There is a recent interest in the role of gender and sexual diversity in vocational education and training. Whereas in the past 20 years, there has been substantial interest of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organizations in educating high school students to be more respectful of LGBT fellow citizens and students, initially there was virtually no attention for vocational education. This is surprising because one would expect that customer-friendly behavior to all clients or customers would be a general requirement for any profession, and especially for professionals providing services.
Attention for LGBT in businesses
There has already been attention for LGBT issues in the workplace for a few decades. In the late 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, a number of researches was done in several Western countries on the situation of LGBT employees and discrimination in the workplace. It soon became clear that businesses were interested, but foremost from the perspective of how gender and sexual diversity could be a benefit for their commercial image and possibly for niche marketing.
IBM, being one of the most progressive companies globally, was one of the first businesses to explore how the company could benefit from diversity in different areas. In 1995, they set up a diversity workforce, which included working groups on Asians, blacks, the LGBT community, Hispanics, white men, Native Americans, people with disabilities and women. Each of the working groups came with suggestions for improved marketing and product development. The impact of this project was evaluated and showed that a thorough diversity policy could indeed lead to a business case: better employees, more market and more profit.
Since then, a series of initiatives have been taken to develop and research business cases. In 2002, the Human Rights Campaign launched the Corporate Equality Index (https://www.hrc.org/resources/corporate-equality-index), which is an annual report on the state of LGBT diversity management in businesses. The research tool that is used to collect the data for the report is a benchmarking tool, which businesses can also use as a diagnostic instrument and a tool to improve their business.
First attention for LGBT in VET
The first attention for gender and sexual diversity in vocational education seems to have taken place in the Netherlands, where in 2010 an interactive theater group developed a performance for vocational student audiences as a trigger for discussion. The Dutch government got inspired because of the success of the theater play and decided to fund a series of research and development projects (2012-2018) to find out more about the situation about gender and sexual diversity in vocational education, and to develop an effective methodology to improve the quality of education in this area.
The Dutch research among vocational students showed that a minority of about 15% had extremely negative views of gender and sexual diversity and openly stated that they would not want to work with LGBT fellow employees and that they would refuse or be hesitant to provide services to LGBT customers or clients. A much larger percentage of the students stated that they would not “discriminate”, but they indicated that they would want to remain “neutral” towards LGBT customers. At closer inspection, this seemed to mean that they would have less sensitivity to the needs of LGBTI customers or clients than for other client groups. To some extent, there seemed to be a social distance and systematic disinterest because LGBT people were not part of the daily environment and expectations of the majority of the students. The Dutch methodology aimed to decrease the level of social distance among students and towards customers, clients and patients, and to increase the sensitivity for a diversity of clients needs, including for LGBT clients.
The Dutch grassroots LGBT organization urged the government to include a specific reference to LGBT issues in the VET qualification framework, and this was implemented in 2020.
Sexual and gender sensitivity in VET
In 2018, GALE (the Global Alliance for LGBT Education) decided to introduce the new Dutch methodology for LGBT issues in VET to the European level and developed the SENSE proposal. The SENSE proposal was awarded as an Erasmus + KA2 project and ran from 2019 until May 2021 in Greece, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. The final (online) conference will be on 18 May (13-16:00 CET, register here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScGZcVN9Lr899isB-M6k1XvDVBIm3vDexMD0yL61eydussk8A/viewform?vc=0&c=0&w=1&flr=0&usp=mail_form_link). The SENSE project developed a manual on how VET teachers can help a student group to make a trigger for discussion, a one-day teacher training, a manual for how to integrate gender and sexual diversity in the spiral curriculum of a vocational training, and a set of desirable competences for VET students and their teachers (https://www.gale.info/en/projects/sense-project). The competence framework was developed to trigger a dialogue among VET providers and policymakers on whether vocational training should have a formal requirement for students to be customer or client-friendly, and if we agree on this, how to formulate such a qualification. This also involves the question if gender and sexual diversity should be explicitly incorporated in such a qualification, because experience shows that such “sensitivity” will often not be included when we approach the subject in a generic way. The European Federation of VET providers (EfVET) initiates this discussion on the European level.
UNIQUE LGBT students
In early 2020, the new UNIQUE project (https://www.gale.info/en/projects/unique-project) started. In principle, this project focuses on LGBT students and their well-being, but in practice such safety of course will only blossom in the workplace or in a vocational training institute when client-friendliness towards gender and sexual diversity are valued as an essential part of the required professional attitude. The UNIQUE project will develop an online VET teacher training, and recruit and train “ambassadors” who in turn will train VET teachers. The UNIQUE project will be implemented in Greece, Cyprus, Croatia and Poland. UNIQUE is an Erasmus + KA3 project, which means it has a higher budget than SENSE and it aims to “upscale” the awareness for gender and sexual diversity in VET.
The implementing countries in this project are not the easiest in Europe, regarding the rather restrictive policies of some of the country governments. For example, the Polish government is actively agitating against what they call “LGBT ideology” and encourages Polish regions to identify as “anti-LGBT ideology zones”. This discriminatory practice has been rejected by the European Union and this is explicitly condemned in the recently adopted European LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025 (https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/combatting-discrimination/lesbian-gay-bi-trans-and-intersex-equality/lgbtiq-equality-strategy-2020-2025_en).
In late 2022, the UNIQUE project will finalize its outputs and engage in promoting wider use of the online teacher course and a campaign to further raise awareness about gender and sexual diversity in vocational training. The UNIQUE partners hope that VET institutions across Europe will join in this effort.
About the author
Peter Dankmeijer (1957) was trained as a teacher, but has a 40-year career as senior consultant on sexual diversity issues, especially in the areas of training and education. He is director of GALE, the Global Alliance for LGBT Education. Dankmeijer has published extensively on these areas; a full list of publications can be found on https://www.gale.info/dankmeijer. He is currently coordinator of the European SENSE project (sexual diversity sensitivity in vocational education, https://www.gale.info/en/projects/sense-project) and partner in the new European UNIQUE project (equal inclusion of LGBTIQ students in VET, https://www.gale.info/en/projects/unique-project