Pride and prejudice - RSA

Pride and prejudice

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  • Picture of Layla McCay
    Layla McCay
    Director of Policy, NHS Confederation
  • Diversity and inclusion

There is a diversity gap in the workplace, with LGBTQ+ people still less likely to reach the top jobs. Layla McCay’s new book, published to coincide with Pride Month 2024, discusses what is going wrong, and offers insights and advice from inspiring LGBTQ+ leaders in senior roles.

My teenage self would never have believed that I’d be publishing a book this Pride month called Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling. First she’d have been thrilled that I had fulfilled my childhood dream of publishing a book. Next, she would have been shocked that I’d written about LGBTQ+ issues, which must imply that not only would she somehow, eventually come out of the closet, but also talk about it in public.

In high school that felt like such an impossibility – not even teachers were allowed to talk about being gay because of Section 28. Flicking though the book, the insights and inspiration so generously shared by more than 40 LGBTQ+ people in very senior leadership roles would have blown her mind. At that point she had never knowingly met another gay person, much less been aware of one leading an organisation. That lack of visibility affected her self-belief and her aspirations. Pride for that teenage version of myself in the 1990s meant nothing: it was all shame and shadows. 

What has changed in the intervening 30 years? In some ways, everything: I have a wife, I have been a doctor and worked all over the world in policy leadership roles for the British government, the World Health Organization and the World Bank. While I was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in global mental health I founded a small virtual think tank, The Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH) and ran it from Washington, Tokyo, Hong Kong and then London. I also wrote my first co-authored book, Restorative Cities, that created a global shift in urban planning and design towards supporting mental health (it’s my proudest achievement). 

Seeing evidence that being LGBTQ+ could affect my career opportunities was galling. And when I looked up the data, I could see this was not just me.

LGBTQ+ careers

I had the opportunity to participate in one RSA talk, and I’m thrilled to be speaking at another on LGBTQ+ careers. Today, I run the national Health and Care LGBTQ+ Leaders Network alongside my role as Director of Policy at the NHS Confederation. I have been twice recognised on the Outstanding 100 LGBTQ+ Executives Role Model List. I am not ashamed or afraid of being LGBTQ+. 

Or perhaps I am still a little afraid. The media certainly offers more positive representation of LGBTQ+ people in films and television, but it also amplifies political debate about what rights people like me really deserve. I have seen these rights being rescinded in other counties. LGBTQ+ hate crime is on the rise. But what hit me surprisingly hard was a subtle, more personal assault: I learned that at an interview a few years ago, the fact of me being gay had been deemed a negative factor by the panel.

I was of course theoretically aware of workplace discrimination. But seeing evidence that being LGBTQ+ could affect my career opportunities was galling. And when I looked up the data, I could see this was not just me. The disparity shows up everywhere from staff survey results (where LGBTQ+ people have worse experiences at work) to the disproportionately low numbers of LGBTQ+ leaders in CEO and board roles. 

LGBTQ+ people are being disadvantaged in our careers, and it isn’t as simple as basic prejudice and discrimination on interview panels. From the lack of LGBTQ+ role models in my formative years to comments from past colleagues to feeling shut out of networking opportunities, I came to realise that there is a ‘rainbow ceiling’ in place, and many of us don’t even see it until we bash our heads against it. I looked for a book to learn more about this topic and couldn’t find one, so I decided to write it.

From the lack of LGBTQ+ role models to comments from past colleagues to feeling shut out of networking opportunities, I came to realise that there is a ‘rainbow ceiling’, and many of us don’t even see it until we bash our heads against it.

Inspiring leaders

Thinking about my own experiences typified by the adage ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, it was important to me that alongside the data and other existing research, my book focused on insights and advice from numerous inspiring LGBTQ+ leaders in senior roles – including a ‘Letter to our younger self’ which still makes me cry when I read it. 

From Fortune 500 CEOs to senior government officials and people holding senior leadership roles in world-famous companies, this is the book I needed to read when I was younger – and also at every subsequent stage of my career. It’s the book I want my managers and future recruiters to read, because it’s full of new understanding and practical advice about how to make things fairer for LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. 

Writing this book has changed me. It is apt that it has been published in time for Pride month. I hope it will inspire and encourage current and future generations of LGBTQ+ people. 

Layla McCay is Director of Policy at the NHS Confederation and Executive Lead of the UK's Health and Care LGBTQ+ Leaders Network. She will be discussing her book, Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling: How LGBTQ+ people can thrive and succeed at work, at an RSA Public Talk on 6 June 2024.

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  • Thanks for sharing this Layla, it's wonderful to see you address the topic of LGBTQ+ business role models!

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