The women at banking giant Santander UK count on teamwork to shape a new corporate culture.
Susan Allen, Santander UK’s Head of Customer Interactions, Executive Committee Sponsor for Santander UK’s LGBT Network Embrace and a fierce advocate for diversity in the workplace, remembers a train ride to Southampton with one of her female colleagues a few years back. They had worked closely together for over a year. After they finished business talks and moved on to social chit chat, Susan asked her co-worker about her upcoming holiday and if she had planned something special. She went quiet. After a moment of hesitation, she wrote a note on a piece of paper and handed it to Susan. It simply read “Civil partnership”. Susan was delighted with the news, but couldn’t shake a thought from her mind. Susan recalls:
“‘How could I have made it easier for you?’, I asked. ‘I feel bad that we worked together for over a year and you couldn’t tell me. You had to write it down. How could I have made that easier for you?’ She replied, ‘It’s not you Susan… I haven’t actually said the words to anybody at work in 25 years’. That was a real turning point for me. I realised that even when I thought I created a great team in an open environment, there are still people that are afraid. I refuse to sit back and let that happen to anyone in my team, ever.”
In her 25 years in the financial services industry, Susan did not only get involved in gender diversity but has become an outspoken supporter and ally of the LGBT+ community. Her dedication as an LGBT+ ally was publicly recognised when she won the award for Diversity Champion at the European Diversity Awards 2017.
“As a senior leader in the bank, my job has to be to create an environment where everyone feels safe… We can talk about fairness and everything – that’s all very relevant – but actually, if you are a leader, you want to lead your team very well, and that involves leading ALL of your team.”
Friend and colleague TJ Richards, co-chair of Santander UK’s LGBT+ network, praises Susan’s approach.
“That shows the root of why Susan is such a great ally. How many people would have finished that conversation with ‘how could I have made it easier for you?’ It’s a testament for how we can do things better.”
TJ, who served in the US military, witnessed the problems that come with hiding your true self first hand. She understands the need for an open and inclusive work environment.
“It is important to know the people that you work with and you can only do that when you’re being yourself. I came out when I was 25 because I was in the US military where it was illegal to be gay. I had to keep that part of me separate, which meant I didn’t engage with my team. There wasn’t that camaraderie as there is at Santander where we are able to be open about it.”
TJ’s involvement in Embrace led to the organisations change of their gender identity and expression policies, giving transgender customers the option to change their gender and find support at Santander UK. She points out that role models are needed to share their experiences, rather than reinventing the wheel.
“It’s not about finding that super woman, that person who’s the face of the movement. It’s about finding people you can relate to. It’s about being comfortable to say ‘How did you juggle that because I’m struggling’.”
Both women leave their mark on Santander UK. From advocating the bank’s mentoring programs to the expansion of the Embrace employee network, and Susan uses her senior role as a platform to make a difference and drive an inclusive culture across the retail division of Santander UK:
“I’m very fortunate that I am in a position that I can use that influence, but I really try to use that voice to make decisions that will make this a better business for everyone in it and for our customers. With the networks we showcase fantastic role models at all levels, so women can see that they can grab that opportunity.”
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