGBT visibility has been heavily influenced by initiatives such as the OUTstanding and FT Leading LGBT executives list. That kind of visibility is invaluable and I'm proud to have been in all the lists since its launch.

The business benefit of a diverse workplace is well documented but organisations still really struggle with it in practice. I work hard to share my experiences with other companies as it is only by understanding other's perspectives that we have a change of turning our workplaces into places that are genuinely welcoming for a diverse mix of talent.

This year, Aviva launched its company-wide ally programme, open to supporters regardless of whether they personally identify as LGBT. They could be parents or family members of someone who is LGBT, or have a general interest in fostering a more inclusive workplace culture. This is important because it creates an atmosphere of positivity, making it easier for LGBT colleagues to be open and themselves at work.

It also seems to me that leaders who create truly diverse teams recognise that it's not just about recruiting a diverse team (although that's a good start) but about making the most out of the diversity in your teams. That means genuinely listening to other's viewpoints, creating a supportive environment where challenge feels safe, and at times, managing conflict. That can take a lot of energy and needs constant focus but the rewards for getting it right are huge.

We have made so much progress across the LGBT agenda in the UK, for example, with progress on legal issue such as marriage equality. In the UK, we still have a long way to go though to get to a point where everyone in the workplace feels completely comfortable being out, and in particular, the experience of many trans people in the workplace remains extremely difficult. We're making progress but the conversation needs to continue until all LGBT people feel genuinely accepted into our workplace. The next frontier for many multi-national companies is working out how to improve the lives of our LGBT staff in countries where they may not enjoy the protections we have in the UK.


Over the coming weeks, we will be showcasing personal stories on Changeboard from leaders from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; discussing their own experiences of career barriers in business and tackling diversity. Please click below to view: 

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You can read more stories from LGBT role models, as part of our exclusive series:

Isabella Segal, partner, Nymon Libson Paul, on transition: "I'm a role model for diversity within our firm"

Arjan Dijk, vice president of growth marketing, Google: "You need to be authentic for people to understand who you are and to be able to fully trust you" 

Cory Valente, R&D director, The Dow Chemical Company: "Everyone tackles the challenge of being an 'outsider' in their own way"

We will be showcasing more insights from LGBT leaders over the next few weeks.