Zoe Schulz from myGwork spoke to St. James’s Place’s Emma Palethorpe, who was recently shortlisted as Hero Of The Year for the Burberry British Diversity Awards
BY MYGWORK, IMAGES BY EMMA PALETHORPE
Emma Palethorpe has spent the last 30 years delivering change within financial services. She started at Price Waterhouse on their graduate scheme, and jokes that this was long before smartphones were even a concept. Since then, she’s had an impressive career as a consultant with a range of financial providers. Fast forward to today and she’s a programme manager at St. James’s Place, where she delivers employee focussed change and also founded and chairs their LGBTQI network, SJPride. Zoe Schulz from myGwork spoke to Emma, who was recently shortlisted as Hero Of The Year for the Burberry British Diversity Awards, about the change she has both witnessed and helped create across her industry, the importance of networks in creating inclusion and why she never wants anyone to feel they need to hide who they are in the workplace.
Emma was a teenager in the 1980s, growing up in the Midlands amid Thatcher’s Government, Section 28 and the height of the HIV epidemic. Against this backdrop, Emma explains she knew her identity differed from many around her at a young age. Despite trying to come out at school there just wasn’t the language to express LGBTQI identities that there are now, nor were there any visible role models. The 80s was a time with fantastic music, she notes, but it was also a tough period for anyone who strayed from the status quo. “It wasn’t a great time to be different,” says Emma. “I think I learned to survive by burying who I was.”
While Emma was working her way up the career ladder, she was also on a separate, personal journey of figuring out who she was. It wasn’t until five years ago, with the support of an LGBTQI-inclusive therapist, that she was able to fully embrace all the facets that make up who she is and to come out as trans to those around her.
“I think the biggest coming out has been to myself: accepting who I was rather than fighting it. After that, the next thing was coming out to my parents and my children, that wasn’t easy, but I shouldn’t have worried because they’ve been amazingly supportive and loving. Then the final leg of coming out was at work. The time was right, the organisation was right, and I’m really pleased I did come out at work because it has been transformational.”
At the beginning of her career, Emma explains, traditional workplace environments just weren’t embracing the LGBTQI community. This was a causal factor for her spending almost thirty years in the closet, but in recent years she has seen diversity and inclusion practices pushed to the front of the priority list across her sector, and St. James’s Place has been at the forefront of this. The work and conversations that have taken place have meant that when she came out, she was not just accepted but embraced, and this has been life-changing. In turn, she has now been able to drive this momentum even further, and part of this has been through her work creating their LGBTQI network, SJPride.
“The work of employee-led networks and employee resources groups is really beneficial,” Emma explains, “Because not only do they support current employees, but they also send a signal to future employees, particularly those that are LGBTQI, that their identity won’t hold them back and that they are welcome.”
SJPride was initially set up to support the company’s LGBTQI employees and allies, but quickly grew to include leading on awareness events, such as Pride Month, driving change and even won the Diversity in Finance award for Championing LGBTQ Inclusion in 2020. Now, they are planning on growing their remit even further to include the external promotion of St. James’s Place through relationships with organisations such as myGwork and LGBT Great. Not only does the network create a safe and welcoming environment for all employees, but they have also had tangible successes such as implementing a trans inclusion policy and switching to a gender-neutral dress code.
Utilising her expertise and personal experience, Emma was a leading voice in creating their transgender inclusion policy. This includes resources for employees and managers, anti-bullying and harassment policies, plus it is particularly forward-thinking in covering medical support for those transitioning. “I don’t want anyone ever to have to feel they need to wait 30 years to come out,” Emma says of her motivation to set the network up. “That’s just wrong.”
When it comes to creating an inclusive workplace, for Emma there are two main ingredients: policy and conversation. Policies that protect and support your LGBTQI staff are vital, but there always needs to be the conversation that goes alongside this.
“Establishing a dialogue will allow you to create safe space and bring in workplace allies, so that organisations, such as Global Butterflies, can help with education and training employees. Set up an LGBTQI network, mark awareness days and just keep that conversation going so that trans employees don’t feel alienated. I think the final point is then to listen to trans employees. There’s nothing like that lived experience to really find out what they feel and what’s working for them.”
Outside of the office, Emma is just as dedicated to helping create a world where LGBTQI people can live freely and safely. For the past few years, she has volunteered for GayGlos, a charity that provides support services for Gloucestershire’s LGBTQI community. Emma explains that she works with amazing group of young people aged 14–18 from across the county, many of whom have experienced homophobia, biphobia or transphobia leading to struggling with their mental health, anxiety and stress.
Through this work, GayGlos are able to offer young people a safe space to build new friendships and find positive role models. It is an incredible lifeline, to ensure that the next generation of LGBTQI people can flourish, and their annual residential event has been funded, in part, through a grant provided by St. James’s Place. Plus, Emma explains, St. James’s Place have been incredibly supportive of her work with the charity and have even given her time off as volunteering days.
Emma entered the workforce in a world where visible LGBTQI people were few and far between, where coming out in the workplace was often career suicide. The reality we live in now may make that seem like a universe away, but it wouldn’t have been possible without those that started the fight for LGBTQI equality, both in and outside the workplace – because the two are intrinsically connected. Today, by living authentically and embracing all the parts that make up who she is, Emma is able to set a precedent at St. James’s Place and across her industry, that we will no longer tolerate any less than acceptance for everyone no matter who they are.
“No one chooses to be gay or straight, trans or cis – but what we do choose is to live authentic lives. There’s a great Audre Lorde quote – ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.’
So, I will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with all LGBTQI folk and challenge oppression wherever I see it. I think, in particular, the battle for inclusion by the non-binary members of our community is going to gather pace over the next few years and I want to do all I can to support them.”
St. James’s Place is a proud partner of myGwork, the LGBTQ+ business community. Find out more about job opportunities at St. James’s Place here, and their Financial Adviser Academy’s career change programme here.
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