Diversity has become an important topic in the board room in recent years. And whilst inclusion is relevant to many sections of society, the prominence of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) leaders in the Fortune 500 is notably thin on the ground.
In fact, some claim that the only openly gay CEO in that group of companies is Apple chief Tim Cook, who publicly came out in October 2014.
And yet the LGBTI community is increasingly getting backing from big business, both in terms of funding and corporate networks that are springing up. Some have even criticised Pride festivals for losing their political roots and for becoming too corporate – just becoming an opportunity for companies to show that they’re doing their bit.
So is LGBTI inclusion just lip service for companies? Why aren’t there many identifiable LGBTI leaders in the world’s top companies?
I’ve written previously on this topic, particularly about how being part of the LGBTI community can leave you subject to silent discrimination. Because being gay or lesbian isn’t always visibly obvious, and in fact many hide it to protect themselves, which leads to all sorts of problems.
That being said, corporations have a huge amount of influence, and as we have seen with Salesforce in the United States, can really make a difference when it comes to LGBTI rights.
And so, when The Economist invited me to their inaugural Pride and Prejudice event in London this week, which focused on LGBTI inclusion in the workplace, I thought it a good opportunity to hear from some of the world’s largest companies about how they’re tackling this particular area of diversity.
One of the highlights of the day was listening to two of the world’s most influential technology companies talk about why LGBTI inclusion is critical to the success of their business, as well as the challenges they face in making it happen.
IBM’s VP and MD of intellectual property licensing, Claudia Brind-Woody, and Facebook’s VP of growth, marketing, analytics and internationalization, Alex Schultz, both explained to attendees about the importance of recruiting people from all intersections of society.
IBM’s Brind-Woody began by explaining that corporations have three options when it comes to operating an LGBT inclusion policy, particularly when based in countries that perhaps don’t have as liberal views as the western world.
She said that there is the ‘when in Rome’ model, which means that the company adopts the culture and laws of the country within which they operate. Secondly, there is the ‘embassy model’, which ensures that employees feel safe within the four walls of their company, no matter what they identify as, regardless of the laws and cultures of the country. Thirdly, there is the ‘advocate model’, which sees companies advocate values to help change the culture of where they operate.
She said that IBM’s approach varies. Brind-Woody said:
We look at those models wherever we are, and I’d like to think mostly we are advocate, but there are places in the world where we use the embassy model, where safety of our employees is the first thing. And that has to be the first thing.
However, IBM believes that LGBTI inclusion is central to it’s core ethos of innovation. She added:
We consider it to be very important to innovation. Innovation is part of our DNA, which is really consistent with valuing diversity. I think it’s about the productivity and being able to put together high performance teams. Valuing the differences in thought and also pulling out of everybody their differences, so that you can recognise them, bring them to the table to solve problems. It is creating that high performance team that we see importance to us.
Facebook’s Schultz agreed and said that diversity has been central to the social network’s values since day one. He added that if you want the best talent, it doesn’t make sense to exclude huge groups of people based on their sexuality, gender or race. Schultz said:
Facebook has been very vocal about diversity and inclusion, from women’s issues, to #blacklivesmatter. It’s just incredibly clear that from a recruiting perspective if you want to get the best talent, you want to recruit from all pools.
He added that diversity is also becoming incredibly important to the younger generation, even if individuals within that generation are not from a minority background. Schultz said:
Also if you want to recruit the best people in the millennial generation, it’s really important to that generation that you are a workplace that values diversity. Even if they themselves are not from a diverse background.
Our growth team, when we started it off, one of our two product managers was a woman. That’s rare. Two of us, a quarter of the leadership team were gay. Three of us were born outside of the USA. It was an incredibly diverse team and I think the results speak for themselves, in terms of growing Facebook.
People from diverse backgrounds bring a lot to the table because of struggles they have gone through and that makes things better.
As mentioned above, being part of the LGBTI community can sometimes mean that you hide behind not
having to tell people where you identify. That’s not always the case, often it’s just easier to just not say anything and go along with the assumption that you’re straight.
This can lead to awkward questions about what you do with your time, your social and family life, and it means leaving a huge part of you at home. IBM’s Brind-Woody believes that this is the detriment to the company, as it means trust isn’t being built. She said:
What’s wrong with that is that we build trust through connecting with our common DNA. And for straight people who say “don’t ask, don’t tell, just keep it away from the work environment”, they’re also the ones that are saying “oh I’m going to my son or my daughter’s football game”. And I don’t immediately think “how did you get that daughter?
We all bring who we are into the workplace and that’s how you build trust. For a closeted gay person, the toughest question is ‘what did you do at the weekend?’. If my team doesn’t know me, they don’t trust me. And it’s in those trust relationships that you can be creative, that you can try new things and build a high performance team that works together.
So how do you ensure that LGBTI inclusion isn’t just lip service, it isn’t just something you throw money at, but you actively embrace? Both IBM and Facebook said that this requires tackling it from all angles and being active in your approach. Brind-Woody said:
For us it’s everything. We started with the top-down model, where our CEO said diversity is important and assigned senior leaders there. We have the grassroots diversity networks, which are very, very important. We also do a lot of training in the middle.
One of the most productive things we have done is reverse mentoring with senior leaders or middle management, to help them understand the workplace climate. I think you have to come at it from every aspect to make the workplace climate open and accepting and genuine – not just lip service. Having people getting it with their hearts.
Facebook’s Schultz added:
Our network is run by our chief product officer, who is straight, which is absolutely amazing. To have him as the executive sponsor of our LGBT network, which gives us the top-down element, as well as the bottom-up element.
We are obviously very strong advocates of using social media at work, so we have open conversations in the company. If you can encourage conversation, a civil conversation internally, you will find that things can move in a very positive direction.
Great to hear two technology companies talking so publicly about the importance to diversity and LGBTI inclusion. I do think things are changing – at least in the USA and the UK – but there is still an incredibly long way to go. Far too many people feel like they can’t be themselves at work and as a result don’t feel secure and will inevitably not give all of themselves to their work.
That being said, another thing that came out of the session was the idea of unconscious bias and that everyone has their prejudices, no matter how hard you try not to. Which I absolutely agree with. But as soon as you are aware of your unconscious bias, the more likely you are to not automatically adhere to it.
And as has been noted, this isn’t about doing diversity for diversity’s sake. This is about building teams that reflect the customers you serve and building teams that are full of diverse, creative ideas. That can only be a good thing.
Disclosure - Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner at time of writing.