“I wish being gay wasn’t something I had to think about at work, but I do because it still makes you different.” Menai Owen-Jones CDir, Co-Vice Chair, Cardiff Metropolitan University
Menai Owen-Jones is a chartered director, an award-winning chief executive, and a non-executive director. She is an advocate for inclusive leadership and believes her experience as a gay woman gives her empathy with others experiencing difference.
When I became CEO of the Pituitary Foundation, I was only thirty and as a young, gay woman it was quite lonely at times. Now I’m more confident but I still find it difficult to relax in social situations. Throughout my career I have been asked ‘what does your husband do?’ and if I ever get round to writing a book, that’s what I’ll call it.
I wish being gay wasn’t something I had to think about at work, but I do because it still makes you different. I have felt that revealing my sexuality might cause bias and judgment in work settings and job interviews – but it’s difficult to prove. I also know people who have been bullied because of their difference and it has affected their mental health their whole life. These relentless micro aggressions are tiring.
As a person who is minoritised I feel a responsibility to try to break down barriers and improve things so the people who come behind me don’t have to face the same challenges. And I’m not talking about tokenism, I mean changing systems. I want to use my privilege, for example in my role as a director, and voice to break down walls for people who are LGBTQ+ as well as other minoritised groups.
I recognise how important mentors are and I was very lucky to have support from the female chair of the board at the Pituitary Foundation. She was instrumental in supporting me in the early years in my role as CEO and backed my programme to transform the charity. During my time as CEO the Pituitary Foundation became the leading charity in its field globally.
I found becoming a mother whilst in the role of CEO challenging because the buck stops with you in the job. Even with a supportive employer and a fantastic partner, it was exhausting in the early years. But it taught me to live in the grey and understand the importance of a good team. When my son was still a baby, I joined the IoD and over five years, took the certificate, diploma and the chartered director qualification. I didn’t start the process thinking I could be a chartered director but I did it, bit by bit.
This professional development programme showed me how much power and responsibility are embedded in the position of a director. We hold the purse strings and people look to us as role models. We can make changes in terms of inclusion and diversity, but we must put actions and budget behind our ideas. As directors we should not only spend time with people who are different and listen to their stories, but also invest in training, action plans and champions.
I do see organisations committing to change, but this will need to be reflected in key appointments in the longer term to really change culture. Diversity is so broad and so many people are minoritised we must keep pushing for meaningful change. My experience as a gay woman gives me empathy. I don’t know what it’s like to be from a minority ethnic background or disabled, for example, but I do know how it feels to be discriminated against because of my difference. It’s important to be an ally and learn to come together as a strong voice to push for change for all the people who are minoritised.
Last year after a decade as CEO I decided it was time for the next stage in my career journey and I stepped down from my role, firstly to study a master’s in economics in Welsh Government and Politics and secondly to develop my non-executive directorship and advisory portfolio for a period. I’m currently Vice Chair of Cardiff Metropolitan University, I remain a trustee on the board of Race Council Cymru and I’m currently a mentor on the WEN Wales Equal Power Equal Voice which aims to increase the diversity of people represented in public and political life in Wales. Throughout my current and future roles, I will continue to champion more diverse, inclusive and equal organisations.