How Ready Are We for Gay CEOs?
May 20, 2014 by Thomas G. Fiffer

We’ve now gotten comfortable throwing homophobes out of the corner office, but are we ready to accept openly gay corporate chieftains?

Think of your stereotypical tough male CEO—the Jack Welch type—an aggressive, backslapping (and until not that long ago, openly homophobic) old boy who might talk about “reaming” the competition. Now picture this same man, arm in arm with his boyfriend or husband—or even kissing him under the mistletoe—at the office Christmas party, or mentioning his “partner” in casual conversation or a story he’s telling to rally the troops.

What’s your reaction? You might very well say, I have no problem with it. But imagine you’re hetero, it’s your company’s CEO, you work closely with him every day, and his homosexuality is out there every day for everyone to see. Be honest. Would you prefer that he keep it private, while you’re able to share your orientation—to talk about your wife or a hot date you had—without discomfort or question?

Now imagine the tables are turned. You work in a predominantly gay company, run by an openly gay leader, and you choose—or feel quietly pressured—to keep your hetero orientation closeted because it makes your colleagues uncomfortable and prevents you from fitting in with the corporate culture.

Not long after Michael Sam’s draft-day smooch was seen and shared around the world, both The New York Times and Forbes ran articles exploring the gay CEO question.

The Times article, by Claire Cain Miller, refers to the “pink ceiling” and explains that the concerns of the customers are often put before the freedoms of the executives. Interestingly, this position differs only in bias—not in logic—from the reasoning behind Mozilla’s dismissal of Brendan Eich: he’s entitled to his personal opinions but if those opinions risk offending customers and damaging our business, we don’t have to employ him.

In some places, discrimination camouflaged as business strategy — “We’re tolerant, but our customers might not be” — is considered acceptable. Even as the gay rights movement progresses at a faster clip than civil rights movements before it, there is an overwhelming pressure in the workplace to hide one’s sexual orientation.

“If we learned anything from the equal rights movements, it’s that legislation and policies are not enough,” said Deena Fidas, the director of Human Rights Campaign’s workplace equality program. “There has to be an actual culture of inclusion.”

Another quote from Fidas identifies the insidious double standard.
“When a straight woman says, ‘My husband is out of town, I’m stretched this week,’ it’s just a professional talking about her life,” Ms. Fidas said. “When a lesbian says, ‘My partner’s out of town,’ it’s deemed unprofessional.”

The Times article also cites a report by Deloitte principal Christie Smith and Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at NYU, which found that “83 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual people hide aspects of their identity at work, often because they say their bosses expect them to,” and Smith goes as far as to call this, “the leadership issue of our time.”

The sexuality of a CEO isn’t something that people really pay much attention to—as long as he or she isn’t openly gay.

The follow up piece in Forbes, by Tim Worstall, reads as if it might have been written by the boys in the boardroom. Worstall opens by criticizing the Times for failing to note that Tim Cook of Apple is gay—though not overtly so—then subtly shifts gears by claiming that with just 1-3% of the adult population being gay—numbers he calls a reasonable estimate, we might expect to see between 10 and 30 CEOs of the top 1,000 companies. Worstall doesn’t say where his reasonable estimate comes from, and a Times article from December 2013 estimates that at least 5% of American males are gay. But Worstall’s whopper comes later in the article, when he writes:

But our problem here is that the sexuality of a CEO isn’t something that people really pay much attention to. When Cook did take over at Apple it’s not something that anyone made a song and dance about, his sexuality, and 99.9% of the country doesn’t know who 90% of those CEOs are anyway, let alone how they care to organise their domestic lives.

I respectfully disagree. The sexuality of a CEO isn’t something that people really pay much attention to—as long as he or she isn’t openly gay. No one paid any attention to the sexuality of NFL players, but everyone paid attention to Michael Sam’s coming out and publicly kissing his partner. I’m guessing—and I bet I’m right—that there are numerous gay CEOs who hide their orientation, and also significant numbers of other executives who stay in the closet for fear they might not get the top job if they come out.

Ultimately, I believe it comes back to Fidas’s point about creating a culture of inclusion and tolerance, which has to happen inside businesses. When companies start setting examples and saying, an employee’s sexual orientation—whether that employee is at the bottom or the top—makes absolutely no difference, then people—both leaders who appoint CEOs and customers who purchase products—will stop paying attention.

About Thomas G. Fiffer
Thomas G. Fiffer, Ethics Editor at The Good Men Project, is a graduate of Yale and holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He posts daily on his blog, Tom Aplomb, and serves as Editor of Westport's HamletHub, a local online news and information service. He is also a featured storyteller with MouseMuse Productions and is working on his first novel.

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