We stand at a societal crossroads. Younger generations display admirable indifference toward the identity of others, recognizing that our differences are completely normal. They thrive in self-expression, favoring authenticity over labels. However, despite this encouraging generational shift, many individuals still feel unsafe embracing their own identity in a public way, and a number of senior executives globally have been candid about regrets over not coming out sooner as LGBTQ+ in the workplace.
In a world that champions inclusivity, does it still matter to be openly LGBTQIA+ at work?
Coming out may seem like an individual journey, but its impact extends beyond oneself. It holds power, requiring immense courage and inner determination. It leads to personal growth and carries broader implications. When an executive comes out, they contribute to increased visibility and a safer environment for others.
It took me a few years into my professional journey to harness the courage to come out at work. Like many of my peers, I feared how this part of my identity would impact my career and how others would perceive me. But something changed when I attended a work dinner with a senior partner who spoke openly about his husband and personal life without concern or hesitation. This left me thinking for weeks. How could this important executive be so open while I depleted a lot of energy overthinking every word whenever someone asked about my private life?
Hearing from that executive lighted a fire in me. I felt the urge to be true to myself and channel that energy into something more fulfilling. Fast-forward eight years, I was a manager taking my team to dinner and speaking freely about my personal life, and that authenticity enabled me to connect deeper with others. Then, in a twist of fate, one of my junior analysts came out to me.
As my journey — and that of many others like me — illustrates, this ripple effect inspires more individuals to embrace their authenticity and bring their whole selves to the workplace, unlocking their full potential.
Gen Z and Beyond: Looking to the Future
We cannot underestimate that dialogue and awareness have transformative power. While it's commendable that younger generations view our differences as irrelevant, the world still lacks adequate visibility and understanding of LGBTQIA+ issues. Even though a 17-year-old gender-fluid individual may not consider their identity important enough to be outspoken about it, for instance, it holds tremendous significance in a world where many grapple with diversity.
As Gen Z individuals enter the workforce, we will need to understand how their presence will shape the workplace. Affinity groups and safe spaces have traditionally been established to ensure LGBTQIA+ individuals feel comfortable and empowered to express themselves openly. Will such initiatives still be necessary in the future, as Gen Z brings forth their unique perspectives? We look forward to exploring this question as the workplace evolves.
As we ponder the future, we wonder if there will come a time when coming out becomes obsolete. With growing acceptance, will LGBTQIA+ individuals no longer feel the need to go through the coming-out process? While this may seem plausible, it's important to acknowledge that progress varies across geographies and cultures. In some developed countries, we may be closer to that reality, but in others, significant strides are still required. In parallel, we still can’t assure that everyone feels safe to be their whole selves at work.
Because of these barriers, it still matters to keep this debate alive.
Younger generations have benefited from the bravery of those who came before. Now, it’s time to leverage this more mature view on diversity and inclusion to craft a safer, more inclusive place where everyone, including those grappling with their orientations and preferences, flourishes. A nurturing space, rather than a place of indifference on each other’s manifestation of self.
The Role of Allyship in the LGBTQIA+ Community
Have you ever felt like the “only one” in a room? For me, this has manifested as an unsettling sensation of not belonging, and that sooner than later people would discover something was off. A lot of times, being the only LGBTQIA+ individual in a group sparks that feeling, which can lead to self-isolation or personal sabotage. Fortunately, there may exist a friendly voice around reminding us that we are indeed welcomed, that we belong, and that others value and respect our perspective even if it is dissonant from the majority. These are our allies.
Allyship plays a critical role in building a safer environment for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Allies, those who actively support and advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights, help bridge the gap between those who may not be comfortable or completely out and the broader community. Their outspoken support allows for the normalization of opening up about being LGBTQIA+ and aids in dispelling lingering insecurities individuals may feel.
As leadership advisors, we recognize the immense value that allyship brings. Elevating the LGBTQIA+ community within leadership ranks is not only “nice,” but imperative to achieve the level of inclusion that many organizations strive for. It also leads to better outcomes both for clients and candidates, as illustrated by our colleague Mark Stuart Smith in an article.
But even in times when people grow more comfortable in their own skin, being fully authentic—as much as Gen Z seems to be doing, that is still not the reality for most of the workforce who largely belongs to previous generations. This underscores the need to develop inclusive policies that are intentional about all forms of diversity, including the LGBTQIA+ community, to create equity, foster belonging, and empower individuals with confidence, ultimately leading to affiliation, talent retention, and representation.
Fortunately, we see pockets of extraordinary progress. Out Leadership's 2023 Board Diversity report uncovers a remarkable 1,556 percent increase in the number of Nasdaq companies implementing LGBTQIA+ policies, totaling more than half of these companies.
Senior LGBTQIA+ Leaders: Pioneering Change
Lastly, we must emphasize the remaining importance of senior LGBTQIA+ leaders coming out in the workplace. Many of us have grappled with understanding our own emotions and struggled with the decision of whether to bring this personal aspect to our professional lives. Thanks to those senior leaders who blazed the trail, we took the leap of faith in coming out or feeling welcomed in our professional lives.
Interestingly, many chairs, CEOs, and senior executives worldwide still harbor insecurities about blending this significant component of our personal identity with our professional identities. Some view it as overly personal, but others recognize the need to increase visibility and foster dialogue.
As a Firm, we wholeheartedly believe that coming out matters. By fostering allyship, sharing stories about how our LGBTQIA+ identities help us thrive in the workplace, and serving as role models for those who have yet to take that leap, we can continue driving positive change and creating a workplace where everyone feels comfortable embracing their authentic selves.
The journey toward genuine inclusivity calls for ongoing dialogue and a collective commitment to recognizing the importance of coming out, regardless of age or generation. To all those who came before us and paved the way for our progress, we express our heartfelt gratitude. Let's celebrate Pride and work together towards a more inclusive future.