From: Issue 41
Does being gay or lesbian in the corporate world give you an advantage or limit your career?
Twenty-five presidents and chief executive officers from around the world gathered in June at the Toronto headquarters of consulting giant McKinsey & Company to discuss issues of common concern.
The theme of the conference was leadership, but the conversation came with a twist. All of the executives in attendance were gay, each of them members of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), an international support network of 20,000 corporate leaders under the age of 50.
“It was the first time a gay CEO conference had ever been held in Canada,” said Andreas Souvaliotis, founder of Air Miles for Social Change, a division of reward-program pioneer LoyaltyOne, and its president at the time.
Souvaliotis described the gathering as a chance to share experiences and showcase Canada as a success story for gay integration. But even as a society known to be accepting and tolerant, there’s evidence that the corporate world may be lagging – not just in Canada, but around the world.
“It’s stunning that within the YPO, with over 800 members in Canada, I am the only openly gay CEO in this country,” said Souvaliotis, who considers the organization a barometer of the larger CEO population. “Out of about 20,000 members worldwide we only have about 40 who belong to this global gay and lesbian group within the organization. In other words, just over two in 1,000 are gay.”
According to 2009 survey results from Statistics Canada, 1.1 per cent of the population identifies as gay or lesbian. Based on the YPO numbers, the number of gay or lesbian presidents or CEOs represents just 0.13 per cent of that executive population. Worldwide it’s only slightly better at 0.2 per cent.
It raises several questions. Are there more top executives out there who have yet to publicly reveal themselves as gay? If so, is it because they worry about the repercussions it might have on their careers? Of those who have come out of the closet, have they experienced it as a career-limiting move – what some in the gay community call the “pink ceiling”? How does the environment in Canada compare, say, to the United States?
“My theory is that the corporate environment lags the general social environment, but not by that much,” said Souvaliotis. “The business world, by definition, has always been a little stiffer than society in general on this issue.”
But the trend is encouraging, he added, pointing out that as boomers retire and corporate employee bases get younger, the workplace is becoming increasingly “colour blind” to sexual orientation.
Not to say that all industries are on the same path. Souvaliotis said companies in technology, marketing, financial services and other knowledge-based sectors tend, in his experience, to be more orientation agnostic. Blue-collar industries have taken longer to adjust. “The less education and social education required in an industry… the slower the adoption,” he said.
An online survey on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers, conducted in August 2011 by Angus Reid Public Opinion, found that 61 per cent of gays and 73 per cent of lesbians in Canada felt it was important to be “out” in the workplace. But some are still keeping it to themselves. Indeed, of those choosing not to disclose their sexual orientation, three in 10 said they were worried about the negative consequences. Half said they simply didn’t feel the need or thought it was anyone’s business to know.
Jaideep Mukerji, managing director of Angus Reid Public Opinion, said a not-so-insignificant proportion still believe they will experience social exclusion and ridicule, workplace harassment, or be passed over for promotions. It’s a fear that shouldn’t exist in the 21st century, said Darrell Schuurman, co-founder of the Canadian Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which collaborated on the survey. “Corporate Canada needs to do a much better job encouraging their employees to feel comfortable and be themselves at work.”
More companies are stepping up, if the growing corporate partnerships with Pride at Work Canada are any indication. The group, founded in 2008, pushes for companies to recognize that LGBT employees are a crucial part of a diverse workforce.