LGBT, De-Constructed

The letters L, G,B, and T are recognized by most Americans as together representing a sizable minority community, on a shared march for equal rights, workplace security and the pursuit of happiness. And so we are. But what do lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender women and gay, bi-sexual and transgender men have in common that binds us together as a community? Economically, socially, culturally – not much. (Historically and emotionally – plenty.)

This is important, because the implications in corporate settings aren’t just to HR departments but to pay equity, gender parity and women’s equal rights.  LGBT women who throw their weight into advancing the women’s agenda contribute not only to their own rise, but to women’s empowerment everywhere.

Gallop’s conservative estimate shows those identifying as LGBT at 4% of the U.S. population (7% if you’re a Millennial): gay/lesbian –1.7%; bisexuals – 1.8%; and transgender – .3%. Those who identify as bi, while the largest group, are the least visible (only 30% are out to ‘close friends’), and overwhelmingly female.

For this argument, I’m not addressing queer or intersex identities– queer often covering and often co-mingling a broad swath of orientation and gender identity, for younger people in particular, and intersex covering a wide diversity of sex characteristics. I am of course including transgender women, because their fight to be who they always knew they were brings a whole new level of courage and authenticity to the fight for women’s equal rights.

So: I and most LGBT women I know have close gay male friendships. But in general, do we seek each other out in packs when it’s time to relax? Do we share rituals and a vernacular? Do LGBT men and women show up to LGBT corporate or fundraising events at parity? We do not.

LGBT men and women are different.  The men gather, the women disperse.  The men are more social – gay bar means men’s gay bar, let’s face it – and far more networked. Slightly more of them are out at work, and more are in leadership positions. Women tend to keep their heads down and stay at their desks, which has its material advantages.

It’s a popular assumption that LGBT men are wealthier than LGBT women, and a typical Human Rights Campaign fundraiser, for example, does indeed give that impression – it’s raining men. But while that’s true in the general population, for those working in professional America, LGBT women earn more than their male counterparts – and straight women. (Straight white men still take top prize.)  The researchers enjoy puzzling out why this is– LGBT women work harder in the absence of a male earning partner, they shrug off expectations and share housework duties (can someone page my wife?) – but it’s certainly not because they network and lift each other up in some way that’s reflected in their paychecks.

Let’s say you lead a forward-thinking firm, knowing that diversity of employees is highly correlated with improved business results, from attracting and retaining the best talent to optimal decision-making. Of course, you facilitate the range of ‘employee resource groups,’ including for the LGBT cohort.

But don’t assume that there will be equal numbers of LGBT women and men around the punch bowl, or whiteboard, at the next LGBT ERG gathering, because based on feedback we’ve gotten over the years, there usually are not. Those who show up tend to be men – much as they seek out women’s engagement – and when women do show up they’re often outnumbered, making it less likely that the out women will come next time. Particularly if the planning committee ends up going for drinks; one female partner I interviewed in DC was so traumatized by the men’s venue of choice the one time she attended her company’s ERG gathering, she’s never gone back. (Stereotype alert: lots of women prefer brunch.)

That said, our research confirms that most out LGBT women feel that their companies’ engagement on LGBT issues includes them; it’s not that they feel left out, or unrecognized. But they don’t often find their tribe.

For corporate human resource and diversity leads spending well-meant energy and money shoring up their minority communities to be more inclusive: when it comes to LGBT women, it may be time to refine your LGBT strategy, if you want to more effectively engage the Women quotient. Whatever their other intersectional identities, LGBT women primarily experience the world and workplace as women, from the mansplainer at the team meeting to those oft-male dominated LGBT ERG gatherings.

As director of Out Leadership’s OutWOMEN initiative, which connects and promotes out LGBT women executives, I explore these dynamics often with participants. Together we puzzle over where LGBT women can best find community, and have an impact around issues such as pay equity and executive parity. One answer is – with each other.  Having engaged with hundreds of them through our events, I can testify that LGBT women are delighted to join other out women at events created just for them.  At our first large OutWOMEN breakfasts, typically 100 LGBT executives in a room at first simply enjoyed the novelty of scale. At our small salon dinners, we’re intense, and if I may say so, hilarious. Community matters. This continues.

Another answer is: with other women. Corporations have invested millions in developing and placing women as leaders, and in the pipeline. They’re deeply invested in our success.

Should we also lean in more at the women’s ERGs?  Many LGBT women I’ve spoken to think this is strategically sound but they don’t always feel completely at home there either – not that they feel judged, but that this part of their identity isn’t engaged there.  Of course, one’s orientation is unlikely to come up in the general women’s employee resource group meeting – even if, with half of employees still in the closet at work and all those bisexual women quietly going about their business, many LGBT women are hiding in plain sight.

Straight women executives: I challenge you to bring your LGBT sisters more intentionally into your shared community of gender. Perhaps make a welcoming space for them, as you do for all minority communities. Invite an LGBT woman to share her experience with the women’s ERG; host an intersectional mixer, and invite discussion of discrete and shared identities. Leverage the strength of the intersectional women’s community, because as a group we not only have so much in common, we also have the best shot to change corporate culture so that it lifts all women up, across all minority communities.  We are stronger together.

See you at brunch.