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The importance of being out in the workplace

Published 17 June 2021 in Leadership • 7 min read

“From the locker room to the board room, visible LGBTQ+ female leaders are needed more than ever,” says former professional athlete Nikki Symmons. 


Not enough LGBTQ+ people are “out”. 

This June, you will see millions of us marching in Pride Month parades around the world, both in person and virtually, fighting for equality and acceptance. But sadly, this visibility does not often carry over into the corporate world. 

An athlete’s career is short-lived. A former professional field hockey player, I am now Global Communications Studio Planner at PMI, Phillip Morris International, where I see the same problems with LGBTQ+ visibility in the business world that I did in the world of sports.   


Becoming a visible LGBTQ+ leader 

As Ireland’s first female athlete to come out publicly, I have first-hand experience in this area. When I came out in 2014 it was mainly to create more awareness and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community. I felt I had a responsibility to show that it was better to be my true self than hide behind a mask. Even today, I receive messages from people who were inspired by my courage. 

It wasn’t as if I had been in the closet; I had come out to my family and friends’ years earlier. But I recognized that coming out to the world was a different story, and it would be the best way to be an example for others who might not have the excellent support system that I had. 

There were not many female gay role models for queer people when I was growing up, especially in sport. There were key people like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, but to be honest I admired them for their tennis skills, not their sexual orientation.  

Building awareness is very important, as many people still have misconceptions about what being part of the LGBTQ+ community means. In my youth, I remember the controversy of local players or coaches being outed, resulting in parents not sending their children to certain sports clubs.  

And while I felt comfortable with myself, being a lesbian in a Catholic, conservative country like Ireland was still taboo. I, too, have been shouted at on the street, and called any number of derogatory names.  

I’m not alone. A 2016 British LGBT Awards survey says that 64 percent of LGBT+ women said that they had experienced a form of “negative treatment including sexual discrimination, inappropriate language, lack of opportunity or bullying at work”.  

Why aren’t people out in the workplace? 

Attitudes toward homosexuality have actually worsened in the past decade. And there is one important place where visible LGBTQ+ female leaders are practically absent – the office. The number of out women drops off significantly as we look up the corporate ladder and the situation for men is even more dire. Being out does not equal being a visible role model, and neither does participating in an organization’s LGBTQ+ network.  

I know that LGBTQ+ women often do not feel comfortable being themselves when they are in senior leadership roles. So it is vital to have visible leaders for the next generation of LGBTQ+ people to feel that they, too, can lead in whatever field they choose – whether that’s sports or supply chain. 

According to McKinsey’s LGBTQ+ Women in Business report, of the four openly LGBTQ+ CEOs that head the world’s major corporations, only one is female and not one is trans.With increased rates of sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender and orientation, among other issues, LGBTQ+ women have unique challenges to overcome in the workplace.  

However small their numbers, these female gay leaders do have a surprisingly altruistic bent to their motivations. This same report states that LGBTQ+ women purposely seek out major roles in order to have a positive impact on the world. They are 1.5 times more likely than straight men and 1.2 times more likely than LGBTQ+ men to be motivated to advance into senior leadership so that they can use their position to be a role model for others like them 

So, with this motivational potential, all that is missing is the inclusivity needed to provide an accepting, supportive professional setting for the growth in prominence of LGBTQ+ employees. 

It is my experience as an elite athlete and the unwavering support from my employer and family that I truly believe has shaped me to show no fear, stand up for what I believe in and have the ability to relate to all levels within a complex organization. If I fail, I learn my lesson and get back up to try again. This resilience is something that has helped me to overcome multiple challenges not only in the workplace but also in life.  

Equity Diversity Program


The workforce of tomorrow 

Future generations of employees will look to work for a company that is inclusive of all. As the LGBTQ+ community has become more diverse, it has become even more of an imperative that they operate in the most fair and inclusive way possible. 

I played a leading role with an amazing group of people to drive the development of PMI’s Employee Resource Group (ERG) for the LGBTQ+ community. Now in our first year, the STRIPES Global mission is to create a continuous conversation that will enable PMI to build a more inclusive, respectful and supportive culture, including in countries that have specific laws against the LGBTQ+ community and local cultures that are not inclusive of LGBTQ+ people.  


The ability to be yourself 

Times change, and so does the LGBTQ+ community. While it’s true that younger generations don’t always see coming out as a necessary part of the LGBTQ+ experience, the right to be a visible, vocal example of who you are is non-negotiable.  

Pride Month reminds us all there’s still a lot of work to be done around Equity, Inclusion & Diversity and the conversation must never stop – it is not just for the tentpole moments in a calendar. My career, first in professional sports and now for a multinational corporation, is a microcosm of how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go.  

By being myself – openly – I know that I’m making a difference. So, won’t you join me? Whether that’s coming out or simply coming together, it’s the first step to creating a truly inclusive workplace.   


How can the corporations better support the LGBTQ+ community?  

By being more inclusive. Here are seven ways you can start: 


  1. Recognize and understand your own privilege. This is a difficult exercise, but it is a massive step to being an effective ally.  
  2. Play for the same team – inclusivity can’t be achieved by one person; it takes the whole team. Make sure every employee is involved at some level, on a level they feel comfortable with.
  3. Own your learning journey. Commit to finding the answer when you don’t know something. Research, go online, ask questions, and listen. Connect with other allies who might have grappled with the same questions or challenges. 
  4. The devil is in the details – the little things may not seem important, but they add up. Putting your pronouns in your signature, for example, is a quick step that helps people feel safe because they can see you’re aware of the issue and have put some thought into it. 
  5. Include Equity to your global I&D planning ensuring that everyone can begin on an equal playing field. And if they are not starting at the same level, find solutions to help them get there.  
  6. If you see something, say something – be courageous to speak up and support anyone in need, or alternatively, to call someone out for their unacceptable words or actions. Often people do not know any different or have little experience with the LGBTQ+ community. You can, however, use it as a teaching moment to educate them on our differences. 
  7. Be brave enough to make a mistake – just like anything, the LGBTQ+ community is evolving. Maybe you’ll get someone’s pronouns incorrect or make a comment that is misinterpreted. No one said this would be a comfortable exercise; after all, they are called growing pains for a reason.  



Nikki Symmons

Former international field hockey player for Ireland

Nikki Symmons is a former international field hockey player for Ireland. She now works in communications for PMI in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she plays a leading role in their LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group STRIPES Global, whose mission is to create a continuous conversation to build a more inclusive, respectful and supportive culture 


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