The world is taking two divergent paths on gay rights. In many countries there is growing acceptance of LGB&T people, and legal protection from discrimination. Others are taking a very different path: there are now over 80 countries with laws that are repressive to sexual minorities, and hostility is growing, fueled by a toxic mix of religious fundamentalism and populist politics.
To stem the spread of anti-gay legislation around the world, more than a dozen of the world's leading big businesses are launching a major initiative: American Express, AT&T, Brunswick, EY, Google, IBM, Linklaters, LinkedIn, MasterCard, McKinsey, Standard Chartered, Thomson Reuters and Virgin Group are the founders of Open For Business, a coalition of global businesses putting forward the business and economic case for LGB&T rights.
Although many U.S. and U.K. companies have become vocal activists for LGB&T rights on their home soil, this is the first time businesses have come together to turn their sights on the global challenge. This begs an important question: Why? Each of these companies is putting time, resources and reputation into this issue. Why should they bother?
Alongside the moral case for LGB&T rights, there are powerful business and economic arguments. This is captured in a report just published by the coalition, which I authored. It's called Open For Business: the Economic and Business Case for LGB&T Inclusion, and presents a substantial evidence base on three levels:
A. Economies perform better. LGB&T discrimination often goes hand-in-hand with a culture of corruption, a lack of openness, and a weak civil society; LGB&T inclusion is associated with higher levels of entrepreneurship and is correlated to GDP growth.
B. Businesses perform better. Companies that support LGBT inclusion are better able to compete for talent, they're more innovative, they're more collaborative, and the evidence shows they perform better.
C. Individuals perform better. This applies to all individuals in a company, not just the LGBT ones: people working in inclusive workplaces have much higher levels of engagement and satisfaction, and they're more likely to "speak up" with new ideas.
Of course, none of this is news to the companies supporting Open For Business. There's a long running and deep-rooted belief in the business world that promoting equality of opportunity for all is good business. Today's focus may be on LGB&T rights, but business has a long history of expanding diversity and openness.
For example, in Apartheid South Africa, the global brewer SABMiller defied the regime by putting in place policies guaranteeing equal treatment for black employees. Or take MTN, the cellphone operator, which works in countries where cultural diversity can be very challenging - such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iran: the company pro-actively recruits from different tribes, to ensure a diverse workforce.
Or take IBM: in the 1950s, more than a decade prior to the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, the company opened manufacturing facilities in the heart of the racially segregated U.S. South - but IBM refused to comply with segregation. The company also took a progressive stand on Women's Rights, enacting equal pay for equal work in 1935 - almost three decades before the U.S. Equal Pay Act.
So it should be no surprise that businesses are bothered about global gay rights. Of course, the promoters of intolerance will complain about "imposing Western values" - but now the debate has moved on: this is about creating a healthy environment for businesses to thrive and for economies to prosper.
That's why Open For Business has been launched, as part of a bigger aspiration: that everybody is able to fully participate in business life - and in society more broadly - regardless of personal attributes such as background, class, gender, race, sexual orientation or gender identity.