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Isn't It Time The Rainbow Ceiling Was On Your Board's Agenda?

20/10/2016 13:39
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Few CEOs and senior executives will be unaware of the various initiatives and targets to increase diversity at board level and senior management. Early this year the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills1 announced a new independent review on increasing the representation of women in corporate leadership positions. Similarly, there is an increased awareness of the need to address ethnicity in leadership roles. Whilst ethnic minority board members lag behind their female counterparts, efforts are being made by many companies to redress the white, male bias.

But what about LGBT+ executives? With the current focus on smashing the glass ceiling - affecting women and ethnic minorities - not many companies are even aware of the rainbow ceiling.

LGBT+ people face a high risk of discrimination in the workplace. According to research2 by OUTstanding, 47% of FSTE 100 companies in their survey make no reference to non-discrimination policies for gay, lesbian or bisexual employees in their annual reports.

It is no surprise that a recent survey3 uncovered that over half of LGBT+ employees hide their sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, and 23% remain closeted because they believe they will not be considered for promotion or other development opportunities.

With a few notable exceptions, there is an absence of visible LGBT+ execs in UK corporates and LGBT+ inclusion is not even on the board agenda. In fact with no official benchmark of LGBT+ inclusion at board level, it could argued that the LGBT+ community is unsupported by business and government. To be even more provocative, is positive discrimination actually putting LGBT+ people, particularly gay white men, at a disadvantage in the boardroom?

The Business Case For LGBT+ Inclusion

Promoting LGBT+ inclusivity is an opportunity for business. It has positive benefits for consumers, employees, and financial performance. Being able to be 'authentic' at work improves productivity; employees who feel closeted at work are 30% less productive3 than those that are able to be themselves. Organisational cultures that are supportive of LGBT+ people get the best out of their teams.

There are also advantages for talent recruitment by increasing the sourcing talent pool through positive messaging around LGBT+ inclusion. Skills shortages are a challenge for many UK companies and may well be compounded when we leave the EU. This is a particular issue for the financial services sector, and one that a more diverse and inclusive environment could go some way to address.

As well as helping to attract and retain employees, a supportive LGBT+ employer brand can also help companies do business. Clients are attracted to companies that demonstrate their values and inclusivity; not just paying lip service to it but actually living it through company values and culture. The LGBT+ community is a market that should not be ignored; it has a global spending power of $3.7 trillion USD and is very loyal and supportive of LGBT+ friendly brands. However, if a company is not clear about LGBT+ inclusivity then the automatic presumption is that the company is not supportive.

Awareness is also a key issue and organisations like Open For Business - a coalition of businesses, including PwC, that share a deep-rooted commitment to diversity and inclusion in their own workplace - are making the business and economic case for LGBT inclusion.

LGBT+ representation in senior roles is the key to this opportunity. The boardroom is where significant decisions that affect employees' lives are made, and also where the values, culture and ethos of the company are formed. LGBT+ people need to help shape these decisions and communicate these to the workforce and the wider business community. Business leaders also need to have a better understanding of the challenges and motivations of their LGBT+ employees.

What Should Businesses Be Doing?

While there are no official benchmarks for LGBT+ inclusion there are plenty of LGBT+ 'power lists' and role model awards. While these provide some incentives for companies to promote LGBT+ inclusion, it is not a message that is getting through to everyone. Out At Work's Top 50 LGBT Executives and OUTstanding's Leading 100 LGBT Executives list, may celebrate those people who have broken the "rainbow" ceiling but there is still poor representation at board level and in more senior roles.

In my view change must come from the top and this means corporate leadership making it clear that it is OK to LGBT+, to set targets and to promote LGBT+ leaders to ensure representation in the boardroom. Visible senior executives make a big difference in getting this message across, but if historically a company has not promoted LGBT+ inclusion those senior execs may be hard to find. This is why incentives like Quorum - a programme from Out Leadership that proactively identifies and places senior LGBT+ executives on corporate boards - are needed.

The focus on smashing the glass ceiling, whilst commendable, has resulted in other minorities being side-lined.

Now it is time to smash the rainbow ceiling too.

Mark Gossington is a Partner and Global LGBT+ Board Member at PwC UK. He advises clients on risk management and inclusive business issues in the Financial Services sector. He established the first social media PowerList for LGBT+ professionals.

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-chair-and-deputy-chair-of-women-on-boards-review-will-champion-female-executives
2. FTSE 100's 2014 Annual Reports by OUTstanding
3. http://www.hrc.org/resources/the-cost-of-the-closet-and-the-rewards-of-inclusion

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