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Providing an inclusive careers advisory service for LGBT students and graduates

October 2018

Sean Russell, higher education LGBT consultant and founder of the LGBT employability mentoring scheme for the University of Birmingham, reflects on the issues facing LGBT students and what careers services can do to help them

Before becoming an HE LGBT consultant at Get Out Stay Out, Sean was previously director of university careers services at Birmingham and Warwick. He founded the University of Birmingham LGBT Employability Mentoring Scheme.

The law protects LGBT people, so what's the problem?

Discrimination at work is illegal, the age of consent is equal and same-sex marriage is legal. People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT)1 feature in mainstream adverts and are 'normalised' in TV and films,2 not just as exotic figures of fun or victims of oppression. However, there are students who:

  • daren't come out at university, because they're not 'out' to their parents
  • fear the shame of their wider community finding out, concerned about what friends might think
  • are wary of their sexual orientation and gender being scrutinised in seminars
  • aren't sure whether and how to come out when applying for jobs, and then what to do once in work.

The law offers protection, however society's attitudes can take a while to catch up with changes in the law.

What's the impact on LGBT students?

Recent surveys have shown that LGBT students are more likely to drop out,3 report lower levels of wellbeing,4 lower levels of engagement with many aspects of university life5,6 and a higher incidence of mental health issues.7

The fundamental issue seems to be around LGBT students coming out to others and not being able to be themselves, having to constantly filter what they say and to whom. Life can be one of constantly juggling multiple identities. Being out in a part-time job, with close friends or student societies may be easier than being out in student halls, at home or in their department.

The constant pressure someone may feel of trying to find words to describe their sexual orientation and gender, when perhaps feeling it's no-one's business anyway, all while their identity might be constantly shifting, can be exhausting. It isn't surprising that many LGBT graduates and employees won't come out at work.

How can careers advisory services (CAS) be inclusive?

CAS provide an invaluable service to help students with that scariest of transitions, from university to the world of work. This includes voluntary work, part-time work, internships and placements. The more a CAS can help with that transition, the better.

A brief review of CAS websites indicates that, if at all, LGBT students are often mentioned in the context of dealing with problems - homophobia, bullying at work and facing barriers, rather than with emphasis on why so many graduate recruiters are targeting LGBT students, and have been for 20 years. Some websites have links to 'rights at work' resources, but this isn't enough to encourage LGBT+ students to think why an employer might actively seek them out.

The following is a summary of ideas from careers staff, employers LGBT students and recent graduates:

  • Acknowledge that LGBT students exist. A mention on your website or a rainbow flag not only reassures current students, but is a huge incentive for those deciding on which undergraduate or postgraduate course to apply for.
  • Consult LGBT student societies: how you might make your existing services more inclusive.
  • Run all your services through an 'assumption filter'. Does your content and delivery assume all students are non-LGBT?
  • Ask 'critical friends' from the LGBT community e.g. recruiters, students, academics and members of your LGBT staff network to do an audit of your inclusivity.
  • Hold LGBT-specific careers events.
  • Ask recruiters for resources, advice and LGBT speakers and information on why employers actively seek out LGBT applicants.
  • Ensure that all careers staff has awareness of the issues.
  • Provide advice on managing the transition into work and further study.
  • Review your service through an LGBT lens - guidance discussions, teaching/workshops, information, marketing and recruiter liaison.
  • Collaborate with university colleagues - academic departments, student support services, students' union elected officers and permanent staff, LGBT staff networks and offices for LGBT alumni.
  • Apply these same principles to the other protected characteristics.

Notes

  1. LGBT is a convenient and shortened way to represent all the different identities linked to sexual orientation and gender. LGBT+ and LGBTQ+ are also often used.
  2. 'Love, Simon', Film, (2018), Twentieth Century Fox.
  3. ECU (Equality Challenge Unit), 'The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans staff and students in higher education', 2009. 
  4. HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute), The Student Experience Survey, 2017.
  5. NUS,  Education beyond the straight and narrow: LGBT students’ experience in higher education, 2014.
  6. Stonewall, LGBT in Britain: University Report, 2018.
  7. Student Minds, LGBTQ+ Student Mental Health: The challenges and needs of gender, sexual and romantic minorities in Higher Education, 2018.

This article is a summary of Sean's workshop presented as part of the 2018 AGCAS National Conference.

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