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GE Digital’s Deborah Sherry - why diversity and equality add up to productivity

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman December 3, 2017
Openness, happiness and workplace productivity are all strongly aligned, says the chief commercial officer of GE’s digital transformation arm.

Deborah Sherry

What does the closet cost employees and employers? In 2014, a study carried out by the Human Rights Campaign found that more than six out of ten (62%) LGBT university graduates born between 1980 and 2000 go back in the closet when they start their first job.

In other words, they feel it necessary to ‘hide in plain sight’, concealing who they truly are, says the report, with detrimental effects on their output, their engagement with coworkers and their overall sentiment towards their job.

That’s not a situation that Deborah Sherry, senior vice president and chief commercial officer at GE Digital, would want to see in any organization where she worked. It’s not only bad for personal happiness, she says, but it’s bad for business, too:

There’s an overwhelming body of evidence out there that shows that, when you’re able to bring your whole self to work and be open about who you are, you’re much more productive. For people to be successful in their jobs, they need to be themselves. Openness, happiness and output are strongly aligned.

Open for Business

Some of that evidence, incidentally, comes from Open For Business, a business coalition that works to combat the spread of anti-LGBT discrimination across the world, which Sherry helped launch in 2015, prior to joining GE.

Today, her work in promoting equality and supporting diversity, both inside GE and in the wider business world, continues to be wide-ranging. She is an active member and executive sponsor of GLBTA, the GE-wide Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transexual and Ally Alliance, which was formed in 2005 and has chapters in more than 28 countries and well over 100 cities around the world. Outside of GE, she supports and speaks at Lesbian who Tech, EurOUT and Stonewall, as well as Open For Business.

Last month, she featured on the FT’s OUTstanding list of top 100 LGBT+ business leaders. She was “thrilled” to be included, she says.

I’m a very open person. I’m married to a woman, I make no secret of who I am and I’ve always been committed making sure that nobody in my workplace has to go through the tough stuff that some of us had to go through in earlier days when things were far more difficult. So I spend a lot of energy, day to day, making sure that GE offers an open and diverse environment and team, that we’re recruiting fairly, promoting fairly and everyone really is comfortable to be themselves at work, that work is seen as a place of equality and safety.

Equality and safety at work

So does that mean that Sherry has not always felt that equality and safety herself, at earlier stages in her career, at other companies?:

Sure - and even pre-work. I came out in the 1980s when it wasn’t really ‘the done thing’ and I was kicked out of my shared house at university and slept in my car for the first few nights. The world has not always been easy and, even as we make great strides forward, there’s always more work to be done.

Experiences like that meant that, despite her profile today as an LGTB leader, she was not always out at work in the early stages of her career, she says:

I was aware of colleagues who would be uncomfortable with it, but I started to realise that, by not being open, it might impact on my career and my ability to be a leader. Even when I did decide to be more open, I remember comments from senior people in the business: ‘Yeah fine, but you’d never tell the clients, right?’ They were trying to be supportive, but the message was very clear that they were still learning how to be comfortable with diversity. That’s a process that we’re far from done working on.

Sherry says she is “incredibly proud” of the work GE has done - and continues to do - in this respect, in addition to its internal efforts through GLBTA. In 2016, the company joined other major US corporations, including Hyatt Hotels, PepsiCo, Dow Chemicals, Salesforce and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, to sign an open letter to Mississippi lawmakers, urging them to repeal the ‘Religious Liberty Accommodation Act’ (HB 1523) - a measure allowing almost any individual or organization to use religious belief as justification for discrimination against the LGBT community in the state.

Around the same time, it joined 68 major companies on Human Rights Campaign’s amicus brief, in support of the US Department of Justice’s effort to block North Carolina’s very similar HB2 law. It is a silver-level supporter of next year’s Gay Games in Paris. Says Sherry:

It’s really important to me that my company supports diversity. I couldn’t work at a company that didn’t. It’s important to me in choosing a job, certainly, but it’s also important that I can continue to push for making work a better place for the LGBT community.

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