LGBTQ+ voices: Speaking out and looking ahead

LGBTQ+ business leaders speak about the challenges they face and what it takes to make the workplace more inclusive.

What is the workplace like for members of the LGBTQ+ community? The answer depends not just on company policies but on everyday experiences. In this piece, six members of The Alliance, a global network of LGBTQ+ leaders, share their firsthand accounts and reflections about their work lives and environments.

LGBTQ+ people around the world have faced heightened challenges since these conversations took place. Among them is a greater sense of isolation than non-LGBTQ+ peers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The leaders whose voices you will hear in this piece lay out a vision for better, more inclusive workplaces, where LGBTQ+ people can be their authentic selves, contribute to their full potential, and take their seats at the leadership table.

Coming out—and being out—matters. It’s one of the biggest challenges facing LGBTQ+ people in the workplace: McKinsey research shows that worldwide, more than one in four LGBTQ+ employees are not broadly out at work. Those who are out often have to come out again and again. Nearly half of LGBTQ+ respondents in a McKinsey Global Survey reported having to come out at work at least once a week. One in five respondents had to come out multiple times a week, and one in ten had to come out on a daily basis. Having to come out repeatedly can take a toll—and the experience of coming out can be fraught. Nearly 40 percent of survey respondents said they’d had an uncomfortable experience coming out at work in the past month alone.

Coming out can be particularly difficult for those who identify as transgender or nonbinary. One executive explained that one of the biggest challenges she had faced over the course of her career was “coming out in the workplace as gender fluid and nonbinary, because I was one of the first people who had come out as that—certainly in financial services.” Coming out is also especially challenging for women, junior employees, and people outside Europe and North America. But for many employees, being out is essential—both to their well-being and to their ability to form successful professional relationships. Those we’ve spoken with say that being out lets them focus on their work and bring all of their skills to bear.

Those who are out continue to face challenges. LGBTQ+ people are underrepresented in corporate environments, and many report being an “only” in their organization or on their team—the only gay man or the only trans person, for example. Being an only can fuel anxiety and isolation, and employees who experience “onlyness” across multiple dimensions face additional pressure.

LGBTQ+ employees also report substantial barriers to advancement—and many believe that they have to outperform non-LGBTQ+ colleagues to gain recognition. Some 40 percent of LGBTQ+ women feel they need to provide extra evidence of their competence. In addition, trans and nonbinary employees are far more likely than cisgender people (men who were assigned male at birth and women who were assigned female at birth) to be in entry-level positions.

LGBTQ+ employees often lack role models who share their identity. Only about half of LGBTQ+ survey respondents (compared with two-thirds of non-LGBTQ+ respondents) said that they saw people like themselves in management positions at their organizations, and fewer than one-fourth of LGBTQ+ respondents reported having an LGBTQ+ sponsor.

At the same time, the LGBTQ+ senior leaders we surveyed were more than twice as likely as their non-LGBTQ+ peers to credit sponsors with having aided their advancement. One interviewee drove the point home: “We all talk about sponsors, and we’ve seen all the articles and the literature, but it’s for real. Unless people are pulling you up, you’re not going to advance.” Given the lack of LGBTQ+ sponsors, non-LGBTQ+ sponsors play a particularly important role.

What does it take to create the kind of atmosphere where LGBTQ+ employees can thrive? Company policies—including providing domestic-partner benefits and trans-inclusive healthcare coverage—are part of the picture. All-gender or gender-neutral restrooms are also essential to employees’ well-being. Importantly, LGBTQ+ employees are much more likely to feel included in the workplace if company leaders have clearly put diversity and inclusion on the strategic agenda.

When it comes to true inclusion, everyday interactions with peers and leaders matter as much as organizational policies or formal processes. Among other measures, leaders can foster a supportive environment by choosing to use more inclusive language, providing employee training, and addressing bias at the middle-management level. As one LGBTQ+ leader noted, these measures “are not necessarily a heavy lift financially. There’s a lot of simple work that needs to happen right now.”

Our research suggests that inclusivity matters to job seekers, both LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+: nearly 40 percent of all survey respondents said they had rejected a job offer or decided not to pursue a position because they felt that the hiring company was not inclusive. Building a welcoming workplace is also key to retaining LGBTQ+ employees; those who are out are far less likely to plan to leave their current employer.

LGBTQ+ employees bring a wide range of valuable skills to the table. Those we interviewed described themselves and fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community as particularly resilient and empathetic—and some said that their experiences had boosted their emotional intelligence.

Leaders are called upon to make the workplace welcoming for these employees—and the benefits will be far-reaching.

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