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Debora Gepp (she/her) is the Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Thomson Reuters and Cofounder of the Brazilian LBTQ+ Women Network. She is a sociologist who received her degree from the Federal University of São Paulo and is certified by Stanford University’s LGBTQ Executive Leadership Program. She has over 8 years of experience managing diversity and inclusion programs in companies, is cofounder of the Brazilian LBTQ Women Network and leader of the LBTQ Women Committee of Grupo Mulheres do Brasil. She is the winner of the 2020 Out and Equal Awards for her work in LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace and she is part of the 2022 cohort of the Columbia Women’s Leadership Network.

Personal sense of belonging in the workplace is important, but it cannot be the end goal if we want to achieve belonging and inclusion for everyone.

Tell us about yourself and your journey to where you are now.

My name is Debora, my pronouns are she/her, and I’m Brazilian. I was born and raised in São Paulo, and I’ve been focused on making the city a better place to live since I was a teenager. Brazil is a complicated place to talk about queer inclusion because on one hand, we have a society and culture that in parts accepts LGBTQIAP+ people – we have the world’s largest Pride parades – but on the other hand, we have the highest numbers of violence and discrimination against this community. We have laws that protect us, but at the same time we have cultural norms that work against us. It can be a very confusing place to live when you feel trapped in the middle of policy and culture.

From a young age I have been involved in social movements, especially the LGBTQ+ movement because I came out as a lesbian to my family and friends in my late teens and it was something I felt extremely passionate about. I was out all through college but when I was 23, I started a job at a more conservative company, and I went back in the closet to protect myself and my career.

About one year into my role at this company my leader asked if I would be interested in starting a D&I (Diversity & Inclusion) program at the company and immediately, I thought, “How am I going to start a genuine, authentic, and successful D&I program while in the closet?” This new project I was tasked with helped me come out of the closet again in the workplace and I became the first out employee in the company, which opened the doors for so many others to come out and live their truth.

Why is inclusion in the workplace important for the LGBTQ+ community? Why is it imperative to focus on intersectionality when talking about inclusion?

Companies were created for straight, cisgender, white men, therefore, conversations around inclusion for the LGBTQIAP+ community, and any other marginalized groups, didn’t happen for many years. The leaders at these companies never asked the question, “What do I need to change about my company to make it more inclusive for the LGBTQIAP+ community?” It’s also just as important for companies to understand the realities of the LGBTQIAP+ broader community, not just the handful of LGBTQIAP+ employees in their companies. That is the only way companies can be fully inclusive.

For example, when we talk about transgender inclusion in the workplace, companies must acknowledge that in Brazil, the transgender community faces enormous rates of unemployment. And as we know, having a steady job is the only opportunity to be independent, stable, and survive, but unfortunately, transgender people in Brazil are not offered this freedom.

Intersectionality is fundamental in establishing sustainable inclusion efforts, otherwise, the efforts won’t last. Think about this example: if a company has the goal of hiring more women in leadership, and they don’t include intersectional identities in that goal, they are likely going to hire only white, straight, able-bodied, women. How does this advance overall inclusion in the workplace?

It’s also important for us to look internally in our own community. Prejudice and discrimination happen within the LGBTQIAP+ community against women, people of color, people with disabilities, transgender and nonbinary people, and more. LGBTQIAP+ people are not excused from these conversations and personal reflection. Trying to change this reality, in 2019 I founded the Brazilian LBTQ+ Women Network – to increase the employment, professional development, visibility and the connections between queer women.

What would you share with young people who are on a similar professional and personal journey as you?

I would make sure that young people, especially young, queer, women, understand the importance of taking ownership of your own career. And this goes beyond deciding what company to work at but rather thinking critically about what type of professional you want to be and what your long-term goals are. Prioritize financial independence and being able to take care of yourself. But in the same breath, I would also tell young people to protect your mental health and well-being at all costs. Choose the places you work and the career you want for yourself with companies and people that hear you, empower you, and respect you.

It’s also important for young LGBTQIAP+ professionals to build connections with other LGBTQIAP+ people that will help look out for them in the workplace and beyond. We all need support systems and mentors that can help guide us through our professional and personal journeys and it can be more impactful when those people are from your community.

Early in my career someone told me to give everything that comes your way a try. When I adopted that mindset, so many opportunities opened up for me from promotions to scholarships, raises, and professional development opportunities. It doesn’t mean that things were just handed to me, I fought for these things every single day, but I wouldn’t have achieved them if I didn’t have this mindset of trying everything.

What does belonging mean to you? Why it is important for people to fully belong in their workplaces?

Belonging means to be heard, welcomed, respected, and the power to make decisions and transform something in your workplace. I have a unique perspective on belonging because I both want to belong in the workplace as a queer woman personally, but also because it is my professional role to create a culture of belonging in my workplace. It’s not an easy job because even when I know what needs to be changed, the systems of power created before me are very strong and hard to change.  

When you start to be heard and seen, you can change things. If you are part of a community that is starting to gain a sense of belonging in the workplace and you are finally being listened to, use that power and privilege to change things for other groups. Personal sense of belonging in the workplace is important, but it cannot be the end goal if we want to achieve belonging and inclusion for everyone.