Pride and Prejudice

17 February 2021

From an early age, discrimination was something that Paula Clarke, Director of Engineering and Projects at Leonardo UK, was confronted with. In this article marking LGBT History Month, Paula explains how she’s drawing on many life experiences to shape her thinking and help positively influence strategy and attitudes in her role as the executive level sponsor of Leonardo’s Pride Network Group.

Growing up in the Middle East, I was in a minority, since women, and particularly those of a different nationality, weren’t viewed as equals. Sometimes I was overtly made to feel unwelcome, and this was a daily reality that I was expected to navigate, and tolerate. As a young girl, I accepted this behaviour as normal and it wasn’t until I became a teenager, that I began really questioning the human element; whether it was OK and how I really felt about it.

When I moved to the UK as an 18 year old, I chose to launch myself into the male-dominated railway construction industry, often working on-track. It’s an environment that people have often assumed features a huge amount of misogyny and other discrimination, though that was not the case. Yes, the people I worked with were physically stronger than me and yes they had a lot more experience than me, but they didn’t care about that! We joked and bantered, but ultimately, all they truly cared about was whether I worked as hard as they did. They accepted me.

Achieving Acceptance

This was an eye-opening experience for me – to be judged entirely on merit. It was probably the closest to a meritocracy that I’ve ever seen in a workplace. I’d gone from a reality of high discrimination – both from a gender and a race perspective – to a scenario where it was entirely a meritocracy – where my gender and race were now irrelevant. This binary journey from one extreme to another made me realise how important it was that other people experienced the same acceptance as I had been given in the workplace – just being accepted because I worked hard and pulled my weight. I felt like all of the artificial social boundaries had been taken away.

I would like to say that life is like this for everyone throughout their careers, but we know that’s not the case; and the ugly face of inequality shows itself…all too often, quietly, even in the comfortable, professional offices of organisations across the globe.

This is what inclusion and diversity (I&D) in its widest form is all about; essentially, it’s the ability for people to get stuck into any element of their career or integrate themselves into a group of people – in or out of work – without the fear of who they are being a barrier to them being part of that group.

Feeling accepted is a basic psychological need. I&D is about offering up acceptance to people by including them in whatever it is that you’re doing and recognising the value they bring.

A platform to influence

I was honoured to be asked to be the Leonardo Pride Network Group executive sponsor because it presents an opportunity to help level up the playing field for others, so those artificial social barriers break down.

My responsibility is to elevate the issues we need to address as part of our progression on LGBTQ+ issues…and I&D generally. I’m fortunate enough be able to work with people in my peer group and on the first line who feel the same way I do.

However, I have also wondered why in 2021, as a society there’s still a need for exec level sponsors for stuff like this. To answer that, we must listen to the lived experiences of our colleagues across industries who still experience passive and active discrimination, despite our best efforts so far. For me, this is an opportunity to promote LGBTQ+ issues and really create that inclusive acceptance environment and culture, so it becomes inherent in our values.

As leaders, we must give our teams the confidence that we support what they’re trying to do, providing them with a safe space to explore what I&D really means to them. In certain instances, this means allowing them the space to have an uncomfortable conversation, to say “I don’t really understand this” or “I don’t know why this isn’t working as well as we hoped” without being judged. That conversation is an opportunity to explore issues, and the vast majority of people I’ve worked with have operated with positive intent and genuinely want to learn how to enable that better culture.

Allyship for everyone

As the Pride sponsor and as an ally, my role is to ensure that the individuals within our LGBTQ+ community are not the only people trying to stamp out inappropriate behaviour. It’s my privilege to speak on their behalf. It’s my responsibility to educate others on their behalf. In fact, it’s our collective responsibility. Each time we allow it, each time we accept it, each time we ignore it, it grows a little stronger, becomes more acceptable.

It needs to be eradicated.

The link between mental health and feeling safe or accepted is scientifically irrefutable. We have a collective human responsibility to look out for each other. When people need to raise awareness of their daily experiences using hashtags such as #casualhomophobia or #everydaytransphobia on social media, we have to acknowledge that we have not yet won the fight for equality. The reason society needs groups like the Pride Network, is because until such prejudice is completely eradicated, we haven’t done our job.

I&D is about education, building empathy and creating an environment that encourages people to be entirely themselves, without fear or consequence.

I know society is on the right path, even if the journey isn’t yet concluded.