Interview: WorkForLGBT founder Steven Bielinski

Steven Bielinski on the state of LGBT workplace rights in China

What is WorkForLGBT?

WorkForLGBT is a nonprofit platform devoted to advocating the welfare of LGBT workers. We also guide companies interested in the pink market towards actions that advance shared goals of visibility, openness, integrity and equality in the workplace.

What are your goals as an advocacy group?

We strive to be a voice at work for LGBT employees who have none, and ensure commercial activities have positive and lasting social impacts. We believe that building a community of LGBT professionals with shared corporate social responsibility values is essential.

We do not believe business always aligns with the aspirations of the LGBT community, but can and should be guided in a positive direction. We do not support commercialisation that goes against the values of honesty in love or marriage, or where the benefits of business have limited external impacts, enriching just a few.

Last year I brought together a coalition of 20-plus LGBT groups and companies to conduct our first China LGBT Community Survey Report and Pink Market Conference.

What stand-out trends has this report revealed?

Nearly one out of three LGBT people are planning to come out to more people in the next five years; 70 percent would be interested in being able to travel overseas to get married; 30 percent are willing to pay for overseas surrogacy services.

Due to the lack of formal rules and policies to protect LGBT employees from discrimination in most companies in China, as well as a lack of general knowledge around diversity and inclusion, gay and lesbian employees often fear coming out will damage their career prospects, endanger relationships with colleagues and customers, and perhaps even lead to dismissal.

Do you think the attitudes of managers determine who comes out in the workplace?

I believe without formal procedures to protect the welfare of LGBT employees, most gay and lesbian workers only feel comfortable coming out if a boss or supervisor is supportive of diversity and inclusion at work and understands the business case for inclusion.

Progress will only come when both employees and corporate leaders realise their role in changing the status quo. Companies need to step forward, especially within HR, put in place non-discrimination policies and provide a structure for LGBT employees to have a voice, share their stories with trustworthy colleagues and step forward to make the business case for inclusion within HR, marketing and beyond.

Do you feel that gay people and their choices matter to Chinese businesses?

Our 2015 survey showed that the number one factor for LGBT Chinese supporting a brand or purchasing a company’s products is that company’s support for LGBT inclusive policies and protections. LGBT people have a high level of brand awareness and loyalty, and until quite recently in China, were used to being overlooked and under-represented. The sooner companies make their hiring and advertising more inclusive, the more likely they’ll be able to build lasting brand loyalty within a community that numbers in the tens of millions. When I started WorkForLGBT I could only point to a handful of Pink Market campaigns. Today, there are dozens of major Chinese companies – including Alibaba, Baidu, Meizu, DangDang, Xiaomi, Qingting, Didi Dache, Spring Travel and beyond – that have marketed directly to LGBT customers or reached out with an inclusive message through social media, and dozens of LGBT entrepreneurs who have started up companies focused on providing specialised services in everything from travel to surrogacy.

How can businesses advertise effectively to queer customers without attracting unwanted attention from the authorities?

The post-90s generation is supportive of LGBT inclusion so many brands are reaching out through social media. By focusing on the business costs of exclusion, companies can step forward in support of gay people – even featuring a rainbow flag and images of same-sex couples – with minimal risk.

Despite a status quo of stigma and lack of general recognition, the LGBT community in China still has great hopes for the future. Despite some start-ups in China trying to profit from promoting ‘marriages of convenience’ between gay men and lesbian women, the ideals of the LGBT community remain powerful agents for change.

WorkForLGBT’s full report on LGBTI individuals in the workplace is available at workforlgbt.com.

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