When the former CEO of British Petroleum, Lord John Browne, came out in 2007, it was on the front page of newspapers around the world.
What should have been a watershed moment for LGBT power became an embarrassment — he was forced out of the closet by the tabloid reports of a former lover and was nearly charged with perjury, and he eventually resigned from his position.
In the nine years since, things have changed at a dizzying pace. Not only does a gay man run the world's preeminent technology company — Tim Cook of Apple — but there's a much greater acceptance of LGBT people and their rights, marriage equality has been achieved in nearly all Western nations, and many corporate leaders understand why employees hiding their sexuality is bad business.
Nontheless, the glass ceiling remains a formidable obstacle for many of us, especially queer women and LGBT people of color.
The case for diversity in management has been made so many times it's almost boring now, but straight people maintain a dominance around the boardroom tables where the world's decisions are made.
In 2015 the U.K.’s Financial Times ranked LGBT corporate leaders on their influence. An impressive list, but the vast majority are not the ultimate boss. They sit on executive committees reporting to a CEO, who are almost all straight.
This is an issue that came up in the January World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Beth Brooke-Marciniak, who sits on the global executive of Ernst & Young as their vice chair of public policy, led a discussion and wrote about being out at work.
“Multinational companies have enormous economies and employ millions of people,” Brooke-Marciniak said at the Swiss conference. “This gives them the ability to influence change on this issue in a unique and powerful way. If the private sector is leading inclusive cultures within the walls of their companies, they can lead the cultural change to create a more inclusive society.” That goes to the heart of the issue. Businesses are part of the fabric of our society and help set social standards. We need companies to be open about and proud of their LGBT staff and to see them rise equitably alongside straight people.
At work we inherently bring our private life; we aren’t robots and cannot turn off who we are. If we hide who we are, if our true selves are ignored, we cannot be confident and capable.
Even with 93 percent of Fortune 500 companies banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, intolerance and ignorance persist. Many of us still see LGBT people hiding their sexuality and private life at work, and regularly hear comments that demean us, whether intentionally or not.
Getting past this requires LGBT to flaunt their skills and seek out supporters in management. Large corporations with an image that promotes inclusion generally have an executive buy-in from someone who cares about the issue. They are the ones to turn to in that space.
Smaller companies don’t always have that luxury. When I work with smaller organizations I ask them to consider the economics of inclusion. Evidence continually tells us that when people are confident and open at work they are more productive, more engaged, and less likely to leave. This is a cost-benefit conversation. Bigotry and discrimination do not make business sense.
Inclusion isn’t a soft issue but one that goes to the heart of business. But these are chicken-and-egg conversations. We can pine for role models, or we could become them ourselves. Start being more open. That doesn’t mean talking about your sex life, but try referencing your boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, or husband — not a partner, which is not gender-specific — or an LGBT charity you support. Hell, drop a casual reference that you're hitting up a gay bar after work.
These aren't hard things to do, but they can be catalysts for changing what it means to be out in the workplace.
Conrad Liveris is an Australian writer focusing on issues of gender equality and diversity.