In a Record Year for Corporate Equality, Some Challenges Remain for LGBT Employees

Welcome to Pride Week on The Glass Hammer — we’ll be profiling successful LGBT business women all week long!

iStock_000000837540XSmallBy Michelle Hendelman

For the last twelve years, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has compiled the Corporate Equality Index (CEI), the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees. The current index features a record number of corporations– 304 to be exact –that achieved the coveted 100 percent ranking. The ranking validates the significant contribution of a company in providing equal rights in the workplace to LGBT employees.

While this number speaks volumes about the progress and change that has occurred, there are still factors of LGBT equality in the workplace that are difficult to address through the index and its measurements. Such as, what happens when a high potential LGBT employee is selected for an extended assignment abroad—let’s say for example, in a country where their sexual orientation or gender identity is considered illegal and punishable?

Or, consider a scenario closer to home. If you are a lesbian professional and are offered a promotion that requires you to relocate to another state where marriage equity is not recognized by law and you don’t know if the office culture is accepting of differences when it comes to who you take to the company BBQ?

Talented people are faced with choosing to continue to live as themselves at home and yet forgo the recognition of their marital status and their life in fact and potentially go “back in the closet” in order to advance their career. We are talking about highly professional people who want to do well, yet this type of dilemma ensures that only the folks whose ambition will overshadow all else would take this opportunity. Companies don’t always realize that they are losing talent by ignoring cultural markers and inconsistencies in the laws and policies at company, state and federal levels.

Myriad Complexities Accompany Small Victories
According to Meghan Stabler, an IT executive at CA Technologies, member of the HRC’s board of directors and National Business Advisory Council, “It’s a woven mess of state and federal laws, and other legal and social implications that impact employers. While the CEI accurately reflects positive changes occurring within the workplace, it’s progressive companies who benefit the most by clearly understanding that attracting, recruiting and retaining employees regardless of who they are or who they love, is vital to a healthy and productive corporate culture.”

She continued, “A huge gap exists in both large and small companies EEO policies. Hiring practices, diversity training and EEO policies need to be updated to combat the lack of statewide protection. This is where we need to see change the most.”

Since the inception of the CEI in 2002, there has been a large increase in the percentage of major businesses providing workplace protection for the LGBT employees. In 2002, 61 percent of Fortune 500 companies included sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy compared to 91 percent in 2014. Furthermore, the percentage of companies including gender identity under their non-discrimination policy jumped from just 3 percent in 2002 to 61 percent in 2014, according to the CEI.

“Corporations are certainly moving the ball forward,” said Stabler, “but state-based equality discrepancies and in some states, even sanctioned discrimination exists, generally in middle America, which contribute to a very stressful workplace environment for LGBT employees.”

As a benchmarking tool, the CEI helps show where companies are lagging and what workplace policies and practices they need to establish. “It’s a complex web,” Stabler noted, “with many nuances that add challenges for LGBT employees trying to advance and sometimes start their careers.”

The Next Generation of LGBT Leadership
The younger generation is growing up in a place where there is a growing groundswell of acceptance of sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, due to the increase of LGBT programs in schools and colleges more LGBT youths have faced an easier time than their predecessors as they transition from high school into college. However, they face another decision about being “out” as they enter the workforce, Stabler noted.

“An LGBT person must carefully review the LGBT policies of a particular university or company, and then decide whether they must go back in the closet, or if this will truly be a life-affirming experience,” Stabler notes.

“If a young LGBT person senses that his or her company does not embrace diversity,” Stabler said, “it creates a difficult situation for that person, and they may feel forced to lie about their personal life in order to maintain an upward career trajectory.”

Stabler advises LGBT professionals to be cautiously optimistic about making the decision to be out in the workplace. However, she acknowledges that being out at work and within society is the only way to collectively change societal norms and perspectives.

She also encourages LGBT job seekers to look for those companies with a strong EEO policy and to use resources like the CEI to identify companies to work for that exhibit a strong commitment to LGBT equality.

A Personal Journey
“This is all a little tougher for the transgender youth,” added Stabler, featured in The Glass Hammer back in 2009, on her experience in transitioning from a male to a female, while maintaining her IT career.

“Often, for a gay or lesbian worker, it can be much easier for them to blend in to the workforce,” explained Stabler, “but for a transgender individual who is newly out–or even someone who has been transitioned for a while—co-workers, managers and hiring managers may always ‘raise an eyebrow.’ Both conscious and unconscious bias and prejudices are alive in corporate America.”

Stabler admits that opening up about her journey was difficult, but she hopes her story will inspire others to embrace their “true” selves. “Since transitioning,” she shared, “I’ve noticed that my career has definitely not reached the same level in comparison with my non-transitioned peers.”

Many of Stabler’s male colleagues have successfully climbed the ranks into C-suite roles, while her career advancement has plateaued. “I think my experience also reflects many of the gender disparity issues that still exist within corporate America,” she explained.

The decision to transition while employed at another IT company was something Stabler did in order to be true to her authentic self. Even though she feels that her decision to transition may have adversely affected her own career, she remains optimistic about the direction of the workplace equality movement and hopes her experience resonates with the next generation to promote change.