Gay leaders and the power of role models

When Paul Zahra joined David Jones as a GM 19 years ago there were no other openly gay people in the company.

" People who are not LGBTIQ are privileged by being part of a majority group where their relationships are never questioned."
Lisa Annese, CEO, DCA

There were few positive role models around for gay men and women who aspired to leadership. ‘Coming out’ at work was a brave decision then – it still is today – where people are expected to conform to get ahead.

The penalties for being different have been all-too obvious – from a public pie in the face to Qantas CEO Alan Joyce to in some cases career-ending outcry.  

Only three years before Zahra became the CEO of the department store chain (he was appointed in 2010), the corporate world was rocked by the news BP CEO John Browne resigned after being ‘outed’ as gay by a tabloid newspaper in the UK.

Lord Browne, 59, had hidden his sexuality from the public and stepped down from one of the world’s most powerful corporate jobs after he lied to his lawyers about the nature of his relationship with his first, and only, boyfriend. He had been trying to get a court injunction to stop the newspaper from printing the story.

The extent to which Browne was prepared to go to maintain his appearance as a heterosexual bachelor demonstrates the fear that exists among people who live a double life to “fit in”.

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Source: Bloomberg - Getty Images


This fear is well understood by Zahra, who says when he started his retailing career at Target his only role model for a gay man in retailing was John Inman from the British comedy, Are You Being Served.

“Most gay people were being portrayed in sitcoms as being effeminate and flimsy and certainly not as CEOs of a company. And, so, there was nothing to aspire to,” Zahra says. He spent his time at Target “passing” as heterosexual.

“I really struggled with my sexuality at work, initially,” he told an audience at a Diversity Council Australia in 2017.

“It was more about fitting into the norm, rather than being different.”

Zahra is now global retail adviser at PwC. When he joined Officeworks in 1996, Zahra decided to start his new job as a gay man:

“I decided to be the only gay in the village,” he jokes.

Going into an all-male work environment in the logistics and supply chain area of Officeworks he found “coming out” was easier than he had thought.

“In my mind … all those perceived risks that were going on in my head were probably partly real, but I made it bigger than they were,” he says.

Zahra says he came to realise the importance of role-modelling for others in the gay community and, when he started at David Jones, took it upon himself to be that role model.

“It is all about being visible and helping educate others about how we are treated differently in everyday life,” he says.

At his very first fashion parade as CEO, he asked the publicist why she had seated his partner, Duncan, behind him.

“Everyone else was sitting with their partner. They didn’t want [Zahra and his partner] to be the publicity shot,” he says.

“I set about using my role as a positive influence to actually drive change and, of course, the next fashion show he is sitting right next to me.

“I am going to use my difference for good.”


Zahra is one of a growing group of gay leaders willing to advocate for people who identify as LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer).

Others include Joyce, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia Jennifer Westacott, managing director of SBS Michael Ebeid, and, in the US, Apple CEO Tim Cook.

The CEO of the Diversity Council Australia Lisa Annese says only 50 per cent of gay, lesbian and transgender men and women “come out” in the workplace.

People who are not LGBTIQ are privileged by being part of a majority group where their relationships are never questioned, they don’t have to explain it and people don’t feel the need to comment on it, or to say they support it, or they disapprove, she says.

Training and engagement manager Kimberley Olsen transitioned to become a woman 16 months ago at the age of 53. She well knows the personal damage that can follow years of supressing who she really was.

“I’d had my own business for about 12 years and my health declined to such an extent that I lost everything,” she says. “I lost my business, my personal wealth, my marriage.”

Olsen says her way of coping with the stresses of living as a man was to keep as busy as possible.

Starting her career as a sugar technologist in North Queensland, she became a photo journalist, working in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

She says she has been to university four times, studying communications, science, indigenous studies and political science, biology and aquatic resource management.

After everything came crashing down, Olsen went to work for a national resource management organisation and realised her mental health depended on her “coming out”.

“So, I wrote an email to my CEO and he responded within 30 seconds,” Olsen says.

The CEO’s reply could hardly have been better: “My God, I can’t imagine how much courage it took to write that email. We need to talk”.


When Olsen left the organisation, she had to apply for 128 jobs before she was hired as a training and engagement manager at ACON - an organisation for HIV prevention and LGBTI health.

“That tells you something,” she says wryly of her job search. “My transition actually coincided with my role at ACON. I literally flew to Sydney as a man on Friday and started with ACON on the Monday [as a woman].”

Investment banks are considered one of the most ruthless work environments, but for former Goldman Sachs managing director and equity partner, Pippa Downes, the brutality of the business meant no-one cared who she went home to at night.

“It is ‘money talks and everything else walks’. If you were good at your job, it was very measurable,” she says.

“I started my life in the early days working on the trading floors of the stock exchanges and then moved into investment banking trading floors and I think it is widely understood some of these environments are particularly hostile to women: rampant sexism, rampant homophobia.

“Paradoxically enough, while these environments were quite hostile, they were actually a meritocracy because, if you did well and were smart and got results, you made money [and] were elevated and promoted.”

Downes decided she would not try to be one of the boys. “You would never go out and share personal stories, you are a bit wary when you are a gay woman,” she says.

“Gay women find themselves in a bit of a bind because you are a woman – and it is tough enough to be successful [as a woman] in corporate Australia – and you are also gay.

“Being a woman is pretty visible, but you can hide being gay and I think a lot of senior women I speak to choose not to come out because they want to be judged for the skills they bring to an organisation, they don’t want to be the successful lesbian.”

Downes says she “came out” almost inadvertently when she appeared in some diversity marketing material. A couple of weeks later she was approached by a woman who had worked at the bank for 12 years who never thought she would see someone at Goldman Sachs admit they were gay.

“It transformed her workplace and it transformed my workplace,” she says. “Because it is quite isolating to have something invisible that weighs you down.”

Fiona Smith is a freelance journalist who writes on leadership, specialising in careers, management and company culture.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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