LGBTQ equality in corporate America: Where are all the queer CEOs?

Queer CEOs standing next to each other
ByJames Dennin

Editor’s note: What will the future hold for LGBTQ rights and representation? With this year’s Beyond Pride series, Mic looks forward to see how the radical changes in recent years will continue to transform our culture in the worlds of politics, business, entertainment and more. You can receive all these stories in your inbox by signing up here.

Taylor Smith began questioning their gender identity when they were 10 or 11. But, they said, a Southern upbringing left little room for them to realize they were trans. For college, they followed in their dad’s footsteps to Texas A&M University, which Princeton Review named the country’s most conservative university in 2015.

“It probably wasn’t the best environment to be exploring my identity,” Smith, whose last name has been changed to allow them to speak more freely, said. “You’re going against the grain.”

Smith worked at an oil rig for three years until, in 2016, the price of oil plummeted to below $30 a barrel, and Smith lost their job. Three days later, they came out to their friends and family on Facebook and began making plans to work in corporate America. They hoped to find a place in corporate America where their identity would be respected if they chose to transition their body. Smith said most of the best business schools have robust LGBTQ affinity groups like Reaching Out MBA. The group, which started as a conference organized by a handful of students at Harvard and Yale in 1999, has since grown into a nonprofit organization with partnerships at more than 100 schools.

“I was able to talk about being trans in my interviews,” Smith said. “I was used to trying to hide it and make sure no one could find out about it on the internet. Instead I led with it.”

For MBA students, there are several contradictions within the queer corporate experience: There’s a sense of progress, but still pressure to seek out more outspokenly progressive employers. There are lots of new resources, particularly in the last 20 years — from scholarships to networking conferences to affinity groups — which have grown influential.

At the same time, visible out CEOs, such as Apple’s Tim Cook and former Burberry CEO Christopher Bailey, are still rare and mostly white men. Trans entrepreneur and neuroscientist Vivienne Ming says the dearth of nonwhite CEOs is due to the “tax on being different.” Here’s an overview of the state of queer corporate America — and what the future might look like.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Is corporate America becoming more inclusive for LGBTQ workers?

After graduating college with a degree in petroleum engineering, Smith worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Surrounded by 150 other mostly white cis men, on an oil platform accessible only by helicopter, Smith said though they liked their colleagues, they felt constrained in the hyper-masculine environment.

Smith recalls when Caitlyn Jenner came on the news, colleagues “would all be like, ‘This is disgusting.’ Those comments wear at you and tear at you as you try to develop your career,” they said.

In May, Smith, now a business student at Vanderbilt University, spoke to Mic from Hawaii, where they were vacationing before heading to Dallas for an internship at Price Waterhouse Cooper, one of the biggest consultancy firms in the country. “They’ve got a 100 rating from the Human Rights Campaign,” they said. “It seems like companies are leading on social issues at this moment in history.”

21% of millennials say bias and discrimination against LGBTQ employees is the most common form of discrimination they’ve witnessed at work.

Though it’s hardly representative, Smith’s experience is a heartening example of how corporate America is increasingly trying to self-fashion as inclusive. Roughly two-thirds of executives rank “inclusive growth” as a “top three” priority, according to the most recent Deloitte Human Capital survey. In 2015, LGBTQ-owned businesses contributed an estimated $1.7 trillion to the economy, according to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

But there are also less-inspiring statistics: Only 12% of companies can claim to have an inclusive culture, according to a separate Deloitte report, and 21% of millennials say bias and discrimination against LGBTQ employees is the most common form of discrimination they’ve witnessed at work, according to a report from the Institute for Public Relations.

LGBTQ workers face several challenges in the workplace. More than half of states allow companies to fire employees over their sexual orientation, and even more allow companies to fire employees for being transgender. Bisexual women make, on average, a full $15,000 less in annual salary, one of many sexuality-based wage gaps identified by Prudential. If the corporate world hopes to have a representative number of queer leaders by 2030, it will have to hustle in transforming its culture for the better.

The evolution of the queer business community

A lot has happened in the last three years, said Matt Kidd, Reaching Out MBA’s executive director. The major development, he explained, has been the queer business community’s evolution away from its roots as one dominated by white cis men. In the last three years, Kidd said, his organization’s research suggests the number of out MBAs has roughly doubled from 2% to 4%, and the organization’s membership who identify as women has grown to a little more than a third. These figures are encouraging, though Kidd said you can still likely count the number of out trans MBA students on one hand.

“People are kind of looking for folks that look like them,” he said. “And if you look at the role models in the LGBT community like Tim Cook — not to knock them because they’re great people — but they’re still white cis-gender gay men. So we need to think of breaking out of that mold.”

Taylor Smith also said that while they did come out to interviewers and their friends, they still generally don’t disclose their identity to people until they gets to know them.

“I basically look like a straight white guy,” Smith said. “I share that I’m trans individually, but I also don’t feel that all these white guys need to know that I’m transgender because that could over-complicate things.”

Rena Fried-Chung said her experience as a queer woman at the prestigious Wharton School was unequivocally positive, though she also had qualms about working in the professional world. She sought out a job at the Silicon Valley software company Salesforce, she said, in part because of executive Mark Benioff’s progressive reputation.

Kimberly White/Getty Images

There are a few reasons why the push for LGBT inclusiveness has been less intersectional than advocates hope. Part of the problem has to do with age: the average CEO is about 50 when they accept the job. The so-called “out generation” is still in the earlier stages of building their careers. A large portion of the blame also certainly lies with the white men themselves who have failed to use their influence for the better. Studies have suggested that one reason diversity initiatives fail is that white men in the organizations that adopt them see diversity initiatives as a threat to their own professional success.

“Promoting women is still a challenge,” Fried-Chung said. “When I worked at a startup, it used to be that to hire people, you’d get in a room and schmooze. That’s not going to work. So I created a structure and a framework so that every candidate was interviewed on the same five points, and got the same three questions. You need to have more systems and frameworks in place instead of just using your gut.”

There’s also no set formula for how employees should weave their personal and professional lives. Some people like to talk about date night or their honeymoon, others don’t. Until it’s time to tackle a practical matter like parental leave, it’s unclear why your employer needs to know anything about your personal life at all.

Nearly a third of non-LGBT adults say they are very or somewhat uncomfortable witnessing a same-sex couple holding hands, according to the latest statistics from GLAAD. A two in three chance your boss will treat you the same after coming out to them hardly inspires confidence.

Navigating this transition creates another dilemma for LGBTQ people trying to launch a career in business, Kidd said. Do you find a mentor who “gets it” or one who’s pre-eminent in your field?

Mentors play an immense role in the professional development of their protégés, by providing advice and social support but also by providing introductions. One study estimates that mentored senior managers earn an extra 34% more than their non-mentored counterparts. Being able to pick a mentor based solely on who has the most to offer professionally is a luxury. On a similar note, being able to choose a job based solely on what you make or how much authority you’ll have is also a luxury not every LGBTQ person has. Fried-Chung said that if she were offered a killer job at a corporate giant in the Midwest, for example, she doesn’t think she’d take it.

“As a queer woman, as a Jewish woman, as a woman in a bi-racial relationship, there’s no scenario where I’m moving to the middle of the country,” she said. “Working in a more old-school company in the Midwest — I don’t necessarily know if it’s true or not — but in my mind I would feel like I would not be able to bring my authentic self to work.”

What could corporate America look like in 2030?

Taylor Smith expects that progress will continue to come in fits and starts. The political climate that ushered in marriage equality is over, and the responsibility for pushing the envelope has shifted onto businesses themselves.

But we are definitely likely to have more out CEOs by 2030, Kidd said, hopefully enough to inspire even more LGBT MBA students to see the corporate world as a route to empowering careers. The first out generation of business leaders is still finding their professional footing.

The first out generation of business leaders is still finding their professional footing.

“The out generation isn’t mature enough in their careers to be seeing them in [leadership roles],” he said. “Some of it is to just give them time, but some of it is ... making sure companies are training [mentors] to be better allies, ones who are not going to be telling them you need to be going back in the closet to succeed.”

For a reasonable hope, or even expectation for what LGBT inclusivity will look in 2030, members of the community point to the story of C1 Financial CEO Trevor Burgess, who made headlines in 2014 for coming out as gay in perhaps the most corporate manner possible: Disclosing his male spouse’s ownership stake in his company before trying to take it public.

Theoretically, a truly inclusive corporate culture empowers people to share — or not share — their identities as they see fit. It would be a box to be checked if, for some reason, your spouse or relationship status becomes deeply relevant to your professional ambitions, as was the case for Burgess. In that situation, it’s easy to see coming out professionally as less a cause for celebration or a marker of progress than something that looks kind of mundane.

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