Beyond the rhetoric…

Notes from National Harbor: a glimpse of LGBTQ+ inclusion at the NACD Summit?

Before joining the Annual Summit of the National Association of Corporate Directors in Washington this week, we carefully cross-examined the list of participants against the lists of the Association of LGBTQ+ Corporate Directors: counting 4 lesbians and 4 gay men (only 3 actual board directors — namely Maggie Fitzpatrick, Romy Diaz and Heather Hiles — the others, candidates) out of about 1000 participants. This number, 0.8%, far from representative of our size in the general population, is on par with our representation in Fortune 500 Boards.

National Harbor was the place to be for Board Directors this week-end. The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD)’s Summit was gathering its members October 8–11 at the Convention Center at National Harbor. NACD is the authority on boardroom practices representing more than 23,000 board members but the Summit is also THE Board networking panacea where key relationships are built. To caricature, when a Board opportunity arises, Directors’ thoughts quite naturally turn to the people they had lunch or dinner with at the NACD Annual Summit. Placements happen here.

So why are LGBTQ+ aspiring and existing Board members absent?

The absence of LGBTQ+ participants is particularly glaring because the nation’s capital, where the Summit took place, has 9.8% of its entire population identifying as part of the LGBTQ community.

The reality is that the NACD is not yet a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ individuals and as a consequence many existing and aspiring Board members self-exclude. It is natural that straight Board members whose social life is spent together should also desire to be associated together at such a conference but it makes it very hard for LGBTQ+ people to break in.

The rhetoric at the Summit has tremendously improved — despite sexual orientation and gender identity being conspicuously absent from the references to diversity in the opening session. The flagship publication “A Framework for Governing Into the Future mentions LGBTQ+ Board Diversity. In fact it feels that Board diversity was an omnipresent topic during the Summit. The Governance community has successfully convinced itself that, by repeating the words “diversity” and “inclusion” enough time, it is still as it was: an embracing group who makes no unfair distinctions based on gender, race, ethnic background, sexual orientation or gender identity the only factors for getting a seat being skills, vision and character. And yet, in practice, it remains a Club inaccessible to LGBTQ+ people. Beyond rhetoric, a first step towards integration would involve recognizing when LGBTQ+ people are not represented in the spaces one occupies. The main factor preventing LGBTQ+ social integration into dominant spaces is complicit inertia by straight people.

To me an eye-opening moment was, a Diversity session moderated by Accenture, at the end of which I asked the panelists “LGBTQ+ people are severely underrepresented in the Boardroom and specifically at this conference, what will bring change?”. A prominent Director immediately responded “time” seating back in his armchair beaming with self-contentment. My first thought was: “tell that to Charter communications which, twenty years into the gender diversity conversation, has 1 women out of 14 directors” and my second were the lyrics of my favorite Nina Simone songthey keep on saying “Go slow!””. Time won’t do anything for LGBTQ+ Directors, I could come back to the NACD Summit in ten years from now and the number would have gone from 0.8 to 0.9%. However, I interpreted the response as meaning that this specific director is not feeling responsible for integration. The burden is on us, LGBTQ+ people, to break into the space.

Not to make it more complex than it is, the reality is that there is no political discrimination against LGBTQ+ people at this point in the boardroom, but there is pervasive social discrimination. During the week, I observed the courageous LGBTQ+ participants witnessing how amalgamation in an “all-straight crowd” is difficult. I was remembering attending a different “all gay” conference here before the pandemic, the 2019 Out & Equal Workplace Summit, and wondering how a straight person would have felt in such an environment. Perhaps more disappointingly, the gatekeepers, recruiters and other sponsors, make no effort to facilitate LGBTQ+ integration or provide support to LGBTQ+ participants. The behavior does not match the generous rhetoric.

A clear outlier in the community is the visionary NACD Northern California Chapter (ah! California! land of #AB979, never disappoints) that NACD director members in the Capital Valley, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley areas which by the way will host me for their virtual National Coming Out Day LGBTQ Cohort on Tuesday, October 18 (register here). The Chapter and its leaders get it and have been amazingly welcoming. Similarly, two other minority groups, the LCDA (Latinos) and Ascend (Asian-Americans), have been very supportive, lending their hard-earned clout to our group. I am also glad to be part of the newly created Advisory Council to the NACD Center for Inclusive Governance which brings together directors, subject-matter experts and leaders from underrepresented groups to discuss ways to strengthen DE&I in the boardroom. I am hopeful this will trigger change within the Summit too.

As I return to mainland DC for our first local dinner of LGBTQ+ aspiring and existing Board members Tuesday night, I have two main takeaways. However uncomfortable it is, LGBTQ+ aspiring and existing Directors have to occupy the spaces they are excluded from as it is the only way these spaces will eventually become comfortable for them. Secondly, the Association of LGBTQ+ Corporate Directors’ approach is the right one: bypassing the ecosystem, to build direct relationships between LGBTQ+ directors and nominating and governance committees while ensuring that LGBTQ+ people lift each other. If you are excluded from a club, consider clubbing together.

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Fabrice Houdart

Fabrice is on the Board of Outright Action International. Previously he was an officer at the UN Human Rights Office and World Bank