By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to The Toronto Sun
Being adaptable, multitalented, hard-working and committed to ongoing networking are essential attributes to finding and maintaining work in an ever-competitive job market. But members of Toronto's gay community know the challenges don't end there.
"There are things we think about that don't occur to others," says Scott Armstrong, founder and treasurer of the Pride Employment Network (PEN). "Everyone makes a personal choice about whether to come out in the workplace or look for a gay-positive employer. The benefit of PEN is in hearing people's experiences."
Scott Armstrong, left, founder of the Pride Employment Network, with Liberal MPP George Smitherman, guest speaker at the organization's one-year anniversary party.
Every month, for a $10 fee, about a dozen unemployed, employed or self-employed individuals gather at 399 Church St. to share their workplace stories, network and pick up tips from guest speakers.
Attendees learn to fine-tune their resume, develop their interview skills, learn to network effectively and plan out a career path.
You don't have to be gay to attend, but PEN's events are specifically geared toward supporting the gay and lesbian workforce.
"Hopefully (attendees) will meet new people, enjoy the thought-provoking topic of a new speaker, hear personal stories, and be able to make a decision about where they want their lives to go," Armstrong says.
Yesterday, PEN (www.shgconsulting.net/prideemploynet) celebrated its one year anniversary. George Smitherman, Liberal MPP for Toronto Centre-Rosedale, was the first guest speaker to help launch PEN in June 2002, and fittingly gave last night's keynote address, called "The First Openly Gay Member of Provincial Parliament -- Part 2."
PEN's anniversary also coincides with the federal government's landmark decision, following several provincial court rulings, to extend marriage rights to same sex couples. This latest development undoubtedly bolsters Toronto's status as a progressive city, but nonetheless, barriers to genuine acceptance in the workplace persist.
"It's probably the best place in Canada," Armstrong says, but maintains, "there are still challanges here."
Sheila Pressick, who attends PEN meetings, says she has had her share of uncomfortable workplace experiences in the past.
"There have been awkward times," Pressick says. "When you don't come out at work, you're not being yourself, which is the hardest thing. You don't feel comfortable in your own skin."
But at Investors Group, her current workplace, the 32-year-old financial analyst has found the climate open and accepting.
"I find this place very friendly and open to discussion," she says."
A recent study by Margaret Schneider of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Joan McMurdy-Myers of the University of Toronto confirms the challenges many gays still face in the workplace.
Called "Academic and Career Choices for Lesbian and Gay Young Adults," the study is based on interviews with with more than 30 gay and lesbian undergraduates at two Ontario universities. It states that "... allusions to heterosexuality (in the workplace) are usually invisible, because heterosexuality is taken for granted. However, they are intensely visible to gay and lesbian employees who may feel unsafe revealing their own orientation."
But the Schneider/McMurdy-Myers study concludes that gays do, in fact, possess a unique edge in the workplace. They found that after experiencing stigmatization, gays are better equipped to develop and prioritize career goals, and have an advantage at workplaces where diversity is valued.
Armstrong would like to see more public education about the issue. He hopes to raise awareness about PEN by marching for the second year in a row in this year's gay pride parade on Sunday, June 29.
"I think the more media exposure there is, the better. It gets people thinking about these issues and creates awareness."
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