Lesbian Visibility Day: In Conversation with Sarah Mantle-Gray

Sarah Mantle-Gray, shares her view on visibility in the workplace as part of the LGBTQ+ community and her experience as a new parent following the recent birth of her first child and what being LGBTQ+ has meant to her personally and professionally.

Sarah Mantle-Gray is UK&I Director of Organisational Effectiveness. Having been with RSA for 11 years in a variety of roles across Claims, Change, COO and most recently HR she is passionate about everyone achieving their potential without barriers to success, and feels diversity and inclusion is important because balancing the perspectives and voices of all kinds of people makes for a better world – something that’s equally true for an organisation’s workforce.

Held on 26th April every year, Lesbian Visibility Day showcases women who love women, providing a platform for lesbian role models to speak out on the issues facing female sexual minorities. This is a day to celebrate and bring visibility to a section of the LGBTQ+ community and a chance to share stories and experiences from lesbians and queer women across the world.

We spoke to Sarah about what the day means to her. Listen to the audio podcast here or read the full interview below:

What does the word ‘lesbian’ mean to you and is this a word you use to describe yourself?

Speaking candidly, I actually struggle with the word. I think that’s for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s quite a harsh sounding word, which for me carries some negative associations and stereotypes.  I think there’s a good precedent for the LGBTQ+ community ‘reclaiming’ words like this and I think ‘queer’ is a good example of that, but personally I tend to define myself as someone in a same-sex relationship rather than using words like ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ etc.  Secondly, something I think I’ve realised as I’ve got older… as much as people with a structured brain like to categorise things into neat boxes (and I’m definitely one of those people), for many I don’t think sexuality is a binary or fixed thing.  I think there’s more shades of grey than we realise, and that’s definitely something that as humans, we can struggle with.  All that said, I do think it’s really important to celebrate sexual diversity through events like Lesbian Visibility Day.  When we have under-represented groups, mechanisms like this really help to build awareness and inclusivity.  They are a catalyst for celebrating difference. 

 

Have you always been out at work and what does that mean to you?

Yes, since day 1. I joined RSA in my early twenties and made a conscious decision before I started my ‘grown up’ career to bring my full self to work.  This wasn’t just about being in a same-sex relationship (because there’s so much more to me than just that), it was about being able to bring my personality to whatever role and team I was in.  I wanted to work for a company where I could be me, and RSA has always given me that opportunity, without conditions or judgement.  For me, being out at work means being very open about who I am.  Through this I have had the opportunity to dispel any myths/preconceptions for people I come across about what it is to be a ‘queer’ woman.

 

How important have queer role models been to you and did you have any growing up, through your education and into your career?

If I’m honest, I never had any queer role models that I could identify with. I think the only real exposure I had to LGBTQ+ people was via the media, TV and film when I was growing up. Whilst I’m really not that old (!), at the time a lot of the LGBTQ+ people in the public eye seemed to me to fit a certain mould of ‘queerness’ that I couldn’t really identify with. I think one of my fears at a young age was that I’d have to conform to a certain archetypal mould to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community… it was almost as if I wouldn’t be a ‘proper’ queer person if I didn’t fit that mould.  That was definitely a personal fear that was reinforced at university – I remember trying to ingratiate myself with the LGBT society and being treated very coldly because I didn’t look the right way. 

I never went back again after that one event.  That definitely impacted my ability to meet people in the early days… because all my friends were straight and whilst they were wonderful allies, I didn’t really have any exposure to people who identified like me.  Luckily my partner (now wife) Kate and I found each other in our last term of university – more by luck rather than by design!  I think with a bit of age and experience, we all get more comfortable in our own shoes, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why it’s been important to me to bring my whole self to work (and elsewhere in my life of course).  I also hope that I can one day be a role model for others who might be in the same scenario as I was. 

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I made a conscious decision before I started my ‘grown up’ career to bring my full self to work.

Have you ever been treated differently at work because of your sexuality? In what way?

Honestly, no. I think that’s a fantastic testament to our culture, values and mindset here at RSA. We definitely have some way to go in terms of D&I and representation across a number of diversity markers, but in terms of my personal experience – it’s been nothing but positive.

 

What would your advice be to other women who might be struggling to come to terms with their sexuality and how that might affect them in the workplace?

Wow that’s a hard one, as we’re all different and anyone in this position is likely to have their own very personal reasons and concerns for feeling this way.  I do hope there aren’t people in this position at RSA today.  But if there are, the Building Pride  group does a great job in providing support and is made up of a fab group of queer people and allies, so I would get in touch with anyone in the group to talk through any of your concerns confidentially. I am also very happy to provide a listening ear to anyone who wants to talk through their situation, and I hope I would be able to help.

 

How progressive do you think the insurance sector is as a whole?

I think we have some way to go! That said, there are some fantastic PRIDE networks and industry events, like Dive In, that are put on every year, which show real commitment to making a shift and to giving a platform to the PRIDE agenda.

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We made the choice early on to go through IVF, as it gave us the opportunity to do ‘Shared Motherhood'.

When did you decide you wanted to start a family with your partner?

I’m answering this question with a wry smile, as I decided that I wanted a family long before I met my partner Kate.  Through a sustained process of stealthily (and sometimes not so stealthily) wearing her down over our 12 years together, we came to the mutual decision to start a family back in 2018! 

 

Do you think that it’s been different for you as a same sex couple? In what way?

Logistically speaking, definitely! We made the choice early on to go through IVF, as it gave us the opportunity to do ‘Shared Motherhood’, which for the biology nerds out there basically means Mum #1’s egg in Mum #2’s womb – giving both of us the opportunity to be connected biologically to our child. In terms of the IVF, I think our experience was alike to that of many straight couples.  It can be a gruelling process, especially when it doesn’t work.  It’s an experience that’s definitely taught me a lot about emotional resilience, and a huge amount about myself too.

 

How are you finding new parenthood? And as a member of the LGBTQ+ community?

We’re only 5 weeks in but we are loving it. Our daughter, Margot, is a delight. She was a rather large baby (10 pounds 12…), which means she’s probably sleeping better than most new-borns so I definitely think we’re being treated gently.  Kudos to all those parents who do a full day’s work on no sleep… I’m dreading that when it inevitably happens! 

We’ve managed to establish a great support network locally via NCT (which we did on Zoom) but Step 2 of the Government’s lockdown exit plan now in place, it’s meant that we’ve been able to meet a couple of couples outside which is great.  In terms of the LGBTQ+ community, we’ve also managed to connect with a few local parents in same-sex relationships through some shared acquaintances. It’s early days, but we’re looking forward to getting to know them better and we’re hopeful that our kids can also socialise together. We’re keen that Margot gets exposure to all types of families.

 

Would you recommend it?

Absolutely. It’s so rewarding, and it gives you so many little slices of joy in your day!

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Our daughter, Margot, is a delight.

What surprised you, good or bad, about the conception to birth process?

This may hit a chord with a few parents out there, especially dads… The amazingness of the birth mother’s hormones and their capability to carry, birth and rear a child! It’s this astounding innate ability. I was worried in some ways about feeling ‘left out’ in this process – again some dads may empathise. I didn’t need to worry – there’s plenty of pooey nappies and other bonding experiences to get involved in as the other parent.

 

Do you feel RSA’s policies have supported you as a same sex parent? Do you think the new Family Friendly policies are helping to move us forward as an organisation?

I’d say it’s been a combination of the RSA policies, which I think support parents of all kinds really well, and of being supported by great leaders. That’s meant that even before the IVF policy was in place (which is just fab by the way), I could take time to get my head together when I crashed and burned after I lost a pregnancy at a very early stage, just at the end of a seemingly successful IVF cycle.

More recently, it’s also meant that I could bolt on some nicely timed holiday to the 2 weeks parental leave you get as the second parent once your child is born. In terms of the policies that we’ve just introduced, I’m pretty effusive about them. They’re a brilliant step to support parents and aspiring parents. I’m particularly passionate about the miscarriage policy – it’s brilliant that we have this in place.  Miscarriage is still a topic that is so taboo in society, but we absolutely need to talk about it more - and in the open too.

 

What’s the main message you’d want to give to any queer women or allies reading this?

Allies – keep doing the amazing work that you’re doing. It makes a real impact and is such a big driver of inclusion.  For women (or anyone) who identifies as LGBTQ+ - I would say share your stories if you’re comfortable doing so.  We’re all different, and the more we share our lived experiences, the more opportunities we give ourselves to become a more inclusive organisation / industry / world.