A rather startling statistic to come to light during The Economist’s Pride & Prejudice event in London is that over 60 per cent of LGBT graduates go back into the closet when starting their careers. Of course, there’s no overt link between this and workplace homophobia; choosing how open to be about your sexuality in certain situations is a daily dilemma for many LGBT people, and going back into the closet is something that can be done for any number of personal or professional reasons throughout somebody’s life.
All the same, 60 per cent is an un-ignorable number. Perhaps young candidates feel the need to fit in with their new colleagues. Maybe they are simply assumed straight by default, which makes coming out even more difficult and awkward. Or is there a very real fear that they will be treated differently, overlooked for progression, and even harassed, should they happen to mention a same-sex partner?
What makes this a problem that companies should urgently be addressing is that there is also research that indicates employees who come out are 30 per cent more productive. In terms of strengthening your own competitive advantage, fostering LGBT inclusivity is a no-brainer. “I think we tend to over-intellectualise these areas,” says Sir Martin Sorrell. “It’s in the interest of these firms to do good… There’s a clear, long-term economic benefit.”
Vivienne Ming is the founder of seven start-ups. As a trans woman, she has the unique perspective of having pitched to VCs while being perceived as a man, pre-transition, and as a woman, post-transition. And she is here to tell us that there is “a very real tax” on people who aren’t straight, white, and male. Gay men, women in tech, gay trans women in tech — the cost of competing, through additional degrees, better references, or a more polished resume, can amount to thousands of dollars. “It’s just heat loss in our economy,” says Ming. “We have failed to value people appropriately.”
One important thing missing from the current diversity discussion is substantial data. This conversation is still so new that no metrics have been defined, especially in the infant number of openly transgender professionals. But if you can compute the cost of discrimination, then you can put it on a balance sheet and show it to your investors. They will very likely have something to say about it. “I want to go beyond social justice and into self-interest,” says Ming. “Think of this in a greedy, rational way.”
Diversity is more than just a tick in a box
One of the motifs which kept cropping up across the Hong Kong, London and New York segments of The Economist’s event is the notion of a “race to the top,” the idea that companies are becoming fully engaged by the prospect of growing diverse, talented teams and want to be perceived as forward-thinking when it comes to supporting their LGBT employees. But as Economist Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes is quick to remind everyone, this isn’t a simple box-ticking exercise, and certain organisations have more work to do than others when it comes to walking the walk.
For instance, Avanade CEO Adam Warby’s claims that he wants Avanade to become a “destination employer” for the LGBT community inside the next five years are highly optimistic, when he freely admits that they only started thinking about incorporating LGBT people into their diversity and inclusion strategies five years ago. Similarly, AXA’s Deputy CEO Denis Duverne has stated that he would like AXA to become a “role model company” in this space, even though LGBT issues weren’t added to their diversity agenda until 2014.
So what should businesses be prioritising? According to multiple panelists, visibility and role models are critical criteria. This means more openly gay leadership; something which will undoubtedly take time, given that Apple CEO Tim Cook only felt able to publicly discuss his sexuality less than two years ago.
Alex Schultz, VP of Growth Marketing at Facebook, recalls how ten years ago while working at eBay, he was told that it would be bad for his career to be openly gay. “Now,” he says, “it would be bad for my career to be in the closet.” Schultz is actively involved in Facebook University, a programme which reaches out to female, PoC and LGBT students from backgrounds who might not have been thinking about a career in technology, who in another ten years will be able to take leadership roles.
But to some, 2026 is too far away. “We’ve got to be impatient,” says Benny Higgins, Group Strategy Director at Tesco. “It’s not a corporate philosophy, it’s a human decency issue.”