Coming out in the boardroom

Written by: Dave Waller Posted: 06/03/2013

Boardroom chairsWhile homosexuality may be more acceptable now in everyday life than in years gone by, unfortunately the same can't be said for the higher echelons of business. Dave Waller investigates what needs to be done to increase the acceptance of lesbians and gay men in senior positions.

Is sexuality the last taboo in the boardroom? Ask Lord Browne. The former BP boss found out the hard way what can happen when one's private life suddenly blows up like an offshore oil disaster. In 2006 it was the lies Browne told to the High Court over his gay lover that brought a brutal end to his esteemed 41 years with the oil giant, rather than the fact that he had a gay lover in the first place. But his case also illustrates a wider ill – Browne had apparently become so used to having to hide his sexuality in his professional life that he didn't think anything of misleading the highest court in the land too.

Sexuality may not hold people back in sectors like culture and the media – even politics boasts more out MPs than ever before – but few would argue that boardrooms of major institutions are comfortable with homosexuality. Indeed, in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers 2013 – the ‘definitive list of Britain's most gay-friendly workplaces' – while Accenture takes the top spot and Barclays, IBM and Ernst & Young all rank in the top 10, the rest of the list comprises primarily of councils, police forces, universities and NHS Trusts.

When Lord Browne began airing his views on the City last year it made for a wearying read. Here's a gay man who rose through his company to become one of the leading figures in the oil industry, a sector he described in The Telegraph as a “very macho and sometimes homophobic environment”, where “it was immediately obvious to me that it was unacceptable to be gay”. And energy isn't the only sector to suffer in this way. As he also noted: “There appear to be no out gay chief executive officers in the top companies listed on the FTSE.” Browne is now partner at private-equity group Riverstone, and estimates that of the people he knows in this sector “less than one per cent are openly gay”.

Which isn't to say we haven't made any progress – note the likes of Ashley Steel, the openly gay Vice Chairman of KPMG. But individuals such as Steel are the exceptions that prove the rule, and are often the first to say there's still progress to be made. “Lots of people complain that I didn't come out until I was a partner,” says Steel. “And they said the same of Lord Browne, who didn't for all that time as CEO of BP. But those who are critical tend not to realise that life 10 years ago was so different to now. We've come a long way towards understanding, but not the full way.”

Fear of the unknown

In 2003, the UK introduced laws to help tackle workplace discrimination, covering sexuality as well as race and gender. The Channel Islands are finally looking to introduce similar legislation this year. The question is, will it make any difference? The issue in the UK isn't so much about overt prejudice against gay people. Often it's simply that a company's culture isn't sufficiently open to give gay people confidence that coming out will be accepted, and this leaves many stuck on the idea that they have an impossible choice to make: being open about their true sexual identity or succeed in their career.

“The reality is that many would like to come out and be themselves but they just can't be sure it's going to be OK,” says Steel. “So they play safe. I did. And hiding my identity like that for years undoubtedly affected me. It meant I had to work harder, to be careful what I said and how I behaved. These were pressures that my colleagues didn't have, and it's very hard.”

Steel's personal experience is backed by research from The Center for Talent Innovation in the US. Its Power of ‘Out' survey found that 48 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) respondents report remaining ‘closeted' at work, but it was ‘out' workers who seemed to stand a better chance of being promoted. Some 42 per cent of closeted employees said they felt isolated at work, against only 24 per cent of openly LGBT employees.

Browne cited similar experiences at BP, that the weight of hiding his identity was a burden that made success even harder. But that's not to say responsibility rests solely within homosexual minds. While a company may not explicitly discriminate, and may even have an official gay-friendly policy in place, individuals within the company may still possess a bias against gay people. For some managers this may be unconscious, where they simply drop in assumptions about wives and kids, or indulge the habit of promoting others who seem most like them.

Others exhibit more odious habits. “I've been in financial publishing for 13 years,” says Nick Kirby, businesslife.co's openly gay Editorin- Chief. “And I've seen first-hand and heard of both insidious and blatant homophobia at some of the UK's largest organisations. I had a friend who worked at Morgan Stanley who was asked: ‘What did you do at the weekend, dance around in a dress?' It's largely puerile stuff from the type of person who hasn't moved on from the schoolyard, yet it can veer from the snide to the downright aggressive.”

Positive steps

If this sort of ribbing is hard to endure, it's similarly hard to monitor too. The Channel Islands don't currently have any legislation around homophobia in the workplace, but in Jersey the Scrutiny Panel is currently looking at a draft discrimination law, which will cover sexuality along with race and gender and is likely to be introduced this year. But with discrimination often so intangible, it's hard to imagine how legislation can really be effective.

“It's an incredibly difficult issue to police,” says Carl Parslow, Founder of Parslow's, a Jersey law office. “How do you get the evidence that coming out has caused you not to get the promotion that you would have if you weren't gay?” Parslow's feeling is that the Channel Islands' experience will mirror that of the UK. When reports following the UK discrimination law asked victims whether, with the new laws in place, they'd be more or less likely to take up their grievance, many said they'd still shy away from complaining. “It's not empowering people, as they're still concerned about their career progress,” says Parslow. “Yes the regulation is in place, but it'll still take years to get to grips with it.”

So what are the solutions? Many companies now offer support for LGBT employees. As with the laws, this is a positive step, yet it's easy to imagine this alone won't stop some making decisions based on prejudice. All it takes is one line manager with their own issues or old-school outlook to totally affect someone's behaviour and self-perception.

Companies must do all they can to be seen to be promoting on merit, ensuring they adhere to all the policies and train managers to identify workplace discrimination and act when it happens. Browne feels change needs “rigorous performance measurement”, the establishment of “concrete targets”. Meanwhile organisations such as Out on the Street (see opposite) in the US have emerged to promote communication on the issue.

As usual, it should flow from the top: the more senior gay people speak out, the easier it will be for junior staff to do so. “Those at the top of companies aren't sending out clear enough signals that it's OK to be out,” says Steel. “Until this happens, people will simply ask: ‘why risk it?'”

The good news is that while the Channel Islands' legislation may be slow coming in, that doesn't reflect the attitude of its population. ‘Provincial' here isn't a by-word for ‘backward'. Steven Laffoley-Edwards, who is in a civil partnership and was instrumental in the campaign that succeeded in getting Civil Partnerships accepted in Jersey in April 2012, says the Channel Islands are a tolerant place. “We were ready with all the stats to back up the argument, but when it came down to it they all said ‘yeah, of course, that makes sense'. They didn't even need the evidence. The law was simply catching up with the will of the people.”

Indeed, while businesslife.co knows of a number of out gays and lesbians working in top law firms, financial services companies and government on the Channel Islands, all were unwilling to speak to us – not because they were concerned by perception, but more that they didn't want to be seen as a ‘poster boy' (or girl) for an issue that they didn't feel actually is an issue. The islands may well be ahead of the mainland on that point at least. with the will of the people.”

What lies at the root of this whole issue is society. There are any number of deeply entrenched reasons why some are reluctant to accept homosexuality, from religion to family upbringing. And while the general acceptance of gay marriage these days shows that people have less of a problem with it, track record suggests it may be a while before financial institutions are absolutely open. “The UK's business world is still dominated and driven by straight white men,” says Steel. “We haven't even sorted out the gender or race issues yet – let alone sexuality.”

Out on the Street

‘The Street' in this LGBT leadership organisation's name is Wall Street, showing its financial institutions still need a kick up the backside when it comes to equality. Out on the Street's stated mission is ‘to engage both gay and straight senior leaders in discussions around making the Street a destination for top talent, and to enhance the careers of LGBT senior leaders by creating connections to increase opportunities for business'.

It certainly packs the right kind of punch. Its leadership committee brings together figures at or above director level from such organisations as Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. As well as hosting annual summits, it's released a series of white papers called Thinking Outside the Closet: How Leaders Can Leverage the LGBT Talent Opportunity.

And it's not just happening in the US. Out on the Street held its first European summit in the UK in 2012, encouraging the likes of Lord Browne to speak publicly on the issue for the first time. If leaders on this side of the pond follow suit, trickledown change may be just a matter of time.


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