Where are all the LGBTQ+ CEOs, and what needs to change to make work more diverse?

This week diversity specialists INvolve announced findings revealing that there are currently no publicly out LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100; figures which haven’t improved for several years. In fact, there are now fewer LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100 than in 2018. Here, Suki Sandhu OBE, Founder and CEO of INvolve questions why there are so few LGBTQ+ CEOs in business and what must happen to change that…

INvolve, the global network championing diversity and inclusion in business, is calling for companies to collect data and set targets in order to increase LGBTQ+ representation.

While several companies have published public targets for gender and ethnically diverse representation but not LGBTQ+, leaving LGBTQ+ employees out in the cold when it comes to holding companies to account on diversity with hard data.

The call is timed alongside the launch of the annual INvolve OUTstanding LGBTQ+ Role Models Lists, which celebrates businesspeople playing a key role in breaking down barriers at work for LGBTQ+ individuals; using their positions to keep diversity and inclusion at the top of the agenda.

There are currently just four publicly out LGBT+ CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and no publicly out LGBT+ CEOs in the FTSE 100; and these figures haven’t improved for several years. In fact, there are now fewer LGBT+ CEOs in the FTSE 100 than in 2018.

Here, INvolve’s Founder and CEO, Suki Sandhu OBE, who was awarded his OBE in 2019 for services to diversity in business, has worked for nearly a decade on advising companies on how to improve diversity outlines what must change and how.

Diverse teams perform better. And yet, we are still presented with significant gaps in LGBTQ+ representation within organisations and witness poor and outdated approaches to making opportunities in our workplaces more equal and accessible for all.

Take the FTSE 100, for example. There are currently no publicly out LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100 and these figures have decreased in the last few years. Indeed, there are now fewer LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100 than in 2018. It’s concerning to see that this number has reduced, and even more so that the most visible companies in the country aren’t doing more when it comes to enhancing representation.

Where are all the LGBTQ+ CEOs?

As individuals rise through a company, there is usually a greater expectation for professional and personal lives to overlap, mostly through social and networking events. Personal lives will be in the spotlight both publicly and within the company itself, and this has the potential to be a barrier to promotion for professionals who are not out. Potential senior leaders may therefore find it hard to be out and in a senior leadership position.

It is important to consider the individual barriers that might be in place. Covering, for example, is the process by which people hide or downplay parts of their identity in order to ‘fit in’ with the majority. We have seen that 35 percent of LGBTQ+ and 51 percent of transgender employees in the UK disguised their identity at work for fear of discrimination. LGBTQ+ professionals are managing an array of obstacles alongside the pressures of their day jobs; from overcoming bias or discrimination or having to deal with the mental and emotional impact of coming out repeatedly to colleagues and clients. All of us have a role to play to ensure LGBTQ+ professionals have that access and opportunity to climb the corporate ladder.

Leaders need to recognise that embracing diversity and embedding it across each level of an organisation is crucial. It is this diversity that increases productivity, creativity, innovation - and sometimes we simply forget it is the right thing to do, it’s part of being human; welcoming your LGBTQ+ employees and making them feel like they belong. We must be mindful that LGBTQ+ inclusion does not fall behind diversity priorities on gender or race, but instead joins the overall call for accountability and action.

Things must change, but how?

In order to do this, several key things have to change. We need to have representation within organisations’ leadership teams, reflecting the diversity that makes up the thriving communities we live in. Taking this further, it is critical to see representation implemented through diverse candidate slates and talent pipelining that creates real, lasting change in the years to come.

It’s simple. Senior leaders must stop hiring individuals that fit their own image if they are serious about creating a diverse team. Instead of replacing a key hire with an external appointment, supporting talent from within the business to achieve this position should be a top priority. If LGBTQ+ employees are able to see executives that reflect their own personal lived experiences thrive within the organisation, it can go a long way in promoting diversity within the business. Using LGBTQ+ role models within an organisation also demonstrates that LGBTQ+ employees are championed and supported in the workplace. This also means that organisations need to implement policies and ensure that their employees are aware of the challenges and barriers faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in order to ensure they can be their authentic self at work.

A non-discrimination or equal opportunity policy is part of an LGBTQ+ affirming culture. In actioning this, you begin the pathway to a more inclusive culture; one that is careful to protect the rights and wellbeing of all LGBTQ+ staff – be they executive level, or anywhere else in the business.

Make employees aware of the importance of trans-inclusion, identify any potential negative homophobic attitudes in the workforce, educate staff on matters such as preferred pronouns, the use of facilities and harmful stereotypes. In encouraging the formation of LGBTQ+ employee networks and its participation in shaping organisational culture and policy, firms will create a formal channel of communication between employees and senior leadership teams. All of these steps will help to create a more LGBTQ+ inclusive culture.

Advice for organisations

Organisations should set targets to hold themselves to account and ensure that LGBTQ+ representation can increase across all levels of the business. This will also support their ability to create a talent pipeline of candidates that reflect the true diversity of the community they serve. By measuring and tracking LGBTQ+ data in hiring and retention (in the same way that many organisations do for gender and race), businesses are able to uncover where there may be challenges for LGBTQ+ inclusion that need to be addressed. Many organisations do nothing for fear of getting it ‘wrong’, yet measuring data gives them a goal to reach and a point to work up from.

The negative experiences for LGBTQ+ women in the workplace can also be exacerbated in comparison to their male colleagues. According to Stonewall research, a majority of lesbian/bisexual women feel that being a woman is of greater importance and significance to their experience of the workplace, while their sexual orientation is secondary – the fear of gender discrimination makes them more likely to hide their sexual orientation in the workplace, creating what they called a double-glazed glass ceiling for gay women.

The benefits are huge

Again, a lack of openly gay women in senior leadership roles will hinder motivation and confidence for employees to be open about their sexual orientation. Many trans women experience harassment, mistreatment or discrimination at work, as well as greater unemployment rates. Equally, they can also experience lack of career progression when or if they transition – adding a layer of gender discrimination. For both men and women, seeing role models succeed above and around them will go a long way in promoting an inclusive and accepting culture for LGBTQ+ employees. We have to see more access to leadership development programmes aimed specifically at LGBTQ+ employees, and a greater awareness and education on the significance of networks that focus on B/T+, not just the LG. Companies therefore need to elevate bi+ and trans voices.

If businesses are to benefit from the fresh perspectives of a diverse executive team, they must actively work to create an inclusive culture. There is still a lot of work to be done in order to make this inclusivity a reality for the LGBTQ+ workforce though. Whilst it is always incredibly encouraging to see businesses signalling their intention to support LGBTQ+ individuals, intentions and words are not enough. If employees feel as though they can come out at work, and bring their whole, authentic self to the office each day, then there will also be a positive impact on the engagement, atmosphere and output that they bring to the business.

INvolve, the global network championing diversity and inclusion in business, have released their OUTstanding Role Model Lists. Now in their 8th year, the OUTstanding lists celebrate LGBTQ+ leaders in business and can help to change perceptions and support more LGBTQ+ individuals to rise to the top of their organisations.

Image: Kelvin Muray/Getty

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