Ruth Hunt: For every business that gets it, there's one that can't spell lesbian

Written by
Mary Appleton

25 May 2018

25 May 2018 • by Mary Appleton

As president of Oxford University’s student union in 2001, Ruth Hunt would often receive calls from (what were then) the Big Five, trying to persuade her to go and work for them. 

“There was no social media then, so they hadn’t a clue what I looked like,” she laughs. “I’d look at myself, with my No.3 haircut, baggy jeans and 20 Marlboro Lights, and think: ‘you do not want me working for you’. I ruled myself out of those roles.” 

Seventeen years on, Hunt is CEO of Stonewall, where she’s spent the past 13 years of her career. And although attitudes and working practices have moved on since her university days, a huge part of Hunt’s mission at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality charity is to challenge the deep-rooted prejudice which, she says, is still prevalent in many organisations. 

“There’s something about how we don’t enable people to be themselves that is really screwing things up,” she declares. “There’s so much talent we’re not bringing into our organisations. It’s a perpetuating flaw to assume that having people who think and act in the same way can drive economic growth and innovation. This is not about being nice to gay people, this is an economic differentiator.”

Strides in society

When Hunt joined Stonewall in 2005 as a policy officer, the charity employed just 25 staff and had a £1.7m turnover. Today, headcount has reached 110 and turnover was £6.6m in 2015. 

Over the years, Stonewall has observed some prominent advances for the LGBT+ community. Under Hunt’s predecessor, Ben Summerskill, the charity successfully campaigned to repeal Section 28 (prohibiting local authorities from promoting homosexuality or gay “pretended family relationships”), and in 2013, the Marriage (Same Sex) Act was passed in the UK. But while the major legislative hurdles have been overcome, for Hunt, there are huge strides to be made within the workplace.

I ask her what stops people ‘coming out’ at work. “It’s usually a worry about being judged, which is compounded when homophobic language goes unchecked round the office, and members of the leadership team all look and act the same way,” she says. “If there’s no signal from the business to say ‘we want you to be yourself and we value that’, people become incredibly anxious about it.” 

Lots of LGBT+ people who are not out at work tell Stonewall they are perceived to be “odd”, because they might be reluctant to socialise or discuss weekend plans. “It makes you feel aloof. Secrets are toxic and stop you forming connections with your team.” 

To anyone struggling with their identity at work, she advises: “Choose to be yourself in certain situations and see how it feels. Crucially, understand the impact not being yourself is having. It’s not about always being out, but understanding how it’s making you feel and affecting your performance when you’re not.” 

Although LGBT+ people are being employed, they’re unable to bring their whole selves to work, Hunt argues. Stereotypes that come with minority communities must be dialled down to be accepted which, for Hunt, is as inauthentic as not being out. 

“We’ve learned that you’re allowed to be a certain type of LGBT person; if you’re not ‘too gay’, ‘too butch’ and don’t challenge too much, it’s ok. But we know that people perform better when they get to be themselves.”

A new dialogue

Stonewall currently works with around 750 businesses, some of which reach out to the charity, while others are targeted in sectors “where there is a social good to be achieved. We knew the building industry was a low participating sector but there’s huge potential to transform attitudes, such as through apprenticeships,” Hunt explains. “A lot of LGBT people who would benefit from working with a good employer drop out of school, so we’ve been working with the building industry on that.” 

She is pleased that, in some industries, the dialogue has moved on from “how do we increase the number of LGBT employees?” to a more nuanced conversation across sectors. For example, “banks are now concerned about how they are supporting their LGBT staff working in Dubai, while police forces are worrying about how to ensure young LGBT people don’t become anti-social if they’ve been excluded from school”. 

Industries that started taking LGBT+ issues seriously some ten years ago are now reaping the rewards, Hunt says, highlighting financial and professional services as key players. “EY has seen that staff who are able to be themselves are more productive to the tune of $150,000 per annum. But for every business that gets it, there’s an organisation that still can’t spell lesbian. We assume that capitalism relies on innovation, but if you’ve got the same type of people in your workforce being innovative in the same ways, it’s a major business flaw.” 

Surprisingly, two industries that struggle with the LGBT+ agenda are hospitality and media. Hunt also feels there is much work to do around the public sector, due, in part, to a lack of funding and available training. She sees the most potential for progress in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), where “there are pockets of good practice”, explaining that small companies tend to consider diversity from the perspective of mitigating risk, rather than transformation. 

The tendency, among some organisations, to view diversity initiatives as an add-on is incredibly frustrating for Hunt and a recurring theme in our discussion. She argues that even if your workforce looks very different, if they all think the same, it’s a major flaw. 

“It’s all very well letting your gay staff ‘be themselves’ at work, but if they all look, act and think the same, that’s just a gay version of what you’ve already got,” she says. “Years ago the battle was about LGBT representation, now it’s about ensuring the Asian lesbian, the bisexual mother – any of these people – are able to be themselves at work too.” 

She believes change will happen when organisations stop thinking about ‘diversity’ and start thinking in terms of culture. “Most workplaces have been built on the ‘survival of the fittest’ idea. If you want to capitalise on diversity, you have to enable every single individual to bring their whole self to work.” 

The moment this clicks is when senior management links diversity to organisational purpose, she observes: “For MI5 [#1 employer in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index] their mission is to keep the country safe, so they acknowledge that they can’t just have White men in chinos around the table.”

Unfreeze in the middle

Hunt believes the HR profession has a “transformative” role to play in advancing the LGBT+ agenda, by taking it out of the hands of LGBT+ individuals. As well as putting in place relevant policies and procedures and rolling out training around LGBT+ issues, she aims to “unfreeze the middle. The past ten years of equality and diversity in certain sectors has frozen a middle layer of people who are so concerned about what they can’t do that they haven’t thought about what they can do. Innovation in HR is going to be necessary to move this up a gear.” 

Stonewall makes its Workplace Equality Index harder every year – “we always want more,” says Hunt. “A few years ago we’d be asking how businesses were doing on setting up an LGBT network group; now we’re asking how they’re connecting LGBT network groups in the Sudan with the work happening in Canada.” 

Hunt is keen to drive Stonewall’s international strategy by helping employers to “go deep” into hard-to-reach communities.

Nudging the nation

If full acceptance of LGBT+ people is not yet forthcoming, Hunt would love to get to a place where “hatred is at least turned down”. She is concerned about hate crime in the UK today, particularly post-Brexit, where there is intolerance of difference. Referring to the recent US presidential debates, she believes “we are creating environments where it is ok to persecute other people”. 

Hunt actively seeks out conversations with communities resistant to the Stonewall mission. “I want to avoid creating an ‘echo chamber’ by only interacting with people like me,” she states. “It can get rough at times, so you have to remember the bigger picture. I work with religious communities – people ask me why, but we have to work with the people who are least up for this. If you only ever talk to people who agree with you, there won’t be any change. We are constantly trying to nudge the nation up a gear.” 

The “exposing” nature of the CEO role has, for Hunt, been something of a baptism of fire. She has received criticism for being “too timid” and faced a backlash after initially refusing to boycott The Dorchester hotel chain when it was revealed that its owner, the Sultan of Brunei, was implementing a Sharia law-based penal code under which homosexual acts would be punishable by stoning. “If I make the wrong decision, people have no qualms about telling me on social media,” she says, adding that she has grown more resilient lately. In the wider domain, Hunt believes her role is, to a large extent, about sending a message – to young lesbians, in particular – that they can do anything. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to modify who I am, and I’d love to get to a place where that doesn’t happen any more.”