Five minutes with…Ruth McPhail

WOW’s Professor Ruth McPhail is Head of the Department of Employment Relations and Human Resources (with whom the Centrehas a close working relationship). Raised as an academic at Griffith University, her social justice agenda has always been very strong. We spent five minutes with Ruth to learn a little more about what research underpinned by such a perspective looks like….

In what areas do your current research interests lie?

Broadly, in international HRM [human resource management]; some areas of health care; and student success, i.e. the scholarship of learning and teaching, implementing orientation frameworks, Griffith’s PASS [Peer Assisted Study Sessions] initiative — [essentially] the retention, transition, and engagement of students.

Are there ongoing or emerging trends in your fields of research?

Yes, LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex] expat[riate]s in particular in international HRM: there is growing interest from companies, particularly around HR’s duty of care to employees. This is creating quite a dilemma [however]. As research is becoming more widely read, rather than the effects opening up opportunities for LGBTI employees, in some cases it’s created a response of restricting [their] movement — there’s both positive and negative impacts.

In the ageing of LGBTI persons, again there is growing interest, particularly as a result of [Australia’s recent postal survey outcome to legalise same-sex marriage, colloquially referred to as the] ‘Yes vote’, and how we recognise and value that community. What we have is a situation where in Queensland for example, until the early [19]70s, people could face either forced hormone treat or incarceration into psychiatric wards [for declaring such sexualities]: it was considered illegal. There was a great deal of community fear around their [sexual] orientation and now [these individuals are] coming to an age where they need institutional care and are fearful what may happen when they do.

[Furthermore, the government’s] National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Ageing and Aged Care Strategy has prompted concern amongst aged care providers about their ability to adequately serve this community. The data suggests that only 3% of those over 65 identify as LGBTI, with about 15% of the broader population identifying as such. From this you might imply that there is still a lot of people ‘in the closet’ or not yet ‘out’. In response, I am working on a program with the Queensland Aids Council to train [workplace] ‘champions’ to be available to answer these questions… – [themselves] having found…challenges within the organisations in which they work, but also from other residents and their families, and the carers themselves; and if [the organisation is] a religious-based provider, there is theological opposition to being open [about your sexuality].

Has there been major developments or key findings that have directed the trajectory of your research?

[My research into LBGTI workers has]…all come about by accident actually! I went to colleague looking to publish an article on non-traditional expats for a special issue journal…but it was already being done…. With the absence of a mentor and a growing, but somewhat undirected, research agenda, I basically thought “well what am I going to do then?” I looked at list of non-traditional expats and LGBTI workers were within that. Underpinned by my desire for social justice, the welfare of LGBTI persons really hit a cord. There was only one paper on LGBTI expats when I started too. Now, it is hot topic!

[I was also undertaking training] as a member of the Griffith Ally Network. A trainer from the Queensland Aids Council was there, we met, and that’s how I came to work with them on the LGBTI ageing and aged care project.

What are you working on at the moment?

‘Coming out’ at universities is the next step and how Allies support students during this experience. This research is [propelled by] a true story: a student who was coming out…approached me in my Ally role with Griffith and I had the opportunity to help coach them [through it].

I’ve also done a lot of work with the negative aspects of LGBTI expats’ working lives, i.e. the dangerous, or even life-threatening, places to work. Now I’d like to shift more towards the positive, i.e. where you’d love to go and work.

Finally, are there challenges in your field/s in trying to bridge the gap between research, practice and policy?

Through a series of conversations and chance happenings, I‘ve been to Singapore and Sydney to speak to groups — mainly diversity and inclusion managers — who support LGBTI workers in their organisations. The Singapore group are very active in the finance industry — itself a very supportive industry, as are the people to work with.

We are also now branching into the social media space, i.e. through articles in The Conversation, and I am member of many LinkedIn groups for the LGBTI community. My work has also been picked up by Deloitte’s, The Wall Street Journal and BBC. I have been approached through those connections — at least once a month — to help practitioners and am doing a lot of one-on-one help with organisations, but it’s a fine balance: sometimes what I’m suggesting is not legal in the country in which the organisation is. I also hold concerns that my research will have the reverse effect than was intended, i.e. [within countries where LGBTI identification is dangerous or illegal], organisations are outrightly saying that LGBTI workers should not be supported. But some of the best talent is often from this community.

My goal is to raise awareness within the [human resources] diversity and inclusion portfolio — across international assignments, healthcare, student welfare — anywhere there is people basically! I always understood what we did to support [LGBTI] students, but I didn’t always understand how my research could fit into that; now I do.