All of us have reveled in the magic moment that takes place the first time a member of a marginalized community reaches a position of power. We all remember election night in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected as the first black president. We celebrated when Tammy Baldwin was elected as America’s first openly LGBTQ senator, and when Danica Roem became the first openly transgender person to win a seat in a state legislature.
Why are these moments so powerful? It’s because we know that these trailblazers have achieved what may have once been considered impossible, and opened the doors of possibility for others. They are role models who demonstrate that once marginalized people can be authentic leaders. Their example and leadership send the powerful message: “You belong here. You can make it, because I made it, too.”
You and I know that there is a scarcity of openly LGBTQ leaders at the most senior levels of politics. The same is true when it comes to out senior leadership in the corporate sphere. While multinationals employ multitudes of talented LGBTQ candidates, research highlights a dearth of out LGBTQ representation in companies’ highest ranks. Our colleagues at Out Leadership have found that less than ½ of one percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have openly identified as LGBTQ. That number is even smaller when it comes to Board Directors. Anecdotally, we know that some increasingly downplay their LGBTQ identification as they reach more senior levels.
Of course, one of the biggest questions that comes up in the face of this data is: Why?
Why—despite the reality that large companies, now more than ever, strive towards LGBTQ workplace inclusion—are open LGBTQ leaders still underrepresented in the C-Suite? The answer to this question isn’t simple.
Pressures to conform in the workplace push against these ideals of inclusion. Yale Law professor, Kenji Yoshino, describes this phenomenon in his research on social dynamics in the workplace. Using a term called “covering,” Yoshino articulates how individuals with stigmatized identities go to great lengths to keep that particular stigma from looming large. Simply put, people hide or underplay important aspects of who they are for fear of making others uncomfortable, or of being seen as a stereotype or discriminated against.
In practice, covering is what we do to “fit in.” It’s a gay woman avoiding using her partner’s pronouns for fear of drawing attention to her same-gender relationship. It is a transgender man not correcting others when they use his deadname. It’s a senior executive who doesn’t bring his husband to a work event so as to not appear “too gay.” It’s a straight white man hiding a mental illness, a black woman who feels uncomfortable wearing her natural hair to work, a woman who downplays her status as a mother in order to be seen as a “more serious” working professional.
People of all backgrounds cover at work. One study found that 61% of individuals do it. But that number rises to 83% when looking at lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. (The study didn’t test for transgender and queer individuals). The impact here is not limited to the individual. Research by HRC lays out that a workplace environment that is unwelcoming to LGBTQ identities has serious negative results for businesses: reduced productivity, retention, and the ability to attract and retain talent, not to mention a lower sense of well-being.
Put simply: both individuals and companies lose when inclusion and belonging are not priorities.
A critical factor is whether there are openly LGBTQ people in senior leadership roles. The reality is that with less diversity in leadership, employees feel pressure to cover and fit into “a mold” in order to move up in the ranks. And these expectations employees’ commitments to their organizations, as they feel like they might not belong or are limited in their opportunities for advancement.
Leadership sets the stage for what’s appropriate in organizational culture. When leaders signal that conformity produces success, some cover and others leave. But when leaders signal that authenticity and diversity are valued and a priority, people stay and thrive.
Out & Equal exists to help companies create workplaces of true belonging for people at all levels. We have identified the lack of out executives as a strategic challenge for our mission. And, in the months ahead, we will be putting in place new efforts to address this need, and look forward to engaging you and your companies. Meanwhile, please share your struggles and triumphs in your path to leadership at firstname.lastname@example.org
Erin Uritus, CEO
Out & Equal Workplace Advocates