We Are Vodafone
Active allyship and sharing life’s experiences
In the fourth episode of this series, Cara is joined by Katia Stathaki and George Stone, sharing how their early experiences of allyship shape the way they live today. They discuss what Pride Month means to them and the techniques we can all use to be a great ally.
At Vodafone, Pride Month is an opportunity to celebrate inclusion and equality. Vodafone is a strong advocate for allyship in the workplace, and is committed to helping current and future LGBTQ+ employees navigate the world of work and feel confident to be themselves.
To read the transcript, please scroll below:
Cara McGoogan 00:02
Welcome to We Are Vodafone, a new podcast series where we'll bring together people from very different parts of the organisation to hear their opinions, theories, fears, passions and successes. Over the course of this series, we'll explore the subjects that matter most to you, and how they impact on your life.
I’m Cara McGoogan, a journalist and podcaster and in this fourth episode, we're going to talk about LGBTQ+ experiences at work, allyship and how we can better understand one another's experiences.
Joining me for this discussion are George Stone and Katia Stathaki. To start off, I asked them to introduce themselves and their roles at Vodafone.
George Stone 00:47
So my name is George Stone. I've worked in Vodafone for just over four years now. I did some time in retail. I have just finished the Vodafone Business Graduate Scheme. And I’m now working in HR, supporting our procurement team in Luxembourg. So yeah, Pleasure to meet you.
Katia Stathaki 01:03
Hi, George. Hi, Cara. Hi, everyone. I'm Katya Stathaki. I'm Greek, currently employed in Vodafone Albania as a CEO, I've been with Vodafone for 19 years, I studied Electrical Engineering at the Polytechnic School of Athens and I have an MBA from the University of Reading. I love Vodafone, I love this brand. I also love all the activities that Vodafone does for equality in the workplace, and also for equality in the society. So I'm really happy to be here today to share our thoughts and discussion with you guys.
Cara McGoogan 01:37
This episode is about allyship. So I thought it'd be a good place to start by getting you both to discuss a little bit about what allyship means to you personally.
George, do you want to kick us off?
George Stone 00:47
Absolutely. So I think allyship to me is more something that you do, as opposed to like a topic or a theme. I’ve experienced, allyship in the workplace. And so I really wanted to share that with you and Katia today.
It was four years ago, I was sort of 19 in my second year, of my degree, at Bristol doing Politics and Sociology, I really needed a job because Bristol was super expensive. So I applied for a part-time retail sales advisor in Vodafone, and I started in June. And that July was Pride Month in Bristol. And so our store was sent something called “Pride In A Box”, which is essentially a load of Vodafone and Pride branded merchandise. So T-Shirts, lanyards, balloons, that sort of thing.
Because I was so new to the team, I missed out on the order, for the T-Shirt and so that Saturday shift, I was the only person in a red, kind of, Vodafone branded T-Shirt. And a customer came in and he pointed to me specifically and said I want to be served by him, which I remember thinking was odd because I was brand new to the team and I definitely was not the best person to serve him. He came in and sat down, after I'd finished with my previous customers. And he kind of pointed to my T-Shirt. And he said, “good for you for sticking up for what you know is right”. And I was kind of confused and I sort of gave him that face of saying, “what”? And then he kind of looked around and said, “you know all of this Pride stuff, it's really bad how they kind of shove it down our faces, so good for you for taking a stand”.
Katia Stathaki 03:27
How did it make you feel George? Like, were you annoyed or surprised or?..
George Stone 03:32
I think, I wouldn't necessarily say annoyed or even surprised. I just felt super small in that moment. I felt like the ground was about to swallow me up because it's very awkward when you're confronted with something that I guess does make you different and then you remember that not everybody likes that or supports you. And here was someone who was very open with his, kind of, views that actually were against me. And he just didn't know. But the allyship came in when my manager walked over to me and the customer and I thought he was going to intervene with the system because I was so new and I didn't know what I was doing. But he actually turned to the customer and said, “look in this store, that's not our opinion, none of us believe or support that. If you do, it's fine. But you need to apologise, or we'll have to ask you to leave”. In the end this guy got up, he was very irate, super angry, and he left the shop and I think everyone kind of just was a bit taken aback. But then they got on with their day as usual, because that was a weird blip in the day. But for me, that was a really defining point of where I thought, “wow there is something that makes me different, and I guess puts me at risk. But at least I'm in a company or I'm in a team where they'll stand up for me even if they don't know that I'm gay,” because at that point nobody actually knew. They just did it offof their own volition, because they thought that that was the right thing.
Katia Stathaki 05:03
And he did manage to make you part of his team, right?
George Stone 05:05
He did, yeah, and I spent two fabulous years in retail, it was awesome.
Katia Stathaki 05:11
Because this is also where the impact comes into the team, you know, once you support each other, then you create a team that support each other, and then you have better results. So there it goes, being human together with being effective, amazing story.
George Stone 05:26
What about you, Katia? What's your experience of allyship?
Katia Stathaki 05:30
My experience is a bit different. I mean, I have lots of stories about allyship in the workplace, with, you know, coworkers. But I want to share a story from when I was a kid, when I moved to Germany, seven years old, not speaking the language. You know, I went to school the first day, the second day, the third day; the kids can be hard, sometimes. They were bullying me around, you know, I still remember the picture of me, you know, sitting on a bench alone and trying not to cry because, you know, they can't catch you weak. It went on for a week, approximately a week, until this little girl Susanna, she came and just sat next to me without saying anything, without, you know, touching each other, nothing. She just sat next to me, showing, in real life, her support to me and what she felt was right, and what she felt the other kids were doing wrong. Because she was this influencer in the class, which I discovered later, of course, with time, more kids were coming in sitting next to us. So, you know, it took me like a few weeks to be part of the gang. And you know, to be accepted. And for me, it was the strongest personal expression of allyship that I've faced in my life. So it doesn't have to do with LGBT, but it had to do with me being in a foreign place and being somewhere where I didn't belong. Where I was the outcast, the strange person, the person not speaking the language, the different one, let’s say.
George Stone 07:09
I guess as well, you mentioned that it's not necessarily related to being part of the LGBT community, but still was the story of allyship. I think that's so powerful, because you experienced exclusion when you were really young and now as you're kind of in your career and you’re like a, a working professional, you're using that experience to ensure that inclusion is, is actually at the forefront of everything you do as a leader in the business. So it's really interesting to me how an experience like that, you've managed to take it and almost turn it on his head.
Katia Stathaki 07:43
Yeah. And you know, I think the most important thing is for all of us to realise that we have so many things in common, you know, and we tend to think of the other people being different. Yes, we're all different, thank God, we're all different. But we also have so many things in common where we can build on so that is probably the most important take out from me from this story.
Cara McGoogan 08:06
George, from what you were saying there, I'm really interested in this idea of what it means to come out in the workplace and the challenges that brings and ways that colleagues can help support you. I wondered if you o talk a little bit more about what that process is like in the workplace.
George Stone 08:24
I guess when I was in retail, it was more something that happened to me, you know, a situation happened. And I reacted to it. A lot of times when people come out in the workplace, it does kind of happen like that, someone has said something or heard something, and then you have to affirm or deny it. And that can be really tiring. It's kind of like you never know, when you're going to get, almost caught out, it really does feel like a sense of caught out. There's been situations where I've talked to colleagues, who I am extremely close with, and have a great working relationship with but also they're my friends. They've asked me before things about, “oh, you know, you've got a girlfriend”. And even though it's men with genuine curiosity, and there's no kind of malice behind it, things like that can be quite difficult sometimes, because it really throws me into the spotlight. And it reminds me instantly that I am different and there is something that I have to come out for, which can be kind of exhausting. I think I would love if we were in a place where we don't even need to state it. But these things do happen. Some of the things you can do as an ally really require very little kind of action. Just things like changing your words. So instead of asking me, “do you have a girlfriend?”. If someone said “do you have a partner?”, then I would be absolutely happy to kind of disclose it. It's just when you use kind of gendered words. It makes you think, oh God, right here we go. Tiny little things like that I think can really help in the workplace and beyond too.
Katia Stathaki 09:55
When I was thinking about this podcast, I thought about a workshop that Vodafone arranged a few years ago, I think it was two or three summers back with Google, in London about allyship. We were asked to make a simple, let's say, exercise in pairs, where we would have to talk about how we spend our weekend, but without mentioning the gender or giving any clue about the gender of our partner. It made you feel like really stressed not to say anything that would reveal the gender because it was in the beginning was like a game, you know. And then we all realise what this means, nobody should have to reveal anything to have a nice day in the workplace and the free day in the workplace. But it happens so that the way people think sometimes you need to help it a little bit. So when I came back from this workshop, I put together the entire Vodafone Business team in Greece. And we did this exercise, you know, in a big space in pairs. Once we did this exercise, many, many people understood and they came back to me and they said, “Wow, this is very revealing”, you know, because you never actually realise it, how difficult it is, and how much energy takes out of the people, who do not want to come out. If they don't want to reveal their sexuality, they have to go through all this strain and personal stress. It also affects the productivity and the effectiveness of the people in the workplace. It's one thing to say, we are open. And it's another thing to get in somebody else's shoes and really understand what they are going through in the workplace. So for me, that's a very important thing exercising and really understanding what people are going through in the workplace.
Cara McGoogan 11:48
Do you both have examples of times when you've taken those learnings about ways to be a good ally using gender neutral language, for example, and when you've used those learnings to help someone else? Katia, I think you talked about how you took this home to your son and how you then change the language you were using around your son.
Katia Stathaki 12:08
Yeah, I want to tell this story, because it's an experience that really shook me inside, you know, so. So I have an almost 10 year old son, his name is Leo. He's an amazing little guy, like every mother would say about their kid. And you know, what, one of those nights when you take them to sleep, you know, it was like six months back. It's the time when he opens up a little bit. So he's asking the difficult questions like, “why did grandpa die? Am I going to meet him again” and stuff like that. At some point, he asked me a question, “Mum, will you love me forever?”. I said, “Leo, what kind of a question is that? Of course, I will love you forever. I will jump into the fire for you”. He says, “But Mum, do you know that there are people who throw their kids out of the house because they are gay?”. To be honest, I wasn't expecting at 11 o'clock at night to have this discussion. So I asked Leo, I said, “Leo, do you even know what it means? Do you know what the word gay means?”. He said, “yeah, of course. It's when men love men and women love women, etc”. I said, okay, well, he knows, good. Then I said, “look, whatever happens to you and your life, whatever you do in your life, I will always love you”. Following that, one, I actually stopped, or I'm trying to stop myself, from asking the usual questions. You know, “do you have a girlfriend at school?” And stuff like that. You know, because I think it's important that we let kids see themselves and what they have inside and then love them for what they are. It's quite difficult if you're brought up in a conservative environment like I was brought up. It's not let's say the most straightforward thing, but it is something that you do when you love somebody, you accept them the way they are. I'm trying to be a better Mum, I think I've become a better Mum after this discussion. I'm not perfect, but I will try to, especially in this respect to be much more open than I was thinking anyway, in the past.
George Stone 14:16
There's something that I'd quite like to jump in on. It was what you mentioned Katia about being the perfect Mum. And I think that well, first of all, Leo sounds awesome and I think that story was super touching, so thanks for sharing it. But in terms of being like the perfect Mum, I do think that there is this kind of notion around allyship and anything to do with being LGBT or race, ethnicity, gender; where people don't want to say the wrong thing and they're scared about saying the wrong thing. And it makes the topics even more taboo to talk about, not because they're taboo, but because you're worried about saying something taboo, which is just the biggest irony, but, I think a lot of times people worry about saying the wrong thing. Speaking from personal experience, I do not mind one bit, if someone has a question for me about anything related to my life, it doesn't just have to be the fact that I'm part of this specific community. But you know, I'm always up for conversation and I guess raising awareness and education and I think sometimes people worry that they will say the wrong thing. And I don't think that that is the worry, I don't think people get upset when people say the wrong thing. I think people get upset when someone says the wrong thing and then they're not open to learning why they might want to change that for somebody else. I guess that would be my biggest thing about allyship, it's, it's kind of okay to get it wrong. Just as long as you learn from it, and you're, you're open to the experience, almost of it, then that's the most that anyone could kind of ask of you. We’re super lucky in Vodafone that we have employees from all backgrounds, all different experiences and I was very lucky to work with someone in my former team who used they/them pronouns and before they came to our team meeting, a couple of people in my team referred to this person, well they misgendered them essentially, based off of their photo. And this person came to the team meeting, and it was all it was all great. But then after someone from my team said, “guys, just so you know, for next time, this particular colleague actually uses they/them pronouns”. And everyone in my team was like, “Oh, no, God, we feel really bad.” It wasn't a case of, “oh, why did no one tell us before,” nobody got angry or upset or ashamed. It was, okay, we didn't know that before, so we can kind of plead ignorance. But now that we do, we won't do that again. And it never happened again. And I just think tiny things like that, when people are receptive and open, just to changing one word, one word in one sentence can mean a lot to somebody else.
Cara McGoogan 16:50
And George, did you have some questions you wanted to ask of Katia about what it's like in other countries?
George Stone 16:56
Yeah, I would be really interested, Katia, to know what it's like kind of in kind of, Greece and Albania as well; to work at Vodafone, and be part of the LGBT+ community. And the reason that I ask that is because, I'm aware that my kind of position, as like a white gay man in the UK is very different to some of our other colleagues and I would really be interested to kind of know, the experience of other people in the community and not just in the UK.
Katia Stathaki 17:25
I can't say too many things about Albania because I landed in the role like four weeks ago. So I can say about Albania, that it's a very open community overall, they're open people, accepting people. So I would assume, but it remains to be proven, so I don't have any real experiences yet, and that they would be open also in this respect. Of course, in Vodafone, you know, in Albania, we are following the same, let's say, ways of educating people around respecting each other irrespective of colour, gender, sexual orientation, etc. So that is part of the whole Vodafone community.
If I could talk a little more about Greece, where I have much more knowledge about. In some respects, the Greek society is still quite conservative. Although, there is much more openness than there was some years ago. You touched earlier on a word that, for me is probably the biggest and the most important word in this process, which is education. And for me, it's about respecting the other human being, you know, all this allyship that we're talking about; you respect the human being, and you let them be and you let them live, in the way they want to live. It comes from sharing experiences. And being an LGBT sponsor in Greece, I have managed to have some sessions, the monthly meetings of the Vodafone Business team. So I always had one hour at the end, where I had people from the LGBT community coming in and talk to us. So the first time a lady came in, she was the one who was in charge of the helpline for LGBT people in Greece. There were a lot of people who didn't want to come to the session because it was again “yeah, another one of these sessions…” and this lady, she started talking about young people calling, being desperate not knowing what to do, not knowing how to face their parents, you know, humans stories, tough stories. They also talked about how parents were talking, who, yes, they love their kid, but they do not know how to handle themselves in this. They were seeking for advice not to do the wrong thing. And all this when it was shared, openly shared with the people in the team, many of them being parents. I could see it in their faces that it shook them. So it was much more, let's say effective than 50 lessons on how to do things right. So to share these stories, and to make people understand how we can all help, how can we all be there, so that everyone has a fair chance in this life, and everyone has a fair chance in the business, and everyone has a fair chance next to us. I think that is probably the most important and the most, the strongest weapon that we have in this process, if you allow me the word, weapon. So I believe I've left Vodafone Greece a bit more open. There were also some people who have come out during this process. And who also personally thanked me afterwards, you know, because they wouldn't talk to their Mum about it. So they went and talked to their Mum about something which is very important, for a relationship between a man and his mother, at least in Greece. Yeah, I think there's a lot of things to do. But sharing experiences is, I think, the most powerful.
George Stone 21:06
Absolutely, I think that that exercise shared about sharing the experience of that helpline. I think that's just kind of the epitome of when, when it brings it home a bit and like you said, we all just kind of realise that once we strip everything back, we are all essentially just the same.
Katia Stathaki 21:21
I always have this thought in my head, you know, I'm a huge supporter of the LGBT community, although personally, I'm not part of this community. However, I think there is a lot of power in supporting the LGBT community when you're not gay, when you're not trans. Because I think that the power of this is how we as people, support each other in this society and in the workplace. Let me give you a parallel just to understand this. So I'm a woman in the workplace. It's much more powerful to be supported by men in the workplace than by women in the workplace, you know, because if it's amongst women, it's like, “yeah, yeah, it's them again”, you know, and this has an inherent power. So this is why it's important for us, for all of us to actively support the LGBT community inside Vodafone. For me, it's a very important task for all of us.
Cara McGoogan 22:28
We also had the chance to catch up with Mohammed Khan, George's boss, when he was working in the Bristol Vodafone store. He tells us a bit about what he was thinking that day.
Mohammed Khan 22:42
Initially, when the customer came in, he was just a normal help and advice query. it was a Pride month. During the Pride Month, the guys are allowed to wear the certain lanyard or the wristband and the store is decorated, the customer wasn’t in the favor of the culture of Pride, or Pride Month/ I could see the customer was getting really, really stressy. I felt like, “okay, I need to go in”. I did try to calm them down and assert that the customer didn't have that right to speak to George like that. And I was going to listen to customers problem. All I wanted to just to give some time to George, so he could actually break out from the conversation, get himself back. And then he still feel confident.
Cara McGoogan 23:23
As a manager, what have you learned about supporting diversity in your workplace? And do you have any other examples of how colleagues can be a good ally?
Mohammed Khan 23:33
For the team, going after having everyone included in the same journey, that means that we got a bigger team. Keep talking about the differences that means that we all got the same understanding and we do not say something by mistake, even in a jokey way that could possibly end up hurting someone emotionally. In Bristol experience store, we have people from different backgrounds. So I'm from Asian background, we have people from Eastern European background, maybe little bit of cultural difference here and there. But end of the day, what happens that everyone is bringing them on the table to share those experiences.
Cara McGoogan 24:09
So do you have three tips for supporting staff and equality?
Mohammed Khan 24:14
Keep talking to them as if you are talking to just someone like you talk every day. Know the background a little bit more, do own research before you talk to that person. Just Google it, it is a great help. We all got smartphones, and make sure that we do not say or act in any way that could potentially hurt that person emotionally, even if it is my minor bit because you never know.
Cara McGoogan 24:44
Going back to your story and at the beginning, George and given that we're doing this podcast in Pride Month, I wanted to ask you both what Pride means to you.
George Stone 24:55
The first time that I ever saw Pride actually happening was when I was 19. So back when I was in that store, I grew up in the countryside, so there was never really a Pride month, it just wouldn't have made sense in my village of 80 people. So I didn't really see it, I guess until I was 19 and experienced it. And then when I started to look into Pride and the roots of it, and where it came from, I almost felt kind of embarrassed because I was part of this community and I had no idea about some of the people who did, but also still do, go though, through tremendous ordeals just to be that and just to live. I really kind of had to take a moment of reflection and consider how lucky I was. And I hate using that word lucky. When someone who's gay comes out and it goes well, they go, “oh, yeah, I was so lucky”. It shouldn't be a case of luck, but still, but I remember thinking that I was lucky because even though I grew up in an environment where I didn't see anyone like me, I also wasn't exposed to any of the real bad stuff that does happen when you are part of what any community really, but specifically the LGBT+ community, I started learning about people like Marsha P Johnson and the Stonewall riots. And I just felt really sad that I was 19 and I had only just learned this now, I'd never learned that a school I never even heard of Pride month, I didn't really know what it was. But then when I kind of had that realisation, and I think I took it is the rest of my life, I will celebrate Pride, and I will enjoy it and have fun. But also, I will mark it as a very kind of dark and somber month, almost, of reflection, because there is a lot of stuff that has gone wrong, and that is still going wrong. And unfortunately, still will go wrong, like in the future. But yeah, I think that's what Pride month is, it is definitely a celebration. But it's also kind of a point of reflection.
Katia Stathaki 26:54
On my side, I tend to think of Pride as more than an event, more than a time bound activity within a year. Pride is a way of thinking, it's a way of acting. It's to be personally proud of who you are, of the things you have accomplished, to have the courage to follow your dreams to follow your, the vision, of who you want to be in your life. So for me, this is much more important for this community. Because as George said earlier, there's a lot of people who are still going through tremendous ordeals and it shouldn't be like that. But still, the month is just the expression of something you know, when we want to celebrate it. But for me that is, let's say the light on a continuous journey that not only the LGBT people need to do, but the entire society needs to do. It’s a wakeup call. It's a putting ourselves, all of us, to look into our face and to understand really, how can we help people around us do and be the ones they want to be? Courage. Follow your dreams. This is what Pride is in my eyes.
Cara McGoogan 28:09
George, is there anything you've learned from Katia today that you're going to take away with you?
George Stone 28:14
Yeah, absolutely. I think that those exercises that you mentioned, Katia were really fascinating because they're super simple activities. But they really kind of accomplished what you said earlier about putting yourself in other people's shoes. It kind of highlighted what I was mentioning earlier about when people ask me things like, “do you have a girlfriend?”, it can be uncomfortable. And sometimes I say that to other people. They say, “oh, why? Like you shouldn't be uncomfortable, you know, you shouldn't be ashamed,” or whatever. And it's like, I totally understand that. But that exercise that you mentioned Katia, it really makes you realise how big of a thing it can actually be and how much it can make you feel awkward, when you have to conceal something that you don't really want to but you feel like maybe you should you have to tiptoe around it. I think that more leaders within business should be replicating those sorts of activities amongst their teams. You know, regardless of whether anyone in that team does identify as being part of the LGBT community, it's still something really rich, to do, to learn from.
Katia Stathaki 29:20
For sure we need more of this. I agree with your George. I don't know if I can use the word learn today. But one thing that I admire today, you know, is your courage and your strength to be here. You haven't been with Vodafone for many years. So it seems that you're a person, who is actually ready to stand up for what they believe and help others on the way and to be open about it and you know, talk about it in order to help others. So for me, that's always to be admired, because believe it or not, there's not too many people who are at the forefront of change. So we need this change, and we need people like you in the company to take us even further. We need to enable more people, we need to help more people be themselves in the workplace, be themselves and belong. And then work and have fun without the fear of being criticised in anyway. Thank you for doing this role as a business leader. Thank you for being courageous enough to do this, and hopefully we'll have many more George's like you in the future. I will be happy to be there and support you in any way. Please do reach out whenever you need.
George Stone 30:39
I'm so grateful that you came today and shared your experiences. The biggest thing that really touched me was the story you mentioned with your son. I think that's perfect, and I know you want to be a perfect Mum, but I think you've achieved it, so…
Katia Stathaki 30:52
You're going to make me cry now.
Cara McGoogan 31:00
I hope, like me, you've been inspired by the ideas, techniques and experiences Katia, George and Mohammed have discussed in this episode.
This has been We Are Vodafone a podcast series brought to you by Vodafone for Vodafone people.
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