A pride that still dare not speak its name in business

In recent years, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful investors has been leading a split life. His friends know that he is gay, and so do most of his colleagues. They could not care less. But this man – I shall call him Bob – has never “come out”.

He does not discuss gay issues in public, or bring his partner to functions. “Silicon Valley is a boys’ club,” one long-time friend explains; apparently Bob fears that if he reveals his sexuality, he will suffer a handicap in the race to raise funds.

This is a paradox of American business life in 2014, and one that is overdue for change. In June, America is officially celebrating Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month. And Washington and Wall Street are scrambling to show that they are politically correct by backing “diversity” and the LGBT cause.

President Barack Obama announced this week, for example, that the federal government will no longer deal with contractors that discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. The same day, Credit Suisse hosted a high-profile breakfast for Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP, where he discussed – with poignant emotion – why he had for years concealed the fact that he was gay.

And last month, in another moving display, three of New York’s best- known financiers – Paul Singer, John Mack and Dan O’Connell – assembled on a stage with their gay sons, showed their support for the LGBT cause. All admitted having been wary of the issue but said they changed their minds when their own sons revealed their sexuality.

And yet, even amid these rousing demonstrations of corporate support, Lord Browne points out that “there is no ‘out’ CEO in the FTSE 100 and, I believe, S&P 500”.

This is despite the fact that several gay business leaders are working in American boardrooms. One is chief executive of a company whose industry prides itself on progressiveness, and whose headquarters are located in a bastion of liberal thought. But as Lord Browne says, there is a paucity of business leaders who present themselves as gay. Why? It cannot be blamed on formal discrimination; most large companies have policies in place that ban discrimination against LGBT staff.

Nor can it really be attributed to fears that shareholders will flee from companies with executives who come out. Last year Credit Suisse established an LGBT index, which tracks 230 companies with exemplary records. It has slightly outperformed the S&P 500 over the past nine months, and has slightly less volatility.

Instead, the wariness reflects at least three issues. One is a fear of subtle forms of prejudice, which might tip the balance against being promoted, particularly at the point where the corporate pyramid narrows. Lord Browne, for example, did not reveal his sexuality by choice; he was forced into the open after seeking to suppress a newspaper’s plans to out him. There is a fear that gay people, like women, can advance to the so-called “marzipan layer” of executives who toil one level below the boardroom, but then fail to break through. Or so the whisper goes.

Secondly, some gay business leaders understandably hate the idea of being seen as belonging to a “minority” of any type. Lord Browne, for example, says that one reason he kept quiet for so many years was that his mother, an Auschwitz survivor, taught him that it was dangerous to stand out. She knew how easily tolerance can unravel. Similar tales have shaped the family heritage of some other gay business leaders.

A third problem is that even when companies adopt a pro-LGBT stance, their suppliers, customers or investors may not. Hence the concern with the “boys’ club” of Silicon Valley. Just as venture capital funds headed by women find it harder to raise capital, there is a fear that openly gay investment leaders may also face obstacles.

It is difficult to know whether these fears are justified. In fact, it is impossible, and will remain so unless someone actually tries. But I think – at least, I hope – that such fears will eventually dissipate.

After all, the extraordinary speed with which wider public attitudes towards gay marriage have shifted in the past decade in America shows that social mores can move quickly. And people such as Lord Browne are now working hard to change attitudes in a manner that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. He is urging other gay executives to speak frankly about their sexuality, insisting that “it is better for business”.

In the meantime, Bob will continue to keep his secrets, along with many other gay executives. They are not alone; plenty of straight chief executives prefer to keep aspects of their personal lives out of the public eye. Still, the pressure to stay quiet is an anachronism – and an ironic one in industries, such as technology, that boast of being ahead of the curve. It ought to end.

Source: FT.com

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