Contribution by Nora Latapi-Dean (pronouns: she/her), Talent Management Administrator at the NHS England and Improvement’s South West Talent Team.
How much do you think about your appearance at work? Remember, personal appearance is not only limited to clothing and accessories; rather, the concept of appearance encompasses how we appear to others as whole individuals, whether via fashion, body language, or ways of speech. In fact, to one extent or another, we all manipulate our appearance. This is particularly true in modern Western societies, where the freedom to express ourselves through appearance is valued as an important part of owning our identity and individualism. Particularly at work, research suggests that appearance can function as a tool to reach our goals and improve others’ perceptions of us.
However, when someone’s appearance differs from societal norms, it can also trigger stigmatisation via judgement and discrimination. It is essential to recognise that appearance norms are usually based on gendered and heteronormative standards, and that LGBT+ individuals may be more likely than other groups to deviate from these norms as an expression of identity, which leads to higher risk of stigmatisation.
This stigmatisation affects psychological wellbeing and willingness to be authentic. In contrast, when individuals feel able to present themselves in line with their true selves, they feel more comfortable, competent and confident at work. On the other hand, if individuals feel obliged to appear in a way that is incongruent with their sense of self, their self-perception can be negatively affected, inciting feelings of inauthenticity, physical and psychological discomfort, and even shame and internal homophobia. LGBT+ individuals therefore often feel obliged to manipulate their appearance to avoid such stigmatisation, despite the negative psychological effects of doing so. These societal pressures to conform and a desire to be authentic often result in internal psychological turmoil – as such, there is an emotional polarity of pride and fear within most LGBT+ individuals.
So what does this actually mean for our LGBT+ colleagues?
Despite progression in legislation, homophobia and discrimination in the workplace are still the most prevalent reasons reported for identity concealment – the 2020 NHS Staff Survey found that 14% of LGBT+ staff reported discrimination from patients or the public and 12% from their own colleagues.
A study by the LGBT+ charity Stonewall investigating LGBT+ experiences at work found that those participants who felt a need to conceal their identity in order to fit in at work found it distracting, exhausting, stressful, lonely and even morale-damaging, not only to themselves but by consequence also to their teams. These feelings of inauthenticity can lead LGBT+ individuals to isolate themselves, which then leads to losing interest in work and further negative effects on career advancement. On the contrary, LGBT+ individuals who felt they could be authentic at their workplace experienced enhanced relationships, careers and psychological well-being.
What can I do?
Could you have ever inadvertently ‘gender policed’ colleagues’ appearance? Or perhaps passed a stereotyped judgement on a candidate you interviewed? At times, we may not even realise we are stigmatising our colleagues via banter or throwaway comments; discrimination is not always intentional, but this does not reduce its negative effects. However, being willing to learn about these issues can help us all be more inclusive. It truly is in all our interests, as well as the NHS, to always take an inclusive approach. This in consequence will help our LGBT+ colleagues feel comfortable in being authentic and will lead to more diverse teams which provide a range of perspectives and solutions. For more tips on how you can be an LGBT+ ally, 10 ways to be an LGBTQ Ally and 5 ways to be a straight ally in the workplace.