When is the LGBTQ+ workplace inclusion agenda over?
Today, large companies tell me “we are doing well on Gay people”, my response tends to feel a bit ungrateful
Most large companies in the US, Western Europe and to some extent South America — the ones I tend to talk to in my current position — have indeed achieved tremendous and unexpected progress when it comes to the inclusion of their gay, bisexual and lesbian employees. Similarly, these companies tend to be on an intentional journey to be trans and non-binary friendly workplaces.
I know. When the World Bank LGBTQ+ employee resource group GLOBE, that I led for several years, was created in the 1990s the then Bank Ethics Officer Jim Roan reaction was “well, we let those gays in, and […] next time there’s a naked mud wrestling [club].” We have come a long way..
In 2021, 767 businesses in the US earned 100 percent on the 2021 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), published by the human rights campaign, and the designation of being one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality.”
At Google, as an example, the “Gayglers” network is by far the most active and engaged employee resource group among the 13 existing. Rumor is that 12% of Google employees self-identify as LGBTQ+. It is also widely known that where the diversity & inclusion agenda faults at Google is on the retention of African-American talent, not LGBTQ+ talent.
BNP Paribas in France is another example of a company which has been performing well on LGBTQ+ inclusion. In fact, Bank of the West, the US subsidiary of BNP Paribas, joined the Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality in 2021. In 2015, BNP Paribas signed the Autre Cercle charter and in 2017 was one of the first companies the World to sign on to the corporate LGBTQ+ standards I developed at the United Nations. Like Google, it struggles most with another DEI issue, socio-economic inclusion — a coded word for race and ethnicity in France.
I am not surprised when senior executives in companies worldwide tell me confidently “here, we are doing very well on LGBTQ+ talent”.
My response is usually three folds:
i) do not trust your feelings in matter of inclusion, trust the feelings of these historically marginalized individuals;
ii) look at pockets of exclusion particularly at intersectional identities;
iii) look at representation at the top of the organization.
If, a company does not survey annually its LGBTQ+ employees on their workplace experience, it has no basis to assess the efficacy of its inclusion efforts. In modern workplaces, LGBTQ+ discrimination is not overt any longer and tends to be extremely subtle. LGBTQ+ will report being passed for a promotion, feeling that their voice matter less or feeling dismissed as frivolous. The specificity of LGBTQ+ marginalization is that because it is so prevalent in the family and at school in formative years that it tends to be hard to overcome psychologically. Metrics are key.
Secondly, it is not unusual to see companies with a flurry of out gay white men while lesbians or people of color remain in the closet. They might argue that this is part of their private life, that it does not matter or that the LGBTQ+ ERG is too male or white-centric. But often, when you get deeper into the conversation, they fear that living an authentic life would undermine their achievements. If a lesbian or black man in a company is still intentionally covering their sexual orientation, it is hard to claim the company is “doing so well on LGBTQ+”.
Finally, representation in the Executive Committee and the Boardroom is a telling factor when it comes to the “lavender ceiling”. Today there are only three out LGBTQ+ CEOs in Fortune 500 (+1 in a Global Fortune 500 since last week at Netherlands-based Randstad) and 28 Board seats out of 5670 are occupied by out LGBTQ+ people. While I do no yet have data on representation in the executive committees, I know through our OutQuorum initiative that only a handful of LGBTQ+ people have made it into the “comex”.
Senior Business Leaders often only came out when they had reached the higher echelons of business. When sharing their sexual orientation would not risk stopping their career in its tracks or damaging key professional and interpersonal relationships. Tim Cook (Apple) and Jim Fitterling (Dow), both came out in 2014 and spent their career hiding a key part of their identity (on the other hand Beth Ford (Land O’Lakes) and Sander van ‘t Noordende (Randstad) came out much earlier).
Of course, one could argue that it is a generational issue and that, as time goes by, there will be organically out CEOs, Executive Committee and Board members joining the top of business. I personally don’t think so. Today in France I know countless Deputy General Managers or International Marketing Directors that go at great length to keep their sexual orientation under wrap hoping to continue their upward trajectory — “the Guillaume Pepy syndrome” named after the former gay SNCF CEO (see my recent post on Gay business elites in France) who famously entertained ambiguity about his sexual orientation his entire career.
I know it’s a weird thanksgiving post to write because I should be more grateful for the private sector’s inclusion efforts and the progress achieved. But to me, that it the key to social justice: the bar always gets higher. One day you don’t get kudos any longer for not having segregated cafeterias. Ultimately, inclusion is not an act of philanthropy as my friend Eddie Glaude says “you are not doing anybody a favor”, you do not get a “thank you, mission accomplished” note, because the objective is not to be “good”, the objective is to reflect society in all of its diversity in order to create a more sustainable future. In the words of my former boss at OHCHR, Kate Gilmore, “with the privilege of making profit, comes great responsibility”.