Samantha West, commercial director at Vinci Facilities talks about her transition and how LGBT+ networking can drive change for the better.
06 August 2018 | Samantha West
Life at work can be scary. For me, it was transitioning my sex from male to female. How was my company going to take it? The board and management? My colleagues, contacts, suppliers and clients?
I was having enough trouble with the shock I caused in my domestic life: my ex-wife (we'd separated after 20 years of marriage, but she's been amazing and we still love each other), my two teenage girls, my parents and extended family.
I transitioned in my personal life on 20 August 2016. I moved out of the family home and started a new life full of in trepidation, sorrow and excitement in a nearby town.
I made friends quickly in a totally regular non-scene community and I owe so much to them for their support, along with my fellow transgendered friends.
I pushed on with hormone treatment and counselling. I was living outside work as Samantha West and at work as Ian West. Some of you will have met Ian!
I'd come home from work, get changed to be 'her' then go to the supermarket, socialise, stay at home, go running - basically everything before going to bed. Then I'd wake up for work, put on the suit and creep out as a bloke. I was embarrassed the neighbours would see him.
So what changed?
First was the attitude shift in the media and society towards transgender.
The next was an event at work. I travelled a long distance in the car from a project in the North back to our head office in the South. I had travelled back as the real me and changed back to him just before returning to the office to attend a fairness, inclusion and respect (FIR) development meeting with other senior managers at Vinci.
At the meeting in my creased pin-stripe suit and a shirt with a wonky collar (it's difficult changing on the road) I settled in as Vinci's commercial director to contribute and listen to what everyone had to say.
The meeting was full of enthusiasm. Everyone wanted to do the right thing: "acceptance for all; we want to be leaders in diversity; it's not just a HR issue, it affects all of us; this will have full board support; we saw this corporate video the other day produced by Deloitte and we think it would be good to show people as it demonstrates what FIR is all about".
The video came on. It went through all the protected characteristics in an illuminating way and then I saw mine. It was a man in a suit with a high IQ (not that I have that). He took off his tie, turned away from the camera while unravelling his hair only to show his face again with beautiful make-up, flowing long hair and a great figure (that is me!), and, funnily enough, she still had a high IQ.
Ian nodded sagely while, inside, Samantha cried her eyes out. My mind had opened to the prospect of being me at work.
The point of no return
I decided on facial feminisation surgery. This was the point of no return. My face would be changed forever. I had to do it and now I had to tell everyone at work too.
My transition date at work was 23 September 2017. I'd clocked up 29 years of service in construction and FM with Taylor Woodrow and Vinci. This was going to change everyone's view of me.
Before 23 September, I'd told a few close colleagues. Then I told a few more, all of whom were surprised but kind. Then I met my MD. He'd heard I had separated from my wife and was concerned. I was in an accounts meeting when I got a call.
"Shall we meet in your local pub?"
We were just two guys having a beer - totally normal - until the question.
"Sorry to hear you've split up. What's happening?"
My answer, somewhat stuttered, "Well, the reason is, the reason is, erm, I'm living 100 per cent as a woman in this town."
His reaction: "That's brilliant. You will get nothing but support from us. I'm so pleased you feel you can do this. We can plan this and have regular updates. I want to help you."
That gave me more confidence. Three months later on 23 September, an email was issued to nearly 400 staff. I received more than 200 well-wishing replies. The support was overwhelming and surgery was definitely happening.
Recovery was tough, but I was helped by friends and a work colleague who stayed with me straight after the surgery for a few days. Another colleague took me to the consultant for bandage removal.
My family could not cope with this at the time, which I understand and respect.
I worked from home for two weeks after surgery and, on 30 October 2017, I got in the car to go to HQ for the first time. I paused in the car park for a moment. Scary.
But I didn't need to be scared as fairness inclusion and respect were all around. And I got several hugs. I was Samantha West, commercial director at Vinci Facilities; 100 per cent female and happy.
Building a network
Since my transition I've been spurred on to create an LGBT+ network at Vinci. We had our first event in April at The Perseverance pub in London, which was apt.
It was well attended and some people were able to express their true selves for the first time at work. Stories were shared, best practices exchanged, peer support offered and fun had.
It doesn't have to be a huge event. It just takes a few passionate people, LGBT+ and allies alike, and an open invitation to join in and communicate with like-minded people. We are now organising simultaneous meetings in London, Birmingham and Manchester in September.
Starting such networks presents challenges that need to be overcome. These include buy-in, time commitment and obtaining a budget, as well as considered event organisation. Vinci had no problem in accepting the business case for doing this but due governance had to be met.
Going through my experience helped me to develop the first-ever transgender guidelines alongside our HR team. This has been adopted across Vinci's construction and engineering sectors.
I have experienced nothing but acceptance by customers, contacts, suppliers and consultants. I get on better with them now than I ever did before! If you can be yourself, you will perform better. Even more importantly, my children and parents now accept me, which is wonderful.
My story is but one of many in our industry in the LGBT+ community.
There is a pan-industry network I'm helping to steer. Its vision: collaborating to make the FM sector the most attractive, inclusive and supportive industry for the LGBT+ community in the UK and Ireland.
This network aims to unite individual company networks - we have support from Vinci, ISS, Sodexo, Aramark, Mitie, the BSA, Serco and others - to share practices and experiences.
I'm sure it will grow, with your help, and provide the support and push for changes to meet its vision for the FM sector.
Such networks will give people a chance to create new relationships, share best practices with peers and encourage them to be themselves at work. If you and your organisation are interested, contact us at: [email protected]
Samantha West is commercial director at Vinci Facilities