Why We Need More Gay Role Models in Financial Services

women smilingI learned a shocking statistic recently. According to a poll by the HRC [PDF], up to 51% of LGBT professionals on Wall Street are still in the closet. That means over half – half – of LGBT professionals are uncomfortable being themselves in their workplace.

We must ask why so many professionals are still afraid, in 2011, to be open about who they are and who they share their lives with. If anything, this statistic reveals some very shocking truths about the nature of inclusiveness in our top firms and companies. It’s time for those cultures to change.

This week and next, to celebrate PRIDE on, we are featuring profiles of several amazing women who live their lives as openly gay/lesbian professionals – despite the challenges (perceived and real) that exist for LGBT individuals in the workplace. It is our hope that by shining a spotlight on these successful women, more LGBT professionals will feel inspired and empowered to bring their whole selves to work. was founded on the principle of creating professional networks where you can relate to people who are in the same situation as you – for example, being the only women on your team can be tough. Yet, many of us have other identities, such being a different color or nationality or being mothers. These are very visible differences, and are protected from discrimination by law. On the other hand, gay and lesbian professionals are often the invisible minority in the room, and in many respects LGBT is the last taboo in the workplace. Legal protections are still not up to par in the U.S. (In 29 states you are not protected from getting fired on the spot for being gay or “accused” of being gay.)

There are some very simple reasons why companies should work harder to create an inclusive culture for their LGBT employees.

1) You have gay clients – the business case.
2) You have gay employees – the retention case.
3) Generation Y (and many others) won’t want to work for you if you are doing nothing or doing evil around gay issues – the recruitment case. creates networking groups of women in financial and professional women, but perhaps one of our greatest challenges is to find senior lesbian business leaders who are “out” and visible in their firms. Why is it so hard to find a critical mass of role models to inspire other women who may be struggling to be themselves at work?

The cost or perceived cost of being “out” seems to be still very high for gay people, and the fear of negative consequences from employers or co-workers can be clearly seen in the HRC study “Degrees of Equality” detailing why gay employees don’t come out.

  • “Thirty-nine percent believe they will lose connections.
  • Twenty-eight percent believe they will lose promotion opportunities.
  • Seventeen percent believe they will be fired; this number increases to 42 percent for transgender workers.”

Everyone reading can do something to contribute to creating a better culture in your firm. Here’s are three ways to reach out.

1. If you are straight, join or form a straight allies group in your firm.
The power of advocating for others who perhaps don’t have a voice is huge. The rise of straight allies in high schools, colleges, and now corporations demonstrates that along with asking about your carbon footprint and sabbatical volunteer time, potential employees may well ask about your policies around same sex benefits, employee networks, and straight allies opportunities.

According to PwC‘s Head of Diversity for the Americas, Jennifer Allyn, ”At PwC we recognize the importance of engaging straight allies in our GLBT strategy. Small actions can make a big difference, which is why we encourage our people to be open, avoid assumptions, and use inclusive language.”

2. If you are gay or LGBT identified, we encourage you to come out fully to co-workers and clients.
One way to do this is to widen your circle of trust. The HRC reported that a total of 89 percent of LGBT employees say conversations about social lives come up at least once a week. Use these opportunities to mention what you did on the weekend and with whom. It gets easier.

Erika Karp, Managing Director and Head of Global Sector Research at UBS, said:

“Coming out and being out enables exceptional people to leverage all their energy, perspective, creativity, intensity, and authenticity towards professional pursuits. When an enterprise embraces this aspect of diversity, it’s tremendously productive for an employee’s personal, organizational and economic growth. Being visible is constructive simply because it raises the consciousness and familiarity of others around you…then you can focus on the business at hand! Out is truly a win-win.”

3. Create Change as a business leader or HR professional.
According to the HRC, as a result of working in an environment not deemed to be LGBT-friendly:

  • “Twenty-seven percent of LGBT workers found it distracting.
  • Twenty-one percent have searched for a new job.
  • Thirteen percent have stayed home from work for this reason at least once in the last year.”

Is your office inclusive? Think about your companies’ policies and take a long hard look at the numbers. If your leadership is touting your company’s inclusiveness, and yet the representation of LGBT talent in your population is next to nothing, then perhaps your inclusion strategy needs a bit of work to attract and retain talented gay employees.

Chris Crespo, Director of Diversity & Inclusiveness at Ernst and Young, said:

“One of the biggest challenges initially is just getting people to understand why [LGBT inclusiveness] is important,” She continued, “At first we had to have some one-on-one conversations. We ask, ‘What would you do if it were your kid? Wouldn’t you want the same opportunities for them?’ That’s gotten people thinking deeply about biases.”

Our sister site will be producing a whitepaper on The Invisible Minority in December 2011. Sign up to the EE newsletter to stay updated. Additionally, we are also using this opportunity to launch our new professional lesbians group on our network. Click here to join.

By Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of The Glass Hammer