As chief executive officer of Apple Inc. (AAPL), the world’s most valuable technology company, Tim Cook has license to say what he thinks, including announcing that he’s “proud to be gay” in Bloomberg Businessweek yesterday.
That pronouncement, almost universally lauded, is a lot riskier for gay executives still trying to get to the corner office.
“He has helped push the rock a long distance uphill toward more openness and opportunity, but it isn’t going to be instant paradise in the C suite for gay people,” said Linda Hirshman, author of “Victory, the Triumphant Gay Revolution.”
Cook is the first CEO of an S&P 500 company to come out in public. It’s a watershed moment for the gay community, which still lacks protections against workplace discrimination in 29 states in the U.S.
Yet while a growing number of business leaders are now openly gay — including Burberry Group Plc CEO Christopher Bailey, Anthony Watson, Nike Inc.’s chief information officer and Robert Greenblatt, chairman at NBC Entertainment — others worry that coming out still carries a stigma. “Even in today’s more open climate, gays who come out risk derailing their advance, especially to the CEO spot,” said Pat Cook, president of Cook & Co. a boutique search firm in Bronxville, N.Y. Gay employees instead are often expected to stay discreet with customers or clients.
“It’s much more accepted within company walls, but you’re not supposed to flaunt this to outsiders,” said Peter Crist, chairman of recruiting firm Crist/Kolder Associates in Downers Grove, Illinois.
When boards are choosing between two candidates with equal credentials they almost always choose the person who fits in the most, according to executive recruiters.
John Browne, the former CEO of BP Plc, was forced to resign in 2007, after being outed by a British tabloid. He has since written a book, “The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business,” about being a closeted gay in the oil industry. During his tenure, BP had a joint venture in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has approved laws against homosexuality.
“To a headhunter, I would have been seen as ’controversial,’ too hot to handle,” he wrote.
Bob Page, founder of Replacements, Ltd. in McLeansville, North Carolina, a retail company selling antiques, said in an interview that as an openly gay entrepreneur in the “Bible Belt,” he has dealt with many incidents of bigotry.
One local told him, “I used to ride by your building and my dad would say, ’that’s where the queers are,’” Page said. The father of twin 15-year-old boys, Page was also once told that having a picture of his children on his office wall was “flaunting your sexuality,” he said.
“I think Tim Cook coming out can have a significant impact,” said Page. “Others may hear this and think, ’here’s someone who’s very successful and admired for their business acumen who feels safe to come out’ — and that might encourage another kid who’s struggling” with his sexual identity.
Watson, Nike’s 37-year-old chief information officer who came out when he was a student at Dublin’s Trinity College, didn’t have a gay role model to look up to while growing up, he said in an interview.
“There were never any role models, just some campy or effeminate people on TV who would get a laugh,” he said. Tim Cook’s coming out is “game changing. It’s fundamentally shifting perspectives on LGBT leaders.”
More than 40 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees are still in the closet at work in the U.S. according to Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, an advocacy group for LGBT employees in business and a former Wall Street banker who worked at Credit Suisse Group AG. (CS) In Asia, 90 percent of LGBT workers are closeted, Sears said.
Still, times have changed dramatically, said George Slowik, 59, a longtime publishing industry veteran. He was asked to step aside as publisher of Publishers Weekly in 1988 after being featured in the first issue of Genre Magazine, which was aimed at gay men, he said. He promptly joined Out Magazine.
“For people growing up and thinking of their options who may be in a less supportive environment to know they can achieve whatever they want, it’s as significant in some ways as an African-American president,” Slowik said in an interview.
Cook’s coming out sends a message to the 78 countries around the world, including Uganda and Nigeria, where being gay is still illegal, according to Sears. Apple sells iPhones in all these countries, including Singapore, which earlier this week upheld its anti-homosexuality law.
“The next time Cook comes to Singapore, are they going to arrest him?” asked Sears. “Tim has put a face to this, and in an indirect way, put his product there. It’s going to be very hard to be a homophobe holding an iPhone.”