Roadblocks to LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace
In conversation with People Matters about what does the graph look like for LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace (present day vs when it started), Lakshmi R. Rajagopal, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Fidelity Investments India, said “I can confidently say that there has been considerable progress in LGBTQ+ inclusion in many organizations as compared to a generation ago. For most businesses today, a strong inclusion strategy is built on the premise that Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is a business imperative and not just a tick in the box. In addition, changes in the legislation have given a much-needed boost to D&I efforts in recent years,”
She added, “Many organizations are actively focusing on driving awareness through employee groups, bringing about changes in physical infrastructure, introducing equitable policies, and running debiasing and nudging workshops for managers. However, the pivotal question that organizations need to ask today is: Are these changes, though in the right direction, enough to accelerate inclusion efforts and take them to a whole new level? Is every employee able to bring their authentic self to work? The need of the hour is for organizations to move to the next level of maturity, from a focus on just diversity to real ‘inclusion’, and this requires an intentional inclusion strategy that transitions from just thoughts and reflections into tangible actions.”
So while the business case for equity and inclusion was well made years ago, what’s holding back organizations from transitioning the much discussed intent into tangible actions? In part three of our five-part series on Pride Month, we reflect on a McKinsey report - ‘LGBTQ+ voices: Learning from lived experiences’; an exequtive study - ‘Making Change: LGBT Inclusion - Understanding the challenges’; and inputs from leaders across organizations and industries on the roadblocks to LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace.
Factors impacting LGBTQ+ inclusion
The roots and impact of exclusion and bias reach far beyond what one might imagine. From access to opportunities, workplace discrimination, to challenges in career growth, battling the gender bias within the spectrum to violence and ostracization - the range of roadblocks for LGBTQ+ inclusion are endless, and the support is limited. A report by galop.uk talks about the barriers faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community in accessing non-LGBT domestic violence support services.
Additionally, a McKinsey study found that while diversity and inclusion have climbed corporate agendas over the past decade, many LGBTQ+ employees continue to face discrimination, discomfort, and even danger in the workplace.
“There are several key factors within and outside the organization that need to be strengthened to enable LGBTQ+ inclusion. From an external perspective, further changes in legislation, heightened focus on education and awareness on the subject within the larger community would help in furthering the inclusion agenda. Within the organization, it involves transitioning from foundational table-stake aspects to building a truly collaborative and inclusive culture,” said Fidelity Investment’s Lakshmi R. Rajagopal.
“Today, most organizations put their efforts behind creating inclusive policies or enhancing the physical and digital infrastructure – nothing wrong with that. However, it’s just that these initiatives have become table-stakes now. It is important to move towards ‘driving a more inclusive culture’ which is integrated and effective in building a highly inclusive workforce,” added Lakshmi.
Diving into the spectrum of LGBTQ+, the exequtive study revealed that transgender inclusion is very new territory for most organizations, and transgender employees are often not protected by existing sexual orientation anti-discrimination policies and statements. “This lack of policy, combined with a lack of public education on the transgender community, often leads to misunderstandings and discrimination at work.”
We have all heard the phrase - All talk and no play sure made Jack a dull boy. Taking cue, all talk and no tangible action makes organizations land in a pool of tokenism and pink washing.
Persistent unconscious bias
“In a workplace there could be numerous roadblocks to LGBTQ+ inclusion. The most prominent is the inherent bias and discrimination due to the lack of acceptance as individuals and as cultures. This further amplifies as it inhibits LGBTQ community members from being open about their choices and bringing a true diverse sense of themselves to the work,” shared Niraj Parihar, Executive Vice President, Leader - Insights and Data, India, Capgemini and Business Champion D&I, with People Matters. “A lot of this emerges from the unconscious bias, lack of internal awareness and lack of sponsorship from top levels in the organization. Hence, it is imperative that every organization take the necessary steps through a holistic approach to foster a safe and inclusive workplace for individuals to be their best, authentic selves,” he added.
“Unconscious bias is a major roadblock to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace. Investing in unconscious bias training for your employees, especially managers that determine who your company hires, is a positive step your organization can take to address hidden biases,” Kyle Elliott, renowned career expert and member of the Gay Coaches Alliance told People Matters.
A lack of inclusive language in workplace policies and interactions
Further to unconscious bias, Kyle Elliott emphasized the need to remove gendered-specific language from company policies and procedures. “Using gender-neutral language in the workplace is important because the language we use can not only reinforce gender stereotypes but also result in gender-based discrimination. Gender-neutral language promotes gender equality.”
Confirming that in addition to policies, workplace language and interactions impact inclusion, the McKinsey study said, “When it comes to true inclusion, everyday interactions with peers and leaders matter as much as organizational policies or formal processes. In short, your company may not be as inclusive as you think it is.”
The McKinsey study further added that for many LGBTQ+ employees, office life means navigating a series of microaggressions, such as hearing disparaging remarks about themselves or people like them. More than 60 percent of LGBTQ+ respondents reported needing to correct colleagues’ assumptions about their personal lives. “Notably, four in five LGBTQ+ women below the level of senior vice president had to do so. Some LGBTQ+ people face the painful experience of being misgendered, or referred to by a pronoun that does not accord with their gender identity. LGBTQ+ respondents were also significantly more likely than other respondents to report hearing derogatory comments or jokes about people like them.”
Isolation as a result of low representation
The McKinsey study found that LGBTQ+ people are underrepresented in corporate environments, and many report being an “only” in their organization or on their team—the only lesbian or the only trans person, for example. “Being an “only” can fuel anxiety and isolation and can result in other disadvantages. For example, LGBTQ+ employees often lack role models who share their identity...Fewer than one-fourth of LGBTQ+ survey respondents reported having an LGBTQ+ sponsor, and only about half of LGBTQ+ respondents (compared with two-thirds of non-LGBTQ+ respondents) said that they saw people like themselves in management positions at their organizations,” noted the study. In fact, interviewees described being pigeonholed as LGBTQ+.
‘Coming out’ several times
50 percent of LGBTQ+ professionals have to come out at work atleast once a week, revealed the McKinsey study. In fact, a lesbian partner at an international law firm shared in the study, “It makes life difficult because you’re coming out all the time. We all get those questions from clients, like, ‘What does your husband do?’” Another respondent described the experience of coming out again and again as “psychologically draining.”
The exequtive study noted that deciding whether to stand out or blend in with their coworkers is a complex decision that many LGBT employees make in their careers. “LGBT employees who decide to come out at work develop stronger, more personal interactions with coworkers and clients. These interactions are often the key to building effective and profitable professional relationships. Yet supporting closeted LGBT employees is equally important. Because closeted LGBT employees often utilize fewer supportive resources in their organization, they can miss out on important professional development opportunities.”
The study also pointed out that LGBT employees may evaluate their current workplaces, assess information from present and past experiences, and decide not to openly disclose themselves as LGBT.
“Concealment of LGBT identity is often a necessary method of survival in workplaces non-welcoming of LGBT employees. Closeted employees closely monitor discussions about their personal lives and loved ones. This means that they must constantly and carefully examine each of their thoughts and actions—all day, every day,” added the study.
Emphasizing that companies who want to be involved with the LGBTQ+ people have to recognize that it’s not just gestures during Pride Month that count, Parmesh Shahani, author and Head - Diversity and Inclusion, at Godrej Industries, told People Matters, “Whatever employees go through in general, LGBTQ employees go through the same things as well, in addition to the added burden you might not be out, or you might be out at the workplace but closeted at home. Companies should at any given point of time offer a comprehensive set of benefits and not just emerge during Pride Month and ask what we can do for you.”
Gender bias, cultural nuances and seniority influence the decision to ‘come out’
The fight for LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace gets intertwined with gender bias as well. The McKinsey study found that women are far less likely than men to be out - only 58 percent of the surveyed LGBTQ+ women said they are out with most colleagues, vs 80 percent of LGBTQ+ men. A survey respondent said, “You always had to be perfect in terms of how you looked and what you did, and your work always had to be better than everybody else’s. So there was almost that thing of, ‘Why add anything else to make it more difficult?’”
The exequtive study found that LGBT women are more likely than LGBT men to report feeling less included, having fewer social networking opportunities, and being less aware of company diversity efforts.
In addition to the gender lens, cultural nuances play a role in LGBTQ+ professionals being out at the workplace. The executive study found that while three-quarters of North American respondents and 78 percent of European respondents were broadly out at work, only 54 percent of respondents from other regions reported being out with most of their colleagues.
Beyond gender and cultural background, seniority at the workplace was a key determinant on the comfort to ‘come out’. The McKinsey study revealed that only one-third of LGBTQ+ survey respondents below the level of senior manager reported being out with most of their colleagues. A survey respondent said, “Being authentic once you’ve made it, is easier than being authentic when you haven’t.” Yet even among senior leaders, many remain in the closet. Of the surveyed LGBTQ+ senior leaders, one in five is not broadly out at work.
The need to out-perform non-LGBTQ peers
LGBTQ+ employees report substantial barriers to advancement, with many believing that they have to outperform non-LGBTQ+ colleagues to gain recognition, found the McKinsey study. Additionally, 40 percent of LGBTQ+ women felt they needed to provide extra evidence of their competence.
"In fact, trans and nonbinary respondents were far more likely than cisgender people (men who were assigned male at birth and women who were assigned female at birth) to be in entry-level positions," the McKinsey study noted.
Confirming the career growth challenges for LGBTQ+ employees, the executive study said, “Choosing a career in a particular field or industry is a complex task for everyone, LGBT and non-LGBT alike. To build an optimal career track, most employees consider a number of individual and employment factors. These may include their personal interests and skills, career rewards, financial payoff, as well as job location and the possibility for travel. Yet, LGBT employees have to consider an additional set of criteria. Because fully LGBT-inclusive workplaces, professions, and industries have been traditionally quite few, LGBT individuals have to weigh their ability to integrate their LGBT identity with their work interests, skills, and the location of the job.”
Making LGBTQ+ identity involuntarily public
The exequtive study found that as such, LGBT employees face difficult dilemmas as they develop and manage their careers. Furthermore, even when they succeed in their careers, they face additional challenges. “The increased visibility of employees as they rise in their careers, for example, can increase the risk of making their LGBT identity involuntarily public. As a result LGBT employees may face work environments that are LGBT non-inclusive, or individuals might not be ready to fully disclose their LGBT identity and deal with the ramifications. Despite these risks, many LGBT individuals still prioritize their career interests and therefore find themselves in work environments that might not be fully LGBT-inclusive.”
Additionally, often in leadership positions, professionals are expected to build a social interaction and camaraderie beyond the workplace, inclusive of each other’s families as well. This becomes trivial for LGBTQ employees.
“Managers are often requested to attend client dinners, work-related off-site functions, and social gatherings. These social events frequently require that a spouse or partner attend, and conversations often blend the personal and professional. LGBT employees must not only decide whether they can disclose their LGBT identity safely, but they also have to decide whether they can bring their partners to workplace functions. Moreover, they may feel compelled to disclose details of their lives as LGBT persons,” noted the same study.
While the above do not constitute an exhaustive list of roadblocks to LGBTQ+ inclusion, they are a guiding pillar to enhance awareness of the nitty-gritties of everyday workplace interactions and culture that are detrimental to the progress of LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace, for both individuals from the community, as well as the organization. This calls for active advocacy, awareness and building a support system that proactively works towards accelerating the goal of workplace inclusion.
Enabling awareness, acceptance and openness
“Our LGBTQ+ program called OUTfront, actively promotes several diversity initiatives within the LGBTQ+ community. These initiatives are developed to inculcate a culture of LGBTQ+ inclusion and create awareness through regular strategic communication in support of an open-minded working environment. We also organize sensitization sessions for our employees to have an open mind and embrace all diversities at the workplace,” Niraj Parihar, Executive Vice President, Leader - Insights and Data, India, Capgemini and Business Champion D&I, told People Matters.
The need for awareness and acceptance is echoed by the BFSI industry. “There are some challenges to overcome from the awareness and understanding perspective for both employers and potential talent. For instance, self-identification or coming out to colleagues is still something many individuals find difficult to do, especially at junior levels. Wells Fargo encourages employees to bring their authentic selves to work because it helps in establishing trust in teams, and in building a network of mentors and allies, who can help them grow in their careers,” Adil Katrak, SVP, COO & HR Service Delivery, and Chair of LGBTQ+ Council, Wells Fargo India & Philippines, told People Matters.
Wells Fargo has been exploring intentional hiring avenues such as vendors and job fairs to ensure that their workforce reflects the diversity of the communities they serve, and to improve the overall hiring experience, they organize regular sensitization trainings for recruiters to hire diverse talent. Recruiters are often the first point of contact for potential talent, and how well equipped they are to cater to the concerns of potential diverse employees, often is a reflection of the commitment of the organization to make inclusion a reality.
Support systems at the workplace
“If your organization does not already have an employee resource group (ERG) for LGBTQ+ employees, consider creating one. ERGs are a powerful opportunity for employees to raise awareness for their unique needs. Ensure your ERGs are supported by an executive sponsor who can fight for and uplift LGBTQ+ voices across the organization,” said Kyle Elliott.
Sharing how the company is enabling allyship and visibility for LGBTQ+ employees, Well Fargo’s Adil Katrak said, “We have active PRIDE and LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Networks in India and Philippines to foster inclusion and engagement within the workforce. SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) sessions are also conducted across the company to create awareness, educate employees and improve the understanding of challenges faced by our LGBTQ+ colleagues. In addition, we host Rainbow Conversations on a regular basis, wherein we invite LGBTQ+ employees to share their stories with a wider audience, as it helps build a sense of community within teams and in the company.
While it is essential to map progress, it is equally essential to identify and address the finer nuances of inclusion that often go missed and continue to counter and damage the efforts to enable workplace inclusion. The focus in recent years has been on boosting representation, crafting inclusive workplace policies and benefits, and enabling belonging. However, for inclusion to be meaningful and truly impactful, organizations must pay attention to these nitty-gritties as well, and weave inclusion into the very DNA of the workplace and workforce.
Follow our five part series this Pride Month:
Part One: Accelerating LGBTQ+ inclusion with ACA
Part Two: A glossary of inclusive workplace communication
Part Three: Roadblocks to LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace
Part Four: Enabling cultural shifts with allyship
Part Five: Solidify inclusion efforts with inclusive managers