By Advocate Contributors
Originally published on Advocate.com April 26 2010 12:55 PM ET
While the debate goes on about marriage equality, employment nondiscrimination, and having openly gay and lesbian members in our military, many American businesses have long settled the debate about equal opportunity for gay and lesbian executives and senior managers. We know that business is often on the vanguard of change and innovation and far ahead of the politician, and this is no exception.
Over 80% of Fortune 100 companies and over 50% of Fortune 500 companies provide partner health benefits. Executive search giant Heidrick & Struggles and Fortune 500 company Marsh & McLennan have announced the formation of an “Inclusion Network” of six minority-owned firms to ensure diversity representation for senior management searches. The Inclusion Network includes a gay-owned search firm, a first in American business.
Realistically, while businesses often want to be good corporate citizens, LGBT inclusion is also increasingly economically driven — bolstered by objective, bottom-line considerations rather than an abstract idea about social responsibility. Not only do many companies see an important market for goods and services in the rapidly emerging — and brand-loyal — LGBT population, they understand the contribution that high achievers of all sexual orientations can make to their success. Whereas 20 years ago there was a “lavender ceiling” for LGBT executives in even the most gay-friendly companies, today, you are increasingly likely to see openly gay and lesbian executives in C-suite positions and even on boards of directors.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the transgender community — the T in LGBT. There is still significant and intransigent bias against transgender candidates among recruiters and senior managers alike, mostly because of a lack of familiarity with the issues of gender nonconformity.
Like the gay and lesbian employees of 20 years ago, the trans community is beginning to emerge from its own closet and demand equal opportunity in the workplace, but the heavy lifting of training and education is yet to be done. Contrast with the numbers above: Only 22 of the Fortune 100 and 35 of the Fortune 500 include transgender people in their insurance benefit policies. Most transgender executives find themselves underemployed or unemployed after a transition, even though they bring exactly the same skills and experience (and often a record of overachievement) that would be valuable to any employer.
I met my first out transgender candidate for a corporate position 10 years ago. We had arranged to meet at a coffee shop north of Los Angeles, and I awaited our rendezvous with some trepidation. At precisely 10 a.m. a very tall and stylishly dressed woman arrived for our meeting. Ms. R, as I will call her, would not have passed easily for a woman. She had the broad shoulders and height of an athlete and a resonant voice. Before our meeting I had assumed that she would likely be a confused and unhappy person. But I found that she was confident, at peace with her decision to transition, and eager to go back to work. After an hourlong meeting — which often brought tears to my eyes as she described the struggles with her former employer, her family, and the community in which she had been a youth and civic leader — I had a new respect and admiration for her determination and courage. It was also clear that she was highly qualified for the position and deserved every consideration. I received a very important lesson about transgender people that day.
The Inclusion Network’s participation by a gay-owned search firm committed to equal opportunity for all LGBT people is an important and vital step forward for corporate America and for the executive search profession. Once again the corporate sector has an opportunity to be an agent of social change that, while driven by business considerations, will result in greater social justice. In 2009 the eighth annual Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index showed an unprecedented 305 major U.S. businesses earning the top rating of 100%, up from 260 the previous year — despite the economic downturn.
Now the gold standard for LGBT equality in corporate America, the Equality Index will increasingly reflect the interests and rights of transgender people too. But it is clear that we need to raise the bar even higher in the business world while we continue to fight for equal treatment in employment laws at the federal level, for all the Ms. R’s and also for the generation of LGBT professionals expecting to be judged on their skills and talents, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.