This week, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) officially declared a state of emergency for LGBTQIA+ Americans in light of the unprecedented spike in anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. In this year alone, more than 525 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills have been introduced in House senates across the country. The HRC has released a guidebook to help LGBTQIA+ individuals navigate the increasingly hostile climates when traveling, seeking healthcare, or searching for new jobs in safer states.
Corporate settings still aren’t faring better in welcoming this community. While there’s certainly more awareness, that doesn’t always turn into inclusion. More than 75% of LGBTQIA+ women still fear coming out at work today, according to an April myGwork survey of more than 2,000 LGBTQIA+ women and non-binary professionals. Seven out of ten respondents said they still experience discrimination at work, with even higher rates reported by those who belong to additional marginalized communities. Nearly 80% of participants said it was tougher for LGBTQIA+ women and non-binary people to advance their careers than heterosexual cisgender women.
lesbian women say it's tougher for LGBTQIA+ women and non-binary people to advance their careers than heterosexual cisgender womenAccording to an April 2023 myGwork survey
Queer Chief Members say they still experience discrimination and sidelining as senior executives, and talk about how lonely it feels once they are in the C-Suite.
In her first Fortune 500 job, Chief Member Lindsay Stuiber worked in an extremely conservative workplace that was touted as being a performance-based environment with unlimited growth potential. “But in order to be successful there — and by successful I mean being liked by the people who decided who got promoted — I had to strip away being a woman and being queer,” she says. While these identities were not a secret, they weren’t talked about. As she rose through the company, she would hear people in leadership speak about women and gay people in derogatory ways.
As she changed roles and the wider culture evolved to be less outwardly homophobic, she found at least she was getting asked less invasive questions like “Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?” But she would still encounter colleagues who would say wildly inappropriate things based on her sexual orientation, and not often face immediate consequences.
Chief Member Saeyoung Cho, Chief Strategy Officer at Captiv8, came out later in life, and noticed a definite before-and-after feeling at work. “[Coming out] changed how I felt I was perceived within the leadership group,” says Cho. “Before when I would advocate for initiatives around diverse creators or pride, I felt I was being heard as a leader and as an expert, but after, it was as a member of that community. It didn't have the same credibility when it really should have more.”
These examples are far too common today, despite the outward rainbow washing, where companies use rainbow colors or imagery to performatively signify support for LGBTQIA+ causes without backing it up with actual, tangible action or supportive policies. To drive impactful change that’s felt on an interpersonal level, leaders must start with having a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, heterosexism, and transphobia — all the way up to the board level.
“If your Chief Technology Officer is saying veiled homophobic stuff, if he only promotes men, somebody needs to tell them to stop it,” says Stuiber, who now works as Head of People at SNOW Diamonds. But if the board doesn’t agree with firing as a consequence, HR leaders' hands can often be tied into what they can do. It has to be the executives who apply the consequences proactively, because if they don’t, the people will take the matter in their own hands. In the face of discrimination, Stuiber has seen staff with less power create their own lists and documents, conduct their own investigation until they have enough information, and then present the dossier. At that point, the leaders are again forced to confront an issue they could have dealt with assertively from the start.
Organization leaders also play an important role in fostering an environment of more awareness and empathy. Even relatively simple actions like creating a space for pronouns can reflect a more welcoming culture. “If you start by saying, ‘Hi, my name is Saeyoung, my pronouns are she/her,’ it gives everyone an opportunity to do so without assuming based on visuals or presentation,” says Cho.
Benefits say a lot about who and what a company values. More inclusive benefits might include options like gender-affirming care, fertility benefits, and IVF coverage, particularly for LGBTQIA+ couples who may be excluded from insurance coverage for fertility treatments due to not qualifying as “infertile” according to health insurance policies. Family planning, therefore, can cost up to $150,000 and more for LGBTQIA+ couples than for heterosexual couples.
As the country continues to politicize this community with heightened anti-LGBTQ+ backlash against corporations showing support, company leaders should firmly discuss and align on their values along with potential responses when they take a public stand. “If you’re profiting from this community, without being willing to be there when things get tough, that sets a dangerous precedent,” says Cho.
A lack of inclusivity also causes retention problems. According to the myGwork survey, seven out of 10 respondents said they would leave an employer for failing to provide an inclusive workplace or not working hard enough to achieve gender equality.
Cho eventually switched companies in part to more fully embrace her identity in the workplace. She is still the only queer person on the executive and leadership team, which can often feel lonely, but she also feels a responsibility to be vocal and visible for the next generation of queer leaders.
"Coming out is a process. It’s not one and done — you do it for the rest of your life," says Cho. “I see it as an advantage and I’m never going to want to work for a stuffy company that robs myself of anything but being loud and proud."
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