How transgender businesswoman Isabella Segal is leading the way in the workplace
PUBLISHED: 14:58 14 December 2015 | UPDATED: 11:36 15 December 2015
Alex Bellotti talks to the Hampstead accountancy expert about 'coming out' to clients, transitioning and what more can be done for transgender rights.
After gender reassignment surgery (GRS), some members of the transgender community go into what is called ‘stealth’: living life in their new sex without disclosing to people that they transitioned. As a partner at a reputable Hampstead accountancy practice, however, this was never an option for Isabella Segal – when she “came out” as female to her colleagues in 2012, she feared not just their reaction, but those of the 150 existing clients who could save or savage her career.
“My fears before I came out were that my partners wouldn’t be supportive and that I’d have to possibly leave, or that my clients wouldn’t be supportive and my income stream would cease,” she says now. “But none of that happened. My partners… they were surprised because it is a conservative organisation, but they were supportive.”
Unfortunately, such fears aren’t uncommon among LGBT workers. According to a 2014 Financial Times report, LGBT employees who are in the closet are 70 per cent more likely to leave the company within the first three years, while a Human Rights Campaign study three years ago discovered that 62 per cent of LGBT graduates who were out at university went back in the closet when they started their first job.
Having undergone GRS in May 2013, Segal not only remains the head of forensic accounting at Nyman Libson Paul, but has also emerged as an important voice on workplace issues. Alongside her work for the transgender business support group Transformation, she was recently ranked 88th in the Top 100 LGBT list of OUTstanding, an LGBT professional networking and campaigning group.
Aware of her gender dysphoria (being born in the wrong gender) since the age of five, Segal suppressed her feelings for decades. She married, bought a house and had two children, but following the death of her father in 2011 decided to address her state of “constant confliction”, living first one day a week as female until fully coming out the following year.
“Personally it’s been very, very tricky because I’m still married, we still live together. Friendship has been difficult because people that you thought were friends for 40 plus years are no longer your friends.
“When you go from living in the straight world to living in the LGBT world socially it’s different. When I walk into a room, I get noticed… I’m not sure if that’s because of my appearance or just because people look at people when they come into rooms. There’s always apprehension in any social situation I get into. But what I find is that my good friends and certainly people within the firm are very supportive of me.”
The high profile transitions of Kellie Malone and Caitlin Jenner have, as Segal notes, ensured “transgender is currently flavour of the month”; a trend which will no doubt continue into next month too with the release of The Danish Girl, which stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first identifiable recipients of GRS. Segal’s own profile, however, remains a rarer example of a senior transgender businesswoman, so she talks regularly about the LGBT possibilities of her profession at schools and community groups
For all the positive awareness raised, there is still much need for change. In the last month alone, there have been two deaths of transgender women sent to all-male prisons – the first, 21-year-old Vicky Thompson, died after she warned friends she would kill herself if not sent to a women’s prison instead.
Both women, had they possessed gender recognition certificates, would have been sent to female prisons. Obtaining such documents, however, requires a lengthy application process and, for Segal, the additional permission of her wife. (“I’m not saying my other half won’t give it, but even that you have to ask for it…” she trails off.)
If transgender rights are to be fully supported, the businesswoman hopes that ultimately such laws will one day match the respect she has found in her own workplace.
“It was all summed up to me by one property entrepreneurial client who I’d known for many, many years,” she adds. “I told him face to face – there were a few people I wanted to come out to personally – and his reaction was, ‘I don’t care whether you wear a tutu and fishnets, as long as you do my accounts and my tax, as you have done before, then there’s no problem’.”