Wall Street Comes Out
BY Julie Bolcer
March 31 2011 1:55 PM ET
When many people think of Wall Street, complex multibillion-dollar deals and anxiety-inducing trades come to mind. However, for some LGBT employees who come out in the male-dominated finance industry, the highest stress can involve simple issues like what to say in the bathroom or whether to invite a colleague to lunch for fear of appearing “interested.”
“It’s not unlike the Catholic priesthood,” said corporate diversity consultant Brian McNaught during the opening plenary for Out on the Street. “It would be very hard to come out on Wall Street.”
Frank discussion flowed Wednesday when leaders gathered at the inaugural summit, the first to focus on LGBT people and Wall Street. The invitation-only event brought together some 150 senior-level employees, including openly gay executives and their allies, from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays Capital, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank, which hosted the summit in downtown Manhattan.
“The vision is bringing these banks together to discuss LGBT issues and opportunities really with an eye to some deliverables and some collective work on an ongoing basis,” said Out on the Street founder Todd Sears, a diversity leader and investment banker who started the first private banking practice for LGBT clients at Merrill Lynch.
Organizers said the purpose of the afternoon-long event was twofold, geared toward how to support LGBT employees and how to leverage diversity for business growth. In fact, an estimated 75% of the participants hailed from “front office” positions that generate revenue. The agenda included opening and closing panels on culture and recruitment, with smaller breakout sessions on private banking client development and driving strategic partnerships and investments.
Despite an enduring macho image, participants described an evolution on Wall Street in the past decade as dramatic as the equality advances engulfing the legal and political landscapes. Today, Wall Street leads in diversity budgets for recruitment and talent and spends mightily to capture the LGBT market valued at $743 billion in a Witeck-Combs Communications/Harris Interactive survey.
“We believe all forms of diversity make complete economic sense and serve our shareholders over the long run,” said Seth Waugh, chief executive officer for Deutsche Bank AG’s Americas division, in his opening remarks to the summit.
Even so, organizers said an estimated 48% of LGBT employees remain closeted at work, where compared to out colleagues, they are more likely to experience isolation that threatens promotions and retention. The percentage increases the higher up the corporate ladder one moves, which represents a significant obstacle when having openly gay managers can make all the difference, according to participants. Detailed data will be released in a forthcoming study, “The Power of Out,” previewed by the Center for Work-Life Policy on Wednesday.
On a more anecdotal level, compared to gay men, a female participant reported a “minuscule” proportion of out women on Wall Street, and when asked if anyone in the audience was openly transgender, no participant raised a hand. Only a handful said they knew a transgender coworker.
Sears, who conceived the idea for the summit a decade ago, acknowledged the progress and work that remains. He said that Out on the Street would be an annual event, with more institutions involved next year.
“We’re not really as bad as everybody thinks we are, but we’re not nearly as good as we could be,” he said.
This year alone, the market capitalization of the six participating banks was $450 billion, and they represented 880,000 employees globally. In this way, Wall Street is strongly positioned to help change laws in areas of the world, like the Middle East and Asia, where economic growth soars but LGBT rights lag.
“That’s the next frontier,” said Sears. “The opportunity is to bring the financial power to bear where the LGBT policies are unfriendly.”