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Smashing the Gay Ceiling: Why Representation in Leadership Matters

Jun 05, 2023

When it comes to influential leadership positions in the United States, there is still a vast need for more diversity. For example, a recent study by Mogul, a recruiting site for diverse executives, revealed that only 12% of Fortune 500 companies’ boards of directors are black (Fortune, Oct 2022). However, for the LGBTQ+ community, the statistics are incredibly bleak. Only .3% were openly LGBTQ+ in 2020 (Zippia, Oct 2022.) For other C-Suite leadership roles in publicly traded companies, less than 1% are openly LGBTQ+. By comparison, 5% of the US population identifies as LGBTQ+, including over 8 million workers.


So, why aren’t more gay people breaking through this glass ceiling?


“It’s a different type of glass,” states Kevin Jones, author of “Opening the Corporate Closet: Transforming Bias to Gay Advancement in Corporate America.” “It keeps openly gay employees from advancing while confining those who aren’t out to remain in their closet.”


Considering the open discrimination that many LGBTQ+ people face in the workplace, it’s not surprising that many feel that they need to stay closeted. Just look at these statistics from The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law (LGBT Workplace Discrimination: The Impact of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity on Employment, Sept 2021)

  • 45.5% reported experiencing unfair treatment at work, including being fired, not hired, or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity at some point in their lives.
  • About one-third (37.7%) of LGBT employees reported experiencing at least one form of harassment at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Two-thirds (67.5%) of LGBT employees reported hearing negative comments, slurs, or jokes about LGBTQ people at work. Many LGBT people reported being called or hearing words like “f****t,” “queer,” “sissy,” “tranny,” and “dyke” in the workplace.


As Jones points out, many LGBTQ+ professionals find it necessary to don pink camouflage. “When I think of visible minorities, such as women or people of color, people may still have derogatory thoughts about you, but it’s unlikely in this day and age that they will openly share those thoughts or tell those kinds of jokes in front of you. Contrast that with people in the LGBTQ community. Even as children, we often grew up in families, communities, or churches where people made jokes about gay people or had derogatory comments about them. We very quickly understood that to survive in this environment, we had to camouflage ourselves.”


Being out at work can have serious ramifications for an LGBTQ+ person Zippia, Oct 2022.):

  • 75% of LGBTQ+ employees have reported experiencing negative day-to-day workplace interactions related to their LGBTQ+ identity in the past year.
  • 22% of LGBTQ+ workers are not paid or promoted at the same rate as colleagues.
  • Gay men earn 10% to 32%less than similarly qualified heterosexual males.
  • Gay men report higher salaries than lesbian women, but both report less income than non-LGBTQ+ colleagues.

While many states and even the corporations themselves may have policies to protect LGBTQ+ individuals in the workplace, many gay workers still find themselves in a corporate culture that is less than supportive – or worse, openly hostile. Not surprisingly, the turnover rate for LGBTQ+ members is a real challenge for many companies:

  • One-third (34.2%) of LGBT employees said they had left a job because of how their employer treated them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.


As an executive coach, Jones helps LGBTQ+ leaders consider their options when facing a challenging culture: Is it better to stay and be a change leader, or is it time to move on? “The question that I tend to ask is, where do you want your energy to go at this point in your life? Because I notice that when I’m having that conversation with people, they’re already drained. If they’re closeted, do they want to stay in the closet and keep putting up with a negative culture just for advancement opportunities? Or is it more important to be themselves and find a different organization that will value them as an individual? It’s a challenging question.


“On the flip side,” Jones continues, “If you’ve expended this much energy already and are out, what gains have you seen? What progress have you made? Does it feel like there’s more to come? Do you feel like you have more to give? We need agents of change.”


As most quality organizations know, real change comes from the top down.


Want to hear more? Check out our full conversation on the Tattooed Freaks in Business Suits podcast:


Find out more about Kevin Jones:

Kevin is a native Texan with degrees from Baylor University and the Université de Strasbourg. He began his career in telecommunications before joining the public accounting firm of Ernst & Young. While there, he earned his International Coaching Federation certification. He also holds the Associate Certified Coach (ACC) credential. After he retired, he founded Consilium Coaching, which provides leadership coaching for members of the LGBTQ community and their allies.

Kevin is married to Simon Aisthorpe. He is the author of the book “Opening the Corporate Closet: Transforming Bias to Gay Advancement in Corporate America,” available in June 2023.


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