Growing up there was no one like me. No business leaders. No political or intellectual leaders. No one whose simple existence proved that someone like me could do it too, that my hard work would pay off. Now it’s 30 years later, and I’m a mom and a scientist and an entrepreneur, but in some ways very little has changed. There is not a single person like me in the c-suite or board of a Fortune 500 company, not in Congress, or in virtually any other leadership position in America. For any kid growing up “different” in this country — gay, black, female, or, like me, transgender — this unspoken message is pervasive and unavoidable: “Don’t bother.”
The irony is that most of those same major companies desperately want to improve their diversity (even those whose board meetings differ from their Gilded Age predecessors largely only by the lack of muttonchops). While some may see it only as “corporate responsibility,” the vast majority with whom I’ve done business believe in the large and powerful body of research on the bottom-line value of inclusive economies: boards with more women return greater shareholder value, hiring bias doubles the likelihood of going out of business, LGBT entrepreneurs create millions of jobs (that’s mine!), and so much more. These companies have invested heavily in improving recruiting from under-represented groups, particularly at early career positions, and yet their internal numbers barely change. The tech industry in particular has taken a lead in publishing the demographics of their workforce but have precious little to show for their efforts.
The explanation, shouted loudly and with quite a lot of lobbying money, is “pipeline!” “There aren’t enough queer people in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). We couldn’t find a qualified black fund manager. This great junior executive left to have a baby. It’s not our fault!” (This is at least considerably more persuasive than the other common response, “Peter Thiel! Barack Obama! Ivanka Trump! See, there is no problem at all!” At which point I either begin weeping or punching. And didn’t Peter Thiel drive the website that outed him out of business?)
The pipeline phenomenon is real, at least on its surface. A number of studies have shown that high-performing students of color drop out of school and women often leave the business world rather than pursue executive positions, despite the fact that both groups report feeling capable and qualified. In fact, a recent study by Raj Chetty and colleagues was highlighted in The Atlantic for showing that the gender wage gap was even worse for Ivy League alumni.
“In their early 20s, Ivy League women keep up with men. They graduate with higher GPAs and start at similar salaries. But somewhere between age 26 and 34, their male classmates advance professionally at a pace they don’t match." They suggest that because their husbands earn more, these women are more likely to sacrifice their careers. And another study shows that “women are less likely to apply for executive roles if they’ve been rejected before.” (Due in part to lack of federal funding, there is a great dearth of this research on LGBT populations.)
Collectively, these findings seem to point to choice as the culprit: the choice to not study STEM fields; the choice to drop out of college; the choice to leave the executive track. So, corporate America has tackled this like any other choice problem: marketing. They attack their pipeline problems with campaigns to educate young people about “better” career choices.
I’ve approached similar questions in my own research, drawing from my work in other fields like theoretical neuroscience and educational technology. Applying machine learning and big data to analyze workplace bias revealed what I call the Tax on Being Different, the quantifiable cost of not being a straight white male in the workplace. It is paid in the form of additional degrees, longer work histories, more prestigious schools, and generally having to over-prove yourself. I found that being gay in the U.K. costs $70,000 on average more than being straight, largely in longer work tenures. Being a lesbian in the East Asian tech industry comes with a bill approaching $1.2 million in additional education and time (intersectionality is a bitch). The Tax can be averaged across a whole industry or it can be computed down to specific cases, such as “What’s The Tax on being black and gay at ExxonMobil in Houston?” Most meaningfully though, it is a pervasive disincentive to anyone who’s different; an implicit message that your hard work won’t pay off.
As it turns out, The Tax says something very different about choice and pipelines. Imagine that Congress passed an “enhanced” income tax on gays. Above and beyond everyone else, the more income you earn, the larger the bite. You’d have to work harder just to achieve the same outcomes. It doesn’t take an economics degree for young gays to internalize this tax and give up on traditional careers. Very soon they’d choose to focus their lives on fun or family and anything else that can’t be taxed. It would be ridiculous to claim that these choices meant gays prefer raising families over working. We can try to convince them to “choose” a career in STEM or to “lean in,” but what sort of a choice is working twice as hard for half the outcomes when other options are available. If Congress passed this same tax, at different levels, on women and blacks and people with disabilities, their choices would also dramatically shift over time. This is what the Tax on Being Different does everyday, to all of these groups. As my brilliant wife says, “Choice is fundamentally inequitably distributed.”
Choices aren’t only about participating or not. The range of options include code switching, being one of the guys, leaning in, staying in the closet, going stealth... so many choices to be someone other than you. For most of my life the “choice” of gender transition meant sacrificing everything — not just career, family, and friends, but every impact I had ever hoped to have on the world. How selfish to choose happy over good. Yet every good thing I’ve accomplished in my life, as a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, and a parent, has come as a woman proudly open about my transition. How many amazing lives have never been lived because The Tax imposed a different choice?
Diversity programs that focus only on entry-level hiring cannot solve this problem, but there is a surprisingly simple message that can have a huge impact: a picture of the company’s leadership team. This may be the most powerful story your company will ever tell a potential future leader. I found that company-by-company as the percentage of straight white men in the boardroom and C-Suit increases, so does the tax, the pay gap, and the pipeline problems. Even companies with large (and expensive) diversity and inclusion programs but limited evidence of diversity at the top (e.g., Walmart) still impose a larger tax than similar companies with significant leadership diversity (e.g., P&G). Those Ivy League women that appear to choose family over the executive ranks are significantly more likely to stay at companies with greater diversity in senior leadership. Would straight white men choose any differently if they saw no one like them at the top? The evidence is in every West Virginia mining town and Kansas farm. “Different” is more than skin deep.
Real inclusion is more than a photo-op, but why would anyone commit years of their lives to working twice as hard with no evidence that it will ever pay off? Companies must stop waiting passively at one end of a pipeline for the world to solve their problem. Leadership comes from the top.
I’ve founded a few companies and served on several boards, all since transitioning. That simple fact tells every little kid who feels different that their hard work truly can pay off. I’m proud to be a trans woman in a position of leadership, and even more so that I’m not the only one. I’m particularly proud to have been elected this year the Chair of StartOut, the nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number, diversity, and impact of LGBT entrepreneurs. With our research and advocacy, StartOut is helping a whole new generation of leaders to realize their full potential. There was no one like me growing up, but for kids today that will never be true again.