Gesa Heinrichs has been working at OTTO for 18 years. The fact that she is a lesbian is no secret. Her colleagues know about it. Or have at least heard about it. Thanks to her story she has now found herself in the spotlight within the company, in the so-called “Diversity Factbook”, where colleagues discuss generational diversity, disabilities or their sexual identity. “To send out a message”, as she says. In our conversation, she explains why she did it and allocates her own and other employers a few tasks to complete on the road to increased diversity. Because even though OTTO has been a PROUTEMPLOYER since August 2018, that doesn’t mean that the issue of diversity was concluded there and then.
Gesa, you are a top executive. Does it make any difference that you’re also a lesbian? How have you united one with the other?
In my interview for the position I certainly didn’t sit down and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.” But I’ve done well...I wrote a doctoral thesis in educational sciences which focused on gender theory. And then with my publication list, people were able to put two and two together... A lot of people already knew, some had guessed. I didn’t parade the topic around. But at the same time I never wanted to lie or make up some fictitious boyfriend. I would have thought it absurd to hide my holiday with my girlfriend.
At first I only spoke with close colleagues, but eventually word got around. After that it’s no longer exciting news, it’s just normal, and that’s okay. For me it’s now also true that I’m a lesbian and I have a daughter. For a lot of people those things don’t go together, and they’re firmly convinced that I’m a single mother. My article in our Diversity Factbook was not a second “coming out” for me, it was rather that I wanted to send out a message and make clear that supporting diversity in companies and making it visible are matters close to my heart.
Why should we talk about homosexuality in the workplace? There are other areas where we keep our private and professional lives separate.
I’m convinced that it isn’t good for people to have to deny the most important thing in their life: their love, their innermost feelings. It’s incredibly tiring to have to carry around a lie or an unspoken truth. It often leads to people acting strangely because others notice that something isn’t right. In the long-term it’s hard to keep up the pretense.
Of course, you don’t need to divulge all the details of your private life at work. I also have my professional shell. But the private side of the “colleague” exterior should also be explained. Because any topics which remain mysterious or which are deflected lead to speculation, to rumours, and all of that is tiring and just not healthy.
Equal rights and diversity are no longer niche topics. What has been happening in the past few years in your personal work environment?
At OTTO, the entire company culture has completely changed in the past 18 years that I’ve been here. We were always future-oriented and innovative, but for a long time we were still a traditional, conservative family business in which homosexuality did not play a role. With the attitude, “I won’t talk about it, then everything will be OK”, it was possible to do very well here.
Today that is obviously completely different and it’s linked to the rejuvenation of the company. Since those days a new generation has begun working here, which also mirrors what is happening in society. It definitely also helps that people like my wife Susanne, who works with us in Recruitment, or myself, speak a lot more openly now when for a long time we also remained silent on these issues.
Of course, there are unfortunately still moments at OTTO which show that there still isn’t always an openness towards gays or lesbians; dumb jokes, being mimicked by colleagues – those things are annoying and hurtful. In general that isn’t just the case for LGBTIQ colleagues, but for all minorities. We need to direct our attention to situations where minorities are being demeaned, and we should personally intervene in these cases. I do that myself.
More specifically: what are you doing as a senior manager to encourage more diversity in the workplace?
It has always been important to me that my teams are diverse. When I started out in human resources, it seemed as though all the new female trainees were tall, blonde and cute. That’s when I decided that from time to time we would also employ someone who didn’t speak perfect German, or who was a little older, or who didn’t have a perfect biography. I wanted to give chances to as many people as possible with potential, because I believe that we also get something back from these people, most importantly something different from when the same culture is always reinforced. I think it’s good that I now have a gay colleague in the form of one of my division managers, because we sometimes understand one another on a different level. Other than that, a company is performance-driven. I can’t give someone an advantage just because they have a certain sexual orientation.
Is there something that really irritates you when we speak publicly about equal rights and diversity? What do you want to see?
It irritates me when people don’t understand that discrimination still exists. When they don’t understand that it’s not easy for a young person at the age of 15 to tell their parents that they are gay, lesbian or bi. People often say, “It doesn’t matter to me who has what sexual orientation, so it can’t be that hard for you to talk about it.” That’s nonsense. It annoys me when people can’t get a sense of what it means, for example, to see almost entirely heterosexual couples on the big screen or on TV.
That’s all improving slowly. When I was young, I really enjoyed reading crime novels with lesbian detectives. Because otherwise there was just nothing else. There were no role models. There was only Martina Navrátilová in tennis and that was it! If you look at what street festivals are like today, how people appear on TV, how people are showing the way they live, then a lot has changed: we have other legal precedents like marriage rights for all, which is very important. We also have more discourse within society. And symbolic acts from companies like OTTO, that take part in Pride parades, are also helpful.
I wish that in a business context, too, we could talk more about topics that are painful. About diversity, but also for example about the very important topic of women’s advancement. We also need to be more open in saying: we haven’t succeeded at that. Deal with painful subjects, remain critical, move forward step by step. I think that’s the best way to continue promoting open-mindedness in our society.
Früher waren gefühlt alle neuen Azubinen groß, blond und hübsch. Ich habe dann nicht absichtlich „hässliche“ eingestellt, aber ich habe auch mal jemanden eingestellt, der nicht perfekt Deutsch spricht, älter ist oder eine gebrochene Biographie hat.