Pride Month: a 365-day celebration
The next guest blog from our leadership team comes from Juha Jarvinen, Chief Commercial Officer and executive sponsor of our internal Pride network. Juha joined Virgin Atlantic in 2019 with over two decades experience in aviation.
The start of Pride Month marks a significant event in the calendar for me and many of the global LGBTQ+ community. This year in particular – following over 15 months of restrictions and lockdowns – it’s more important than ever to open up the world, making it inclusive and welcoming to everyone. During the pandemic, we’ve been forced to strip back everything to what really matters, and human connection is top of that list. Pride Month is an opportunity to celebrate LGBTQ+ communities around the world, showing how far we’ve come by bringing people together in friendship and love, whilst acknowledging there is still work to be done. The month is about championing diversity and celebrating our differences; we should all feel proud of who we are, no matter how we identify or who we love.
But it’s taken me time – in fact, decades – to become this comfortable in my own skin. In the early years of my career, I felt like I had to hide my real identity from colleagues in fear that they would find it uncomfortable; feeling like I had to fine tune what I shared with peers; and being conscious of eliminating topics that would have given away my sexuality. Looking back, you feel stupid for wanting to hide that side of yourself but it was just how things were back then, and still are for many even in very liberal countries, like in the UK, and Nordic countries, where I’m from. I’m sure many of the LGBTQ+ community will agree that you learn to hide your true self over the years, whether that be from family, colleagues or the outside world. It is often even harder in traditional senior corporate roles.
In the workplace, organisations that will thrive in the future are those which put inclusivity at the heart of their strategy. At Virgin Atlantic, we live by our purpose – everyone can take on the world – and we take inclusion and diversity seriously. To me, it’s so important that we foster a culture of belonging and actively encourage every single one of our people to be themselves at work every day. After years of not wanting to divulge my sexuality at work or in business networks, joining this airline in 2019 was a breath of fresh air. About one month into my role, I was asked to share an introductory post on our internal communications platform, Workplace, and it was the first time in my career that I’d felt comfortable and proud sharing exactly who I was: Juha, a Finnish-born (then) 43-year old with a love of travel, running & hot yoga, and lastly – but most importantly – happily married to my husband, Jussi.
From that moment, I naturally and gladly assumed the role of Leadership Team ambassador for the countless initiatives Virgin Atlantic have done in support of the LGBTQ+ communities – both internally and externally. We’re committed to serving these communities and fighting for global diversity and inclusion. Along with Virgin Atlantic Holidays, we’ve worked tirelessly to drive change, including fighting for diversity in the Caribbean by working with local governments, tourist bodies and hoteliers; using same sex couples in an advertising campaign in India after the country decriminalised homosexuality in 2018; as well as raising awareness through the world’s first Pride Flight, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion.
My role as executive sponsor of our internal network, Pride@VirginAtlantic, is to bring together our LGBTQ+ community and allies to share, learn and celebrate our identities. The network – headed and co-founded by Nick Johnson – plays an instrumental role in creating an inclusive culture. The committee acts as both a catalyst to drive positive change and a useful sounding board for the Leadership Team as we explore Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives.
Our presence and support for Pride festivals in the UK and around the world has really established our purpose with the LGBTQ+ community, with our aim of becoming the most inclusive brand in travel. Over the years we’ve been a part of the celebrations in Brighton, London (with our partners at Delta), Birmingham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, New York (as part of our Pride Flight) and Manchester. The latter as headline sponsor for the next three years of Manchester Pride Festival – the UK’s largest Pride event and Virgin Atlantic’s home in the North – which takes place over the August Bank Holiday weekend under the theme of the ‘Garden of Freedom’. Manchester Pride is a charity that campaigns for equality and celebrates LGBTQ+ life. All fundraising is ploughed back into the communities it supports and is dedicated to promoting and raising awareness for LGBTQ+ issues and the fight for equality across the amazing city.
Our 10-year sponsorship of the Attitude Awards is another example of our unwavering commitment to the community, and our two brands could not be more aligned. We were the first ever sponsor of the awards and have recently committed to a further three-year partnership. Aside from the epic awards party each year, the work we have done together has been in staunch support of the underrepresented LGBTQ+ groups. One example (below) leaned on our purpose – everyone can take on the world – creating a scenario where heterosexual tourists received the minority group treatment. This campaign followed a piece of research we conducted in 2017 in partnership with Attitude, which found only one in 20 of LGBTQ+ travellers are at ease showing affection to a partner abroad. One in three of those surveyed said they had experienced discrimination in the form of judgement and ridicule, while one in 10 had been threatened with physical violence because of their sexuality on holiday. These are statistics which have to change.
More recently, in 2020 we entered a multiyear partnership with Open for Business, launching the Caribbean Local Influencer Program to champion the business rationale for LGBTQ+ inclusion across the islands. In a post-pandemic era, it’s more important than ever for destinations to be welcoming to all, but we know much of the Caribbean – Virgin Atlantic’s heartland leisure destination – can be one of the least inclusive areas to visit, with many islands still enforcing colonial homophobic laws. These laws are counterproductive to economic recovery and it’s essential that the Caribbean attracts the widest demographic of travellers possible as the world reopens. Our two-phased approach to our partnership with Open for Business consists of a research phase to understand business and socioeconomic impact of excluding the LGBTQ+ community, and a second phase to build a network of business leaders and civil society, using the research to advance LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion. This work – despite being in its infancy – has seen Virgin awarded with the Open for Business Global Equality Champion in our support of one of the largest ever LGBTQ+ data collection programmes in the Caribbean.
It’s this concept of equality that I feel so passionately about. Whilst I look forward to the Pride Month celebrations, my hope for the future is that we live in a society which doesn’t need to call for a defined window where we champion minority groups. A future whereby minority groups aren’t made to feel like they’re not represented in ‘normal’ society, as it’s accepted that difference is normality and ‘Pride Month’ moves from a 30-day event to a 24/7, 365-day movement, across the world. But it’s a collective responsibility to reach this ambition. As an individual, I commit to educating our allies, championing the LGBTQ+ community and raising awareness of the challenges that we face. As a leader, I will support our internal community and represent them at every opportunity. And as an airline, we will use the power of our brand to drive actionable change – influencing others to rethink outdated perceptions, policies and laws to make the world a more inclusive place for everybody.