THE number of openly-gay female leaders in Australia, particularly in politics and the corporate sector, is so low that the visible LGBTI community has been labelled as little more than a “massive manfest”.

However, Liz Pearson — a senior member of young professional mentoring organisation Out for Australia (OFA) — said the lack of prominent lesbian role models reflected the challenges all women faced in reaching leadership positions.

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Speaking last week at an event organised by Westpac’s LGBTI employee group, Pearson said lesbians faced an “intersectionality of oppression”.

“Gender is such a massive issue, regardless of what sexuality you identify with, then you throw a queer female on top of that and the experience is very different to the gay male experience,” she said.

Surveying the audience at the event, Pearson said: “I ask you, how many queer females do you see and that’s what we face in the general world.

“To come to a theoretically safe space and be confronted by a massive manfest is so disheartening.”

The number of openly-gay men in senior leadership positions in Australia includes Alan Joyce at Qantas, SBS’ Michael Ebeid, ACT chief minister Andrew Barr and the NSW Parliament upper house president Don Harwin.

Asked to name equally high-profile lesbians, Pearson said she was stumped beyond Senate opposition leader Penny Wong.

She added: “I too am struggling with my female CEOs so it’s a double issue”.

In an effort to encourage more young lesbians to aim for the executive suite, Pearson is spearheading a new women’s program at OFA.

“We want to partner with the wider community, with universities and with corporates to start boosting the numbers and making [the workplace] more inclusive and actually support women,” she said.

While it was early days, Pearson said OFA wanted to engage with female students and professionals as well as the broader LGBTI community.

An easy place to start was with social events organised by LGBTI employee groups.

Often scheduled after work, these might unintentionally exclude gay women who have child care responsibilities.

Pearson said beyond the corporate sector, LGBTI Australia was often far too focused on men.

“If you look at the way Mardi Gras is marketed you’ve got a guy with 20 abs in short shorts and a feather boa,” she said.

While she acknowledged the “valiant attempts” by Mardi Gras to run events such as Women Say Something, she added that across the community as a whole, lesbians would all say the same thing: “Where are the females?”

“It’s just such a heavily-dominated male environment,” Pearson said.

Brad Cooper, chief executive of Westpac’s BT Financial subsidiary and an executive sponsor of the company’s LGBTI group, said the bank has signed up to sponsor the women’s program and he hoped it would help bolster the number of openly-gay women within its ranks.

“Our disclosure rate for [gay] women is really low so you just want to try and think about what else we can do to signal this is something we’re supportive of and this program is something we can do in the community and by reflection it helps [internally],” he said.

In a big week for OFA, the group also will host its first event in Brisbane today.

The launch means OFA’s program of mentoring and networking opportunities is now active across the east coast capitals.

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