Zoe Schulz from myGwork speaks to Claire Sherwin and Kelly Waller from world-leading fintech company Finastra to get a deeper understanding of their dedication to LGBTQI+ equality

BY DIVA STAFF

The financial services sector may not be the first industry that springs to mind when you think of diversity and inclusion. However, Finastra is one organisation determined to change that, and with over 10,000 employees globally, its impact is far-reaching.

At the centre of creating an inclusive environment at Finastra is their LGBTQI+ network. With over 100 members globally, it’s a force for change. “Our overarching goal is to create a safe environment for our LGBTQI+ employees,” explains Kelly Waller, VP of Digital Sales and also heads up the network in the Americas. “In America, only 50% of LGBTQI+ employees are out [at work], statistically, and it’s close to that globally. So, our point of view is to go, ;Okay what can we do to ensure people come to Finastra and feel that they can be themselves?’”

Finastra is committed to being an organisation where everyone is comfortable in every aspect of their work to fully be themselves. This starts on their website, by ensuring they prominently display information on inclusivity. And it is taken seriously in all of their policies and benefits, analysing the language they use throughout. Where possible this is standardised globally so that policies are in place to protect employees, no matter where they are based. Then, underlying all of this is a drive for mass awareness. By partnering with charities, bringing in external speakers, and leading by example, the network can host events that allow everyone to understand on a deeper level the importance of inclusion and the nuances of LGBTQI+ equality.

“We provide a lot of events to drive the message,” Kelly says. “These are on bias, language, how you treat people, and what diversity means. This allows us to really get the ‘lightbulb moment’ for our employees to think about using pronouns for example, or to commit to using more inclusive language. So that people can feel safe being themselves.”

While Kelly is busy pushing forward the network for those across the Americas, Claire Sherwin is hard at work in the UK. As the Global Head of Talent Acquisition and People Services, she brings a wealth of knowledge and a focus on how the LGBTQI+ network can help improve the way Finastra recruits. She admits that the lines between her day job and her role as co-lead for the London branch can blur, but only because there is so much overlap in the importance of diversity in recruitment. Her dedication to creating an inclusive workplace comes through in every aspect of her work and she explains that for her, “It’s the micro-moments where you’re really making a difference to somebody feeling seen and belonging. It can really be the difference between someone bringing their best selves to the recruitment process, or feeling they aren’t able to be their true selves.”

As part of this, they’ve been working with headhunters and letting them know early on that they will not accept anything less than a diverse shortlist. This approach has been highly successful in balancing the gender divide, but when it comes to other areas – such as ethnicity, gender identity, and sexuality – they’ve brought in reinforcements by partnering with their cultural inclusion network and myGwork.

“The partnership with myGwork is a really good example of where we’re trying to increase the pool of talent that we reach out to,” Claire explains. “You can’t hire diverse people if we’re not creating a diverse shortlist. So, partnerships such as this are vital for hiring managers.”

Speaking to Kelly and Claire, it becomes clear how their personal journeys have impacted their dedication to change. And that this has made them stronger, more compassionate leaders. For Kelly, growing up in the 1980s in Norfolk, there was no positive LGBTQI+ representation. It was the height of the HIV/Aids crisis and a constant flow of anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda came from both the Conservative and Labour parties. Gay slurs were common practice and Kelly remembers when Section 28 came into place, banning any mention of LGBTQI+ identities in schools across the UK. Yet, she also remembers being confused and innocent at the time, not quite sure what all of this meant.

One week at school, she was told librarians were coming in to visit and excitedly told her mum. But mixing up her words, “lesbians” came out instead, completely unaware of the meaning behind this. Shocked and appalled, her mother went to the school to tell them off and so began Kelly’s understanding that lesbian wasn’t a word to be spoken.

Years passed, and as Kelly’s understanding of her sexuality grew, so did her internalised homophobia. Without anyone to tell her that it was okay to be LGBTQI+, she grew resentful of who she was, even admitting that when she found out Madonna was bisexual, she decided she could no longer support her (in hindsight she now realises she probably had a big crush on her). But she couldn’t keep running from who she was and came out 16. Following a bad reaction from her parents, she had moved out by 17, couch-surfing and struggling with her mental health. By her late teens, she had left for London and became focused on university but ended up hiding her sexuality again.

A lot has changed since then, both in the world and for Kelly, now leading and growing the Finastra team in Lake Mary, Florida, with her wife and cats, although she still holds a piece of this journey with her, she can be the role model she never had when she was younger.

Claire, growing up a decade later in socially conservative Nottingham, never experienced overt homophobia, but still recalls that LGBTQI+ identities were rarely spoken of in detail. She wanted to fit in, so when her friends were giggling about boys in the playground, so was she. Then, attending a very liberal university led her to explore her identity. One thing led to another and she fell in love with a woman. With this, she came out to her parents who reacted well, albeit surprised. Despite this, she still feared coming out in her first job, and with 41% of students going back into the closet after university, this is no surprise.

Entering the professional world, Claire felt like she had to conform and spent years making up male names as an alias for the woman she was dating. Years of hiding led her to purposefully seek out an LGBTQI+ inclusive organisation, ones that shouted about their support for her community. She’s now been at Finastra for two years and explains that she couldn’t feel more secure in being her authentic self at work. And, as an HR leader, she hopes she can make a difference to someone else who may be where she was all those years ago, fumbling with fake names and a hidden identity.

“The advantage I’ve got is that I know what made me feel excluded or fearful when I was unable to come out at work,” Claire shares. “So, I engage with that empathy that I have with my past self, and make sure that I reflect that in the way I communicate with my team, other people in the organisation, and potential new hires.”

As an organisation that works in over 48 countries, diversity and inclusion may mean a different thing depending on where you are based. However, this only drives the team at Finastra to work harder to create safe spaces no matter where in the world they are. “What we do try, regardless of the cultural context,” Claire says, “is to create a safe space wherever we are as an employer. Our workplaces are a space for employees to be themselves and to be able to express themselves in the way that they want. When you’re in Finastra, you are safe, and you are part of our trusting environment.”

They have also now switched to OPENworking, a new employee post-pandemic proposition symbolised by big shifts such as hybrid working (2+ office days and 2+ at home) and moving to a flexible vacation policy – take what you need – which is hugely significant, especially in locations with low leave balances such as the US.

“There is power in the ability to work flexibly,” Kelly explains. “This is incredibly important for single mothers, for example, if they have to leave the office early or they have to do something, they can balance their life. When people are spending an hour and a half commuting one way, they can now think about relaxing and charging up before the workday.

“Finastra is the first company where I am 100% myself. And when our Chief People Officer came in, the first thing she did was change our dress code to ‘just dress for yourself’. So, the ties and suits that make you feel stuffy, that stopped. And diversity and inclusion were really brought in. Then, fast-forward to what we’re doing now, and we have a fantastic company that, I think, is truly building foundations where people can just come in and there’s no part of having to fit anyone into a box. We want your brain and your creativity, and when you bring that to the table that helps us to innovate and be successful.”

Finastra is not what you might picture of the financial services industry, at least not what you would have seen in this sector a few decades ago. The difference that both Kelly and Claire have seen between their generations is leaps and bounds ahead for the LGBTQI+ community. All LGBTQI+ people deserve to feel safe and included, this should be the bare minimum, and until we see this everywhere and for everyone, we still have work to do. Looking back, there have been painful moments for the LGBTQI+ community. But looking forward, both Claire and Kelly are optimistic for the next generation and for a world where everyone is accepted.

“I’m really hopeful for the next generation,” Claire says. “For people to have every opportunity to be who they want to be without any of the fear that LGBTQI+ people before us had. We’re always concerned about history repeating itself, but this is a shadow that drives us to continue the fight.”

Finastra is a proud partner of myGwork, the LGBTQ+ business community.

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