Wednesday 23 June 2021 4:57 am ICAS Talk

Gary Motherwell CA: “Allies can support LGBT+ colleagues through actions”

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Andrew Harbison is a Content and Communications specialist at ICAS covering topics ranging from ED&I to technology in accounting. Andrew also produces the ICAS podcast – CA Agenda.

Gary Motherwell CA, Finance Director at Golden Charter, discusses overcoming his fear of coming out, how he has witnessed attitudes towards the LGBT+ community shift during his career and how CAs can support their LGBT+ colleagues.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood, where you grew up and what the family dynamic was like during that time?

I grew up on the south side of Glasgow in a working-class family – mum, dad and younger brother. My dad was a plumber to trade and my mum stopped working when I was born and stayed at home to raise my brother and me. My parents separated when I was young and so I was primarily raised by my mum.

Looking back, things must have been tough financially, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I don’t recall ever feeling that I had “missed out”. I’m sure my mum made many sacrifices to make sure that was the case.

The importance of ‘sticking in’ at school and getting good results was an important message in our house. Thankfully, I was a ‘good’ student (most of the time) and so teachers were having all the right conversations with me about going to university – something that nobody in my family had done before me.

When did you realise that you were gay and what was that experience like for you?

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact moment. I would say by the time I went to high school in 1992 I knew I was gay, but I think that’s because I had the language and awareness to label it. I probably knew from a younger age that something was different about me.

I spent my high school years trying to hide this from friends and family for fear of being rejected. High schools in the 90s could be mean environments if you didn’t fit in or stood out as different in any way. I didn’t experience any direct bullying, but I did see it happen to other boys who people had decided were gay and I was always worried that I would be next.

I didn’t tell anyone I was gay until I was 18 years old. I told my closest friend on a drunken night out. I felt such a sense of relief for (a) saying it out loud to another person and (b) her having such a positive reaction. I slowly started telling more friends and each time the response was exactly the same as that first time. I find it odd now that I felt grateful that they reacted the way they did – why wouldn’t they? – but I know that’s not the case for everyone.

It was another two years before I told my mum. She could tell I was wanting to tell her something and so she asked me what I wanted to say. Without that invitation, I don’t know that I would have said anything at the time. After I told her I was gay, she said she suspected I might be but wanted me to tell her in my own time.  Her reaction was positive and supportive, and her main concern was that I was happy.

What were your experiences like in university and training for your CA qualification?

I was the first in my family to go to university. As supportive as my parents were, they found it difficult to relate to my experience. This is why I think the work of the ICAS Foundation is so great. As a Foundation mentor, I have seen first-hand the positive influence that additional support can have. Being able to relate to the experiences of students where they cannot find this in their family or friends is invaluable.

Overall, my university experience was a positive one. I studied at the University of Strathclyde and lived at home. A close friend from school studied the same course and lived close by and so we were each other’s support.

My training contract was with a small practice in Glasgow. One of the benefits of training with a smaller firm was there wasn’t such a competitive culture and the longer hours that may come with that, which some of my friends experienced working in the bigger firms at the time. I never felt that my studying was impacted by work, or vice versa, and felt supported throughout my training contract.

However, this was another group of people who I had to “come out” to. It took me a while to do that and even though I had only positive experiences with friends and family, the same fears of rejection or negative reactions existed in my mind.

Did you have any feelings of trepidation when you moved on from your CA training into the world of work in terms of attitudes towards those who identify as LGBT+?

I qualified in 2005. The firm I trained at had gender balance across the office as a whole, but the partners were predominantly straight, white males – there was one female partner. I did worry that I couldn’t be myself in this environment; not because of anything that was said or done by anyone in the firm, but I knew I was in a minority. I never felt that I was treated any differently or not given access to the same opportunities as others because of my sexuality.

After I qualified I joined Grant Thornton. I felt less worried about being myself there mainly because I was more comfortable with who I was but also the culture felt inclusive. I didn’t have a “coming out” experience here; people found out I was gay because I would talk more honestly about my life outside of work. Being openly gay at work definitely didn’t impact my career and I had great opportunities and experiences at Grant Thornton, including an international secondment, a global training programme, and promotions.

Have you seen attitudes towards those who identify as LGBT+ change in the business and accountancy landscape since your career began?

It’s now been eight years since I worked in the profession, but I still follow closely the changes in the profession, particularly around matters of diversity, equality and inclusion. I can see there have been significant steps to broaden the access to training contracts, such as to school leavers, and to make sure that everyone feels included and represented – many of the bigger firms have LGBT+ networks, for example.

In your experience, do you feel that businesses do enough to proactively communicate their equality policies to staff and that there is a clear route for reporting homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying?

In my experience, most businesses have the right equality policies in place and routes to report any form of bullying. My experience is that overt bullying is addressed in the right way. I think the more challenging area is making sure office environments are inclusive, for LBGT+ people in this case, and that “jokes” or comments that may be offensive, even if not directed at an individual, are not tolerated. When I look back at my early career, it was these types of comments that fuelled my fear of coming out.

How can colleagues of those who identify as LGBT+ support them and help them feel comfortable to bring their whole self to work?

I think the greatest thing that allies of any minority group can do is demonstrate their support through their actions. This could include, for example, getting involved in your employer’s LGBT+ network or speaking up when you see or hear anything that might make LGBT+ people feel excluded. This may be uncomfortable at first, but the more we do it the easier it will become.  And you never know who you might help feel supported and included along the way.

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