It can be hard to stand out as a lesbian CEO and face genuine acceptance. Juliette Prais reveals the techniques she has built and developed in order to build a successful company regardless of her sexuality.
Women managers, directors and CEOs are still a minority in the business world. Fortunately, we are a growing breed and our status continues to improve. You read every day about women making headway in business. Yet at the same time we read and learn about the setbacks we face regarding equality in the workplace. As female leaders we often face walls of disapproval and mistrust amongst our male counterparts. One perfect example of the lack of women in powerful positions is in our very own Houses of Parliament. Consider the lack of women MP’s in the Conservative Party and in the Shadow Labour Cabinet at present.
As women continue to rightfully campaign for equal rights, equal status and equal pay, there is a particular group of women who are still not on the radar.
This group of women are those who are lesbian and bisexual. Firstly, I bet you can’t name five powerful lesbian or bisexual leaders of companies. Yes, this could be because their sexuality is not the key to their business or organisation. However, if this were the case then why do we know so many male gay leaders e.g. Tim Cook of Apple, Christopher Bailey of Burberry, Financial Services entrepreneur Ivan Massow, John Browne of BP and many more? Look at this list of the top 100 LGBT heroes of the business world. Not surprisingly less than 25% are women and let me add that they really had to search hard to find them too. Some say that being a lesbian CEO is easier than being a heterosexual female CEO due to the lack of family demands. I say that this is wrong and very short-sighted given the number of lesbians who have been creating families of their own.
So are lesbians still invisible as leaders? As a lesbian CEO of Pink Lobster Dating for women who like women, we campaign for the visibility of femme women, who are often not “seen” due to not meeting the lesbian stereotype. This femme visibility campaign is both within the LGBT community, where we are often mistrusted for not being “real” lesbians and similarly in the “straight” community where we are often misjudged by those who don’t believe our sexuality.
So whilst we fight for rights of our sexuality, we too have a greater fight as women who are not heterosexual.
As a femme lesbian CEO, the following are some of the contentious experiences I have faced:
Meeting people is vital as a CEO of a company. I continue to emphasize and value the importance of networking with influential people and those who can become partners, sponsors, affiliates and so on. When you meet a new person and summarize your business to them, for most men and women, this is a neat short part of the conversation, which often begs the question with ‘how can I help’?
In my case, my summary of Pink Lobster Dating is often followed with, “oh my aunt, cousin, best friend, neighbour or even cat (yes true story) is a lesbian”, or indeed another salacious revelation. I am inclined to create badges with the statement “I know a lesbian”. I have seen too many times that moment of discomfort and panic in the eyes of many heterosexual men and women who feel that they need to show that they are a part of the community even if it is indirect.
2. Inappropriate Men
I hate fake smiling, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. Fortunately comments from men do not fluster me and I often find them amusing. However, there are times when I have thought to myself that I should not need to pretend that comments about my sexuality and sex are OK. Yes, I run a lesbian dating company, no, sex is not what makes ones sexuality.
3. Inappropriate Women
As I run a lesbian dating site, I have often been told peoples deepest and darkest secrets. This is obviously reasonable when I am running a seminar about sexuality, speaking at events or offering a therapy session with a member through our matchmaking services. What is not suitable is if this is over a class of cheap prosecco at a business strategy conference whilst watching Bill Clinton talking about entrepreneurialism. There is a time and place to discuss private lives and whilst we do encourage women to be true to themselves, I would rather they didn’t reveal all during a seminar. What is more, I am a lesbian CEO who is engaged to a woman and therefore am not interested in having a fling, affair or to help a woman discover her sexuality by having sex with her.
So whilst many women are fighting their way to the top by trying to convince men that they are worthwhile, I have at times had to battle with both the sexes.
I have resolved through experience to manage both men and women with 3 main simple solutions.
BE CONFIDENT: As long as I remain knowledgeable and confident about my company and have a clear agenda, I am well-practiced now into steering the conversation into the right direction. Whenever I attend a meeting, event or conference I set myself clear goals with who I want to meet and why.
BE TRUE TO MYSELF: Even though they may wish to discuss my sex life, their sex lives and their pets testosterone levels, I will not. Fortunately, if anyone wishes to have a therapy session we have a whole list of professionals that I can refer you to for support and guidance. In fact, I would encourage anyone to get a clear understanding of who they are before starting a new relationship.
BE WISE: I now know that people’s misjudgments and questions are often a result of lack of knowledge. Furthermore, most of the people whom I have met who have been a bit inappropriate often just don’t know what else to say and feel that they have to say something. I have learnt the importance of putting new people I meet at ease regarding me, my sexuality and my company. There are also times when the word “lesbian” does not need to come up as I run a company for women who like women and this encompasses a whole array of sexualities.
There is no doubt that both men and women can still get flummoxed when they hear the word “lesbian” uttered. And yes I could get very sad about this and long for the day when those who are not heterosexual are just as normalized as those who are. I, nonetheless, choose to focus on growing my company and empowering women to find who they are and be with who they wish to be regardless of their sexuality.
So although being a lesbian CEO has not always been easy regarding how other people see me, I have always been strong, confident and self-assured. This is my key to success.