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How sport helped Unilever’s Austin Key create a safe and inclusive work space

In partnership with myGwork.

By Alastair James

Pictures: Provided

Austin Key from Unilever speaks to Louise Sinnerton from myGwork about how he gained his sporting confidence and carved out a community for himself.

Austin is originally from Reading and grew up there; attending a school that did not have much of an LGBTQ+ community to speak of. Despite knowing he was gay, he was not out during his teenage years.

“I definitely knew I was gay when I was at school, I had a great group of friends, and part of me does wonder what it would’ve been like if I had just said something. I definitely wanted to fly under the radar, rather than adding an extra challenge to my teenage years.”

Austin Key (Photo: Provided)

Austin says he wanted to get in, get out and get on with it.

“I thought, ‘right I’m going to get my A-levels and just get this done’. If someone else in my year had done it – you never know it could have been different. I guess it is difficult to be the first and you don’t want to become a pariah.”

At that age, fitting in at school is just so important and Austin was like everyone else in his year. Rather than share his sexuality with his closest friends he focused on blending in and finishing his exams.

After he had finished his A-levels, he felt it was the right time to come out. “I came out in July. Perhaps everyone leaves school and goes through a coming of age. I hadn’t wanted to be the talk of the town for a year, so right before university and after school seemed perfect for me.”

His decision to come out was also affected by a close family member, who came out just two years before.

“My cousin came out to our family and everyone in my family was so supportive of her and welcoming of the news, that really impressed me. Until you see someone do it, it can be a really big unknown.”

It was a very casual chat that Austin had with his Mum, who just said she wanted him to be happy, and whatever happy looks like for him is totally fine. The same was true for his closest friends.

“It can feel bigger in your head. I told a few friends straight after finishing school and they were all very accepting.”

Now that Austin had told his nearest and dearest, it was time for him to move on to university and the next stage of his life. It was at the University of Reading, where a previously unsporty Austin found a new community and a love for a sport he had never played before.

“As I hadn’t been very interested in sports when I was younger, I set myself the challenge of trying something new at university. I joined the korfball society, the only truly mixed gendered sport, and found myself enjoying it immensely!”

Austin Key’s University of Reading Korfball team (Photo: Provided)

All of the new members were starting fresh, not having played before, meaning that everyone was on a level playing field from the beginning. Austin joined for fun but became more and more competitive as the months went on.

He became president of the society and helped it to grow from 5 members when he joined to over 80 members by the time he left, with an award for the most improved club to boot.

The korfball society also became a safe space and saw Austin nourish and champion the LGBTQ+ community.

“The president before me happened to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community and we unintentionally became a safe space. Obviously, we were gender-inclusive and there were no stereotypes surrounding all boys or all girls’ teams.”

This experience really shaped Austin, who still counts those korfball teammates as some of his closest friends.

That community spirit is something Austin has kept hold of and one element that encouraged him to join Unilever’s Pride network, ProUd, when he joined as a graduate.

“We are very supported as graduates, my cohort joined pre-Covid, so I was really lucky to meet everyone in person. The first Pride month I was here for was Pride inside, and I got really involved from that point.”

ProUd has been running for almost three years formally, and a lot longer informally. Austin is now co-Chair alongside Tyler Lee and is ebullient about the opportunities ahead.

Austin Key (second from the left) with colleagues (Photo: Provided)

“We have some big things going on. We announced our partnership with Stonewall and the rainbow laces campaign (that stands for inclusion across sport and fitness). Our partnership will run for several years, with the soft launch that happened last year. I’m really passionate about making sport more inclusive, I would love to support that more.”

Aside from inclusivity in sport, Austin would love to see Pride take place outside this year.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed that we can have some in-person events, like our allyship training and guest speakers which have received great feedback. That safe space that is inclusive for allies is really important for us to come together, particularly with so many employees across so many generations.

“It is important that people want to continue to receive education around our community. And for me, well, that’s all about making sure we don’t leave anyone out or leave anyone behind.”

Unilever is a proud partner of myGwork, the LGBTQ+ business community. Find out more about job opportunities at Unilever here