There were no women's toilets on the board floor at BP - Lord Browne

The executive chair of L1 Energy and former BP boss on how times have changed for inclusivity at work - though there's more to be done.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Much has changed since Lord Browne resigned from his post as CEO at BP back in the summer of 2006, after battling to keep his sexuality hidden. We regularly see compilations of Stonewall’s picks of gay-friendly employers and top lists of LGBT executives.

It's not just in business where progress has been made. International development secretary Justine Greening recently announced she was in a same-sex relationship, becoming the first openly lesbian woman to serve in the cabinet and joining 35 other known gay MPs.

Browne, speaking at MT’s Future of Work conference, said that at the time, ‘It’d never even crossed my mind to blow my cover.’ He pointed out it was illegal to be gay and do anything about it right up until 1967 in the UK.

‘My mother who was an Auschwitz survivor told me two things: never tell anyone a secret because they’ll use it against you and never be an identifiable member of a minority, because when the tough gets going, the majority hurt minorities. So I never thought I’d come out and demonstrate my sexuality.’

Instead he became accustomed to living a dual life, until what he acknowledges were ‘a series of bad judgement calls’ meant this rapidly came undone, after allegations by a former partner came to light.

His mother had a significant influence on his life. ‘She was very clear that the most important thing was to protect me at all costs,’ he said. That included not allowing others to see weakness. ‘There are many definitions of weakness of course and I wouldn’t define sexuality as a weakness now, but I might’ve done then because that’s what I was taught. The environment in business was pretty homophobic.’

Browne notes that when people were frustrated or emotive, the language would soon broach derogatory terms about gay people. ‘And on the board floor there were no women’s toilets at BP when I first joined. Women were mostly in a typing pool.’ Such stereotypes and strange standards were the norm and meant isolation and pressure to conform were heavily felt.

Now, Browne feels the imperative of inclusion is ‘a fundamental part of leadership’, though it’s important ‘not to be didactic with leaders, but indicate what they could do to make people feel included’.

He feels businesses should attempt to ‘get rid of barriers’, not only with teams internally but other stakeholders too. Browne says BP has come a long way, but like other businesses, still has considerably further to go. ‘It’s still difficult to talk about,’ he adds.

On that unpleasant day when Browne left the HQ after resigning, he exited through the front door, walking out into what he called ‘a three day paparazzi feast’. He’s returned on a couple of occasions since then – once for lunch with current CEO Bob Dudley and another to present his book ‘The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business’ to BP on a global webcast.

‘Coming back into the building I decided I would go through the front door again,’ he explains. ‘And what was very touching was how many people who came out and wanted to shake my hand. That was very touching indeed.’

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