The Value of Diversity for LGBT+ People

The Value of Diversity for LGBT+ people

What is the Value of Diversity for LGBT+ People? This question is not always easy to answer, as there are many factors to be considered. Assessing the value of Diversity at an individual level is not just a question of the business case. It is something that touches many facets of our personal experience: self-acceptance, awareness, authenticity, performance, management style and leadership, just to name a few. As I mentioned in my post of last week, being out at work has helped me a lot, but I have been lucky in many ways as my journey spread across twenty years of practice.

For most members of the LGBT+ community, the Value of Diversity has a lot to do with visibility and awareness. “Coming Out” is a theme for many. While revealing one’s sexual orientation is a choice for LGB members, transgender people often don’t have that liberty: their transition is visible. And the issue with Transgender people is that only in June 2018 the WHO proposed to remove “gender incongruence” from the list of mental illnesses. In countries where some level of protection exists, this is often still linked top diagnosis of mental illness. Transgender people are still too often stigmatised and subject to multiple human rights violations. They are making this the next frontier of Human Rights, and a particularly delicate topic in terms of Inclusion policies.

June has been named “Pride Month” since a couple of years, and I’ve decided to use this occasion to examine what’s up with LGBTQ+ rights on the workplace. In a series of posts, I will try to explain my view and personal experience trying to see it from the different angles that I use in my blog.

  1. Personal: Myself, Out at Work.
  2. People: The value of Diversity for LGBT+ people (this post).
  3. Organisation: Designing for Belonging, not just Inclusion.
  4. Experience: Designing Inclusive Employee Experiences.
  5. Inspiration: 10 Essential Diversity and Inclusion Blogs.

I will also publish two book reviews on topics that are connected with Inclusion and Diversity. I’ve written more on the topic in the past. Two good places where to start are: The Business Case for Diversity and Belonging and From Diversity and Inclusion to Belonging.

A lot still has to be done.

When we think about LGBT+ Diversity, we often link this to acceptance and inclusion. Yet in many countries around the world, it is still a matter of basic Human Rights and some time of survival. Almost 3 billion people live in countries where consensual same-sex activity is criminalised. Although significant progress has been made in the last decade, the map below shows how much still needs to be done. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), being gay is punishable in 70 UN member states by imprisonment, torture or even death and not one country grants fully the same rights to LGBT+ people as their heterosexual counterparts.

The Value of Diversity for LGBT+ People 1
Fig.1: Map of sexual orientation laws, source: ILGA, State-Sponsored Homophobia.

Also, in regions where there is a general acceptance, such as the Americas or Western Europe, LGBT+ people are still prone to be subject to violence on the streets. 27% still reports having suffered physical assaults, even in countries where laws are protective. Data that also exceeds that of countries where homosexuality is a crime. Yet if the trend, for example, of legalising same-sex marriage has continuously developed over the last years, we see many countries offering a recrudescence of anti-gay behaviours (patterns can be found in Poland, Hungary, Russia etc.). And the situation in the workplace might be sometime even worse than in public society, especially in specific industries. Stonewall in the UK has developed a set of country-specific reports that go well in detail on this.

In this framework, it’s useful to assess how most societies around the world position themselves in terms of acceptance of LGBT+ people. A helpful framework is provided by the Center for Talent Innovation. The following figure summarises the concept: we can track four types of cultures:

  1. Those that perceive LGBT+ people as “sinners” and demand them to convert to heterosexuality.
  2. Those that as LGBT+ people to Pass for straight or cisgender, remaining closeted.
  3. Those that have started some forms of acceptance, but still ask LGBT+ people to cover or downplay their identity.
  4. Mature societies, where none of these demands is made anymore.
The Value of Diversity for LGBT+ People 2
Fig.2: The Maturity Curve: a Journey to Inclusion. Source: Center for Talent Innovation.

The above maturity curve does not necessarily apply only at a country level, but often also at smaller levels of society. We all know that, for example, there are still religious communities across the Americas and in Western Europe that advocate for conversion in case of LGBT+ “attitudes”.

A question of acronyms

One of the biggest problems for allies and people when trying to understand the LGBT+ movement is the proliferation of acronyms and labels in this world. To many labelling means being put in a box, and too many dislike it. But a big part of the LGBT+ movement started and developed by ensuring people would “own” the language of these terms.

Today many resorts to using a form of LGBT+ or LGBTQ+, simply because the longer form is way to difficult to remember: LGBTQQIP2SAA which includes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Pansexual, Two-Spirit, Asexual and Allies.

How can we help organisation mature more? I believe that the answer has to be sought in our attitudes and visibility. For example, it has been estimated that two-thirds of the recent historical change in attitudes toward same-sex marriage in the US is due to people who are personally affected by it one way or another. Most people start changing their position when they are personally involved, for example, by an LGBT+ friend or family member. But, for such a personal connection to happen, LGBT+ people need to “come out.”

The Cost of the Closet

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a US Based LGBT+ NGO, 46% of workers are closeted at the workplace. This is a partial improvement over the 2008 study figure, which was 50%, but it still shows the size of the issue. “Coming out” takes courage, and it is an ongoing process that LGB people have to face every time they meet someone new.

Coming out is something you never stop doing. You start by telling your friends and family. Then you tell new acquaintances or coworkers who invite you out for a drink. Even the telemarketers who call and ask if my wife is home. You don’t have to tell everyone you meet, of course, but coming out is something that accompanies your entire life.

Jay Bell, Something Like Winter, pg. 140,

In an excellent presentation by Claudia Brind-Woody from IBM in 2013, a focus on the cost of “being in the closet” was thoroughly illustrated by the concept of Thinking Twice. She reasoned that many LGB people are still afraid of coming out on the workplace because of three main reasons:

  • issues with safety and bullying;
  • because of lack of trust (which can take the form of fear of job loss, fear of missing career opportunities, or more in general people typically feel they can see only downsides in coming out);
  • because of issues with their family of origin, the governmental policies or acceptance from society in general.

The cost of “thinking twice” is brilliantly illustrated in the next figure, which is adapted from the original presentation of IBM. Many think that work-life can be easily separated from personal lives. But what happens when a simple question asked in front of the coffee machine, as innocuous as what did you do last weekend, pops to the ears of a person that is still “in the closet”? They will probably have to choose what to answer, and what to release of their personal lives.

The Value of Diversity for LGBT+ People 3
Fig.3: The Cost of Being in the Closet. Source: IMD

The issue is that often this “thinking twice” leads to self-isolation of many LGBT+ employees, with more than 30% feel they have sacrificed authenticity at work. What does it drive? Harmful energy levels for the individual that continually has to think about which answer to give.

Closet, Coming Out, Outing, what are these terms?

In the jargon of contemporary LGBT+ culture, those who hide their sexual identities are referred to as either closeted or said to be in the closet. Revealing one’s homosexuality is referred to as coming out (when this is done by the individual themselves) or as outing (when this is done referring to another person). Outing can often be seen as a personal attack, there are many historic cases of media assessing the homosexuality of politicians or actors for example.

The Importance of Role Models

In this context, it is highly essential to develop visibility also through Role Models. Especially in companies and firms around the world, it is essential to ensure that visibility is achieved through champions that can help carry the message that “diversity is good”, and that it is possible to come out successfully, also at work. Although all forms of diversity benefit from role models, the fact that LGB people are often “hidden” makes the need for publicly visible LGBT+ champions, even more, pressing questions.

If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.

Tim Cook, Tim Cook Speaks Up, Bloomberg

The case of Tim Cook is an excellent example. He came out publicly in an article on Bloomberg in 2014. He explained his pain, as a person that wanted to keep that part of life private. It got to the point where he thought, “I’m making the wrong call by trying to do something that is comfortable to me, which is to stay private.” A few years later, when asked if he had any regrets about revealing this part of his life, Cook simply affirmed: “No regrets.” His high visibility profile made him an excellent role model for many people in the workplace and also meant for Apple to become a much more thriving environment for LGBT+ employees.

The concept of Role Model doesn’t need to involve your CEO, though. Also, individuals that are not afraid of their visibility at any level in an organisation will help make the difference. Stonewall has, for example, advocated for a Role Model programme for some time and has established an exciting decalogue of good practices.

  1. Recognise the importance of role models. Lesbian, gay and bisexual role models help to attract talent. They demonstrate that you take Diversity seriously. Authentic role models challenge conventional perceptions, forge stronger client relationships and bring alternative perspectives to decision-making.
  2. Visible role models help show the way for others. It’s much harder to be what you can’t see. If there are no out lesbian, gay or bisexual role models at work, how can other gay people be sure they’ll be able to progress? Visible role models demonstrate organisational credibility around Diversity.
  3. Effective role models demonstrate self-awareness and authenticity. They think about who they are, the values they stand for and how they want to impact others. This is a continuing process, encouraged by their employers.
  4. A range of role models in an organisation enables people to come up with a mix that works for them. People rarely want to emulate a single person – they want to pick and choose the qualities they admire from several role models.
  5. Organisations need role models at all levels. People at the top can champion and set direction. Managers can create a welcoming and supportive workplace. Those at the beginning of their careers can use role model the benefits of being out at work from day one.
  6. Good role models encourage and develop others. They like contributing to high performance in colleagues and never see it as a threat. They appreciate authenticity and don’t want to create clones – they get a kick from helping others to develop their voice and talents.
  7. If you’re openly gay at work, you’re a role model whether you like it or not. The only real choice is how good you want to be at it. Acknowledging your potential to influence those around you means you’re better placed to make informed choices about using that influence constructively.
  8. Good role models are courageous and take risks. They’re willing to step out from the crowd rather than playing it safe. This doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – sometimes it’s more about just being themselves.
  9. Good role models don’t want to be defined just by their sexual orientation. They think it’s an essential part of who they are – just like other dimensions of their identity such as gender, ethnicity, disability and culture.
  10. No one’s perfect! Excellent role models don’t edit out the bumps and scars they’ve acquired along the way. As a result, they’re seen as a richer source of learning.

The True Value of Diversity

I have already written it when mentioning my personal experience. Being out at work has made me a better manager. The level of authenticity that many LGBT+ people experiment is often directly linked to the standards of un-authentic behaviours each of us has experimented during the parts of our lives lived “in the closet”.

What is the actual value of being a whole when at work? The concept of Wholeness is critical in this. Repressing behaviours has been strongly associated with increased levels of stress and decreases in immune systems functioning. Above all, not bringing your whole self at work, means not fulfilling your potential, and reducing the chances to be fully productive in the workplace. And reach your professional goals. Means seeing the world from a mask (which, in a covid-19 world, is something we are all experimenting every day). You can’t breathe fully with a cover.

The concept of Wholeness has been advocated by Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organisations.

We are all of fundamental equal worth. At the same time, our community will be richest if we let all members contribute in their distinctive way, appreciating the differences in roles, education, backgrounds, interests, skills, characters, points of view, and so on.

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

The real value is about being human, and bringing your entire self at work, with strengths and weaknesses, authenticity and coherence, sincerity and trust. All elements that need power in the making, but that will ensure a real discovery in worth and value. Attention: Wholeness does not mean exposing your vulnerabilities fully. It’s not about proving your inner feelings to all your colleagues. It’s about being true to yourself, which also means being able to adapt your level of openness to what you feel ok with. It’s about feeling free to choose what you want to expose yourself. Of course, there are essential limits that are linked to the organisation setting you live in. Experimenting with Wholeness might also be a step by step process, especially when this is related to the coming-out process.

In the next article of this series, I will move away from the individual point of view, and check-in from the organisation point of view. We will see how Psychological Safety is, even more, a need to allow for Wholeness to expand and Diversity Value to stick.

So, what has been your experience so far with this? How do you perceive your Value for Diversity? Use the comment box below to write some feedback. 

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Cover Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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