Throughout history women have encountered institutional barriers to entering the workforce. But women who identify as LGBTIQ+, face the compounded discrimination of both homophobia and sexism.  

In celebration of Pride Month, UNSW’s Pride@AGSM collaborated with the University of Sydney’s Pride network on to discuss the intersectional challenges that queer women face in the workforce and what tangible changes can be made. The Hon. Penny Sharpe, MLC, moderated a distinguished panel of speakers, including Kamalika Dasgupta, Lisa Rose and Sam Turner to bring stronger visibility to this ongoing issue. 

Throughout history women have encountered institutional barriers to entering the workforce. Women who identify as LGBTIQ+, however, face the compounded discrimination of both homophobia and sexism. In celebration of Pride Month, UNSW’s Pride@AGSM collaborated with the University of Sydney’s Pride network to discuss the intersectional challenges that queer women face in the workforce and what tangible improvements can be made. The Hon. Penny Sharpe, MLC, moderated a distinguished panel of speakers, including Kamalika Dasgupta, Lisa Rose and Sam Turner to bring stronger visibility to this ongoing issue.  

The Hon. Penny Sharpe rose to fame as the first lesbian to serve in NSW Parliament, but she said there were many before her who were too afraid to publicly come out.  The fear of backlash was a common denominator amongst the speakers, who openly discussed their initial reluctance in revealing their sexual orientation at work. For Kamila Dasgupta, coming out wasn’t a choice – as a colleague had ‘outed’ her. While the initial experience was traumatic, Kamila says looking back it was a blessing in disguise. “When that burden of lie is removed from your shoulder, it allows you to be whole,” Kamalika Dasgupta said.  She now openly tells people about her sexuality, confidently embracing her whole self. “I am what I am, there is nothing to be ashamed of. I now come out to anyone and everyone, with whatever I do,” she said. 

Penny said coming out is a personal choice and one that should not be forced or purposefully exposed by others. She recalls The Telegraph publishing an article exposing her LGBTIQ+ status, insinuating that it was a controversial secret. “People immediately assume you need to hide your LGBTIQ+ status, because they associate it with something negative, but it’s time to realise that your sexuality is neutral – just part of you,” she said.  

The event also touched upon workplace strategies to enhance inclusion. As a manager, Sam Turner said she felt an obligation to be authentic, hoping that she could lead by example and create an environment where people did not feel the need to mask their true self. This was echoed by the audience, with Tanya quick to point out that, “Normalising an inclusive culture by role modelling the behaviour as part of everyday workplace interactions is super important.”  

Sam said working in organisations with predominantly men has resulted in her colleagues accepting her as “one of the boys”. Yet being part of the “boys club” exposed her to sexist language and inappropriate physical advances and requests – including a threesome. While “The Boys Club” events were traditionally seen as places for men to build connection and secure potential promotions, Sam said as a female it can often be degrading. Penny noted that “men need to know that this behaviour is not okay.”  

Lisa Rose said because queer women were the minority at some of her workplaces, she was often asked deeply personal questions, that crossed the professional boundary. “Being one of the few, can bring a lot of curiosity, but people still need to respect our privacy,” she said.  

In the corporate world, Kamalika saw firsthand how being a queer female, impacted the way clients viewed her seniority and credibility. “At a meeting, the client would direct questions to my male assistant,” she said. 

In order to shift perceptions, Lisa Rose said it’s essential to expand the way media represent LGBTIQ+ women. Portraying queer women as dynamic, multi-faceted humans who are visible in every industry and level, enables the public to see queer women as more than their sexual orientation – as human beings capable of anything. 

And the experience for gay men and lesbian women are very different. Colette pointed to the Pride in Diversity report “Where are all the women?” to highlight the lack of allies and negative stereotypes that queer women are subjected to. The most common words to describe the stereotype of lesbian women were: masculine, butch, aggressive, manhater, shorthair and childless. “This highlights the lack of understanding people have and the progress that still needs to be made,” Penny said.  

An attendant, Eleonora said she found being candid and honest with her struggles, created stronger understanding and community.  “Narratives and personal stories make all the difference; they offer potential allies an opportunity for empathy and understanding through second hand lived experience,” she said.  

Penny said senior leadership are often fearful to delve into an area in which they have no experience, for fear of criticism. Sometimes directly approaching them can open this space and make them more confident to speak up/take tangible action to address any discrimination.   

Yet sometimes the solutions should come directly from the LGBTIQ+ community. ‘Reverse mentoring’ where women from the LGBTIQ+ community run training sessions on how to be effective allies, were put forth as a strategy. “It’s not always about senior leaders mentoring staff,” Lisa said.  

Tommy Lodge said one of the most significant lessons he learnt from attending the event was that women need more than token support from male executives. “They need to back up support with action.  Taking a hard look at your leadership and board team is a great first place to start,” he suggested.   

Tommy said diverse representation is important as this sense of connection “helps people build the confidence necessary to live their most authentic life.”  

Queer women often fear coming out, partially due to the lack of prominent LGBTIQ+ women in corporate positions. "It's hard to be what you can't see," Lisa said. 

While change can be challenging to achieve, Lisa told the audience to never lose hope, with perseverance and tenacity as key to making a difference. “You just need to keep pushing and keep trying to implement this change,” she said. 

If you are part of the LGBTIQ+ community and need support, you can seek guidance from UNSW Ally – a strong network of people across the university who are specially trained to offer LGBTIQ+ people direction. 

UNSW’s Women in Research Network, provides guidance, information and advocacy for research-active women. Join the community and connect/collaborate with other women for further opportunities in academia.