Posted: 19 Nov. 2020 05 min. read

The role models we wish we had

Shay Johnston is the Executive Manager of Suncorp’s Personal Injury Assurance team and Chair of Amplify, Suncorp's Employee Resource Group for Suncorp's LGBTI+ staff and allies. Shay is also Chair of Open Doors Youth Service Inc.—Queensland's leading youth service, supporting LGBTI+ youth and their families. As one of our Outstanding 50 LGBTI+ Leaders of 2020 Shay shares their journey to be the role model they wish they had.

Role models: I do not remember there being any openly LGBTI+ senior role models in my career.  While certainly there may have been one or two people who identified and were in senior positions, mostly, it was not the case.  Instead, I focused on the incredible talent of LGBTI+ folk around me at all levels—and found a creative, personable, hardworking and passionate group of people at every turn.  It made me realise that it was on my generation of queer leaders to be the senior role models—and so we did!  And although we have a long way to go, there are now more out, queer senior leaders at Suncorp than I can ever remember there being.

Changing perceptions:
I feel like there has been a huge shift and across Australia there is an enormous affection for our community. We still do have a way to go and it's important to not lose sight of the challenges still to face, but I am so proud of the progress we have made and grateful to past leaders for their work and sacrifice too.

How can we all (the LGBTI+ community and allies) play a role in LGBTI+ inclusion and visibility?
First: gain an understanding of the issues facing the community, by reading queer news and following queer voices on social media. Second: add your voice to theirs—share, write letters, donate, say a prayer, ask someone if they're ok, celebrate queer events and history. Third: repeat.

On inclusive leadership:
Being an inclusive leader is critical to me. The role of a leader is to bring out the best in their people in pursuit of their shared goals, and you can’t bring out the best in someone who isn't being themselves. The key ways I find I demonstrate inclusive leadership is to role model these behaviours—sharing personal stories which shine a light on my queer identity, suggesting we celebrate or mark days of significance to various communities, encouraging folks to share their identities, cultures and perspectives, talking about bias and promoting the voices of all minority groups.

Can you share a story with us that has made the most impact on you during your LGBTI+ journey?
My school journey had a big impact on me. In high school, I was outed to my parents by my school principal. I was suspended for holding hands with my girlfriend in breach of the ‘hands off policy’. Remarkably, the kids who dated people of the opposite sex to them didn't get suspended for such breaches. Then, I was the only student who applied to be a house leader and didn't get a role somewhere in the student council. Finally, I was nominated for prefect but was told by a teacher that it was unlikely I would get this role as I ‘wasn't a good role model’.

I didn't end up having to serve the suspension and I did get the role of prefect, but it taught me something about how the world worked for people like me. These experiences—perpetrated by adults against a teenager—ignited in me a commitment to do all I could to end inequality, an understanding that I had to work harder and be better than my peers just to be treated the same, and that any mistakes I made could cost me more than others. This combination of determination and optimism has served me well, and although these were hard experiences, I know I wouldn't have followed the path I did if they had not occurred.

Not everyone has the confidence or support (whether that be from family or colleagues) to be themselves at work – what advice would you give to them?
It's ok. Coming out is hard and sometimes circumstances around us can make it even harder. Most people do feel so much better once they are out and find that while it was hard to come out, it often doesn't go as badly as they think it might.

You may not be able to come out right now, but you can think about a plan and start taking little steps. Think about what is blocking you and how you could work towards overcoming or removing that blocker. Think about how you could build support from allies and use that to build confidence in yourself. If you’re really stuck, reach out to an out friend or colleague and ask them to help you come up with a plan to come out. You’re never alone, there is a whole LGBTI+ community waiting to welcome you.

Words to describe me:
Passionate, hardworking, caring.

Shay is one of our Outstanding 50 LGBTI+ Leaders of 2020 – a list that recognises and celebrates the many LGBTI+ role models in business and across our community. For more on our inspirational LGBTI+ leaders, visit our Outstanding 50 webpage.

More about the author

Jade Rogers

Jade Rogers

Communications Manager, ICS, MCBD

Jade Rogers leads communications for Inclusion, Diversity and Wellbeing, within Deloitte’s Corporate Affairs and Communications team. Jade is passionate about storytelling and believes in the power of a compelling story to effect real change.