City of Sydney councillor Christine Forster and partner Virginia Edwards shared their personal stories about coming out in the workplace as part of the launch of EnergyAustralia's Prism Network.
The network aims to enhance EnergyAustralia’s workplace culture and support employees who identify as, or who have friends and family members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI).
Forster and Edwards have experienced first-hand the value of having supportive and open workplaces. After meeting in 2003 they left their respective husbands to start a relationship, a choice made public as Forster is the sister of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Forster said that while the publicity made their situation unique, the decision to come out is the same for everybody.
"Everybody has to make the decision to come out at work and it’s up to the company to make them feel secure and protected. We’re happy to share our story for the next generation of Australians who are going to make the decision to come out and hopefully us having shared our story makes it a bit easier for them," Forster said.
Both women came out in workplaces that were open and accepting, but Edwards said a person’s position in a company can impact their decision to come out or the reaction they receive.
"We’re very privileged to view this through an upper management environment. Where you’re pitched in the organisations strata can drive your ability to feel confident coming out. I felt nothing but support and acceptance but that’s not always the case," Edwards said.
Forster, who is an Ambassador for Pride in Diversity’s Sapphire Program for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women in the workplace, knows many people who have not felt confident enough to come out at work.
"This becomes a real problem. It can lead to emotional problems and obviously someone who can’t feel comfortable will be less productive and less effective,” said Forster. “We talk about people being able to bring their whole selves to work, it’s a cliché but it’s very, very true."
Ensuring EnergyAustralia has a culture where all employees feel they can be their whole selves at work is one of the main aims of EnergyAustralia’s Prism Network.
EnergyAustralia’s Chief Information Officer Anne Weatherston said it’s about more than doing the right thing.
"We're on the journey to become a world class retailer," Weatherston said. "This is a major transformation and the key to transforming any organisation is people and engaging the hearts and minds of every single employee.
"For people to engage they have to believe and feel part of the change. It's more than just communication; it’s essential that everyone feels they belong. Belonging is about creating an environment that feels safe, so you can develop and contribute. That requires an inclusive culture where people’s differences are accepted and valued. This is essential if we’re to achieve our transformational ambition."
Edwards said working for a company you know will support and back you is invaluable.
"The establishment of a network within an organisation, such as EnergyAustralia is doing says to every single employee - not just LGBTI, but to everybody - that it’s not ok to discriminate," she said.