Talking about your sexuality and bringing your whole self to work is not always easy. Mark Capanda, senior associate director, lease advisory, at BNP Paribas Real Estate, shares his experiences of being openly gay in the property sector and explains how employer support, having role models and networks can help.

Mark Capanda

Mark Capanda

Were you always able to be open about your sexuality at work?

I started in real estate in my career in 2012 with a small South East-based company called Stiles Howard Williams. It was Brighton headquartered. So, you would imagine a diverse, open, liberal experience, but I wasn’t out at that stage and I was based in its Croydon office. It wasn’t until 2014 that I decided to come out to friends first and then family nine months later and then work last. Most people are out with friends. Some people are out in work, but not in their family life. It very much depends on the background and the culture they’re from. I was 26 when I came out, so quite late for my peer group. Since coming out I made the decision never to go back into the closet. One thing I said to recruiters at the time was ‘don’t show me anywhere that is not inclusive or doesn’t have a diverse policy or that can’t demonstrate they’re diverse’.

How important is being able to come out at work?

Coming out is something we always need to think about in the LGBTQ+ community. There is the never-ending question of: ‘Do I come out? I’ve just met someone new so I have to come out now.’ Because unfortunately, in real estate and the wider society the default is ‘I’m a heterosexual male’. You must make that decision to say ‘I’ve got a boyfriend’ at some point in a conversation. Most people will put you in a box and I’d rather discuss it straight away. It does get quite tiring sometimes.

Are you ever worried about how people will react?

Yeah, absolutely, and especially when you’ve got different backgrounds, different types of clients, different people in the industry. You don’t know how or where they’ve been brought up or how negative their reaction might be. Just last year I was at a networking event and 100% of the people attending were of a white background. And 90% of them were male. At the dinner table one person asked ‘are you gay?’ to which I said ‘yeah’ and then he said ‘OK’ and then didn’t talk to me for the rest of the evening.

Often when you put your head above the parapet as a role model it tests you and you need a thick skin to deal with it. Getting role models to be vulnerable is probably one of the most authentic actions you can do and brings people with you. When you start making it personal and start making yourself vulnerable to humanity, most of humanity will warm to you and understand where you’re coming from. It’s the fear of the unknown that creates a toxic environment.

When you joined BNP Paribas Real Estate, how important was it to you to know it was inclusive?

When I joined I said that I had a boyfriend and they reacted by saying we are open and we’ve got the BNP Paribas Pride UK network, which is open to LGBTQ+ individuals and allies. These are our policies, and this is all that we do. It immediately made me feel it was an organisation that I could work for. I’m on the next-generation board, which sits below the executive board, on the commercial side of the business. Unconscious bias training is now mandatory across the business, based on our recommendation, and the hope is that every new joiner will have to do unconscious bias training too. It’s a useful exercise to check yourself and see how unconscious bias can influence some decisions and then you can make sure everyone is having a fair chance.

Do you think there has been progress in the sector on diversity and inclusion?

There has been a lot of progress over the last decade or so. But, in the last five years, has been some regression, more so probably in the last three to four years.

If you look back over the history when there’s such inequality people start looking at who is to blame or who to put down to claw yourself back out. We see that with the attitudes towards the trans community at the moment.

In the US, there have been more than 500 bills introduced to reduce the equality of the LGBTQ+ community. Poland as well is starting to put up barriers. Hungary had been brought to the European court to reduce its barriers. There’s a lot of change and worry now. A lot of people see Pride as a celebration, but Pride was originally a protest. We are trying to fight for equality still and that is a continuing process.

Fear creates toxicity, which creates the bad cultural environment and then they feed off each other. And then you see people in society just follow each other like sheep.

How has BNP Paribas been supporting Pride?

Over the last decade, BNP Paribas Pride UK has been sponsoring Black Pride. We had a six-year commitment to Black Pride. We are now looking at females within the LGBTQ+ community and we’ve committed to three years sponsoring Lesbian Visibility Week.

We’re marching in the Birmingham Pride. We are getting involved in the Bristol Pride. We are also getting involved in the Wiltshire, Swindon and Glasgow Pride as well.

Within real estate, we have the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee and then we have engagement groups for each of the employee networks. For example, there is an engagement group for multicultural network, gender, parents and carers and early careers.

All these groups are working together to improve the structure and the processes and to disseminate the information coming from the bottom up, rather than always top down.

But the key is the middle management and getting them on board. They’re the ones that are probably going to have the biggest change. However, you’re not going to get them on board unless you have the seniors as the role models.

It’s important to have visible senior allies or LGBTQ members. As part of the project network, we have sponsors, who are senior members, for example country heads or heads of compliance. They’re active sponsors who turn up to events and give us advice and are available to support other members of staff.

How do you bring those from outside your community along?

That’s where allies come in. When you hold an LGBTQ+ property conference, for example, you’re already going to have the converted there. That’s really where it’s important continuingly being visible.

We have a breakout area in the middle of all our office floors; it is prominent and where people mix. Last year, we took that over and we decorated it with Pride symbols and lanyards, and it was very visible. Clients would come in and see that. We also have monthly drinks to bring down those barriers. Staff that come to those office drinks aren’t just LGBTQ+ people because it’s the office drinks. Lots of people who went to those drinks last year wouldn’t have naturally just gone to an LGBTQ event.

This year, we hosted a live-streamed panel event around the importance of workplace allyship and visibility with LGBTQ+ identifying speakers from the Pride UK network and externally. This was an important exercise in educating the business on the options available to them and on the issues we as a community face, and how they can be more aware of how to support us. The response has been incredible.

Part of this is bringing barriers down and making yourself vulnerable and being open to answering questions. I’m open to questions as long as they’re coming from a positive place; as a community we should be answering those questions.

Are you seeing any difference across the company?

Internally, I’ve seen a significant number of people wearing a Pride lanyard or ally lanyard. Just seeing people wear those, and seeing people that I know that are not LGBTQ+ but allies, breaks down some barriers. For someone that isn’t out, and it’s totally OK not to be out if you don’t want to be, that environment can make a difference.

Do you ever experience fatigue with events and networks?

One of the big things that I’ve got out of being part of an LGBTQ+ community or Pride network is the social network you create. Meeting those people at those events keeps you going. That gives you the motivation and the positivity to do those events. There are some countries that can’t have LGBTQ+ networks because of the criminality, the law, which doesn’t allow LGBTQ+ people.

It’s important that we can showcase from a place of safety in the UK, so they have a sense of place as well. If you are born in a country that criminalises you to be gay, you can’t be yourself, full stop. We can’t change society, but we can try and influence it over the decades, over the generations. When you get that fatigue there’s always other people that want that to help you, bring you back up and get you going again.