Read this article to understand:
- The challenges LGBTQ+ people still face, including in the workplace
- What progress has been made and what remains to be done
- How companies can create a culture of LGBTQ+ inclusion
In The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle described establishing purpose, sharing vulnerability and building safety as the three tenets of enabling successful groups. Safety in particular forms the basis for healthy interactions that allow group members such as employees to shift their focus to the task at hand rather than worrying about their place in the group. It is created by delivering a steady stream of “belonging cues”, behaviours that create a safe connection.
Coyle wrote: “They seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.”
Stemming from the fact early humans depended on their social group to survive, our subconscious is obsessed with psychological safety, constantly looking for belonging cues. The key to creating safety in organisations is to deliver belonging signals consistently.1
The commercial case for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is well established, supported by a large body of research. Diversity of thought makes for better ideas and decisions, customers are well represented and catered for, company reputations are bolstered, and a broader pool of talent can be accessed, which is crucial in asset management, an industry largely dependent on human capital.2
“If a company that has DE&I initiatives supportive of LGBTQ+ rights is explicitly trans inclusive, I'm able to function and exist properly in that environment, so I am in a much better place,” says Enna Cooper, product manager at Morningstar UK and co-lead of the EMEA chapter of Out@Morningstar. “I can do my job and perform better so I can advance more. I can have a career rather than just a job.”
But Coyle’s point on psychological safety, also made in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Laura Delizonna, an executive coach and performance culture consultant, is that the benefits of diversity cannot be harnessed without it.3 In the HBR piece, Delizonna wrote:
“Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs.”
In organisations, this depends on all employees adopting the right behaviours, which is why culture is so important. For LGBTQ+ colleagues, many of whom must decide every day whether it is safe to come out, it is a central aspect of inclusion in the workplace. Putting up posters during Pride Month, while positive, will not create psychological safety if nothing else is done.
Of course, the umbrella terms LGBTQ+ or queer refer to an incredibly diverse group of people, beginning with the fact sexual orientation and gender identity are entirely unrelated, meaning each group faces its own challenges.4 Progress has also been uneven – and seen pushback.
In addition, every experience is unique, and individuals face issues specific to their own background and life path. For instance, a transgender woman in a developing country who has struggled to find employment because of her gender expression and a rich gay man in a developed country who has the resources to live a comfortable life will have had completely different lived experiences.
Acknowledging this article cannot reflect all the experiences, orientations, identities and challenges of the people who identify as queer or LGBTQ+, it nonetheless aims to describe some of the biggest issues and progress to date in the workplace, explore what else needs to be done, and give companies the tools to build and reinforce an LGBTQ+ inclusive working culture.
From small assumptions to national laws, challenges are wide-ranging
The challenges facing the queer community are wide-ranging. As of December 2022, homosexuality remains criminalised in 68 countries, to which must be added further discriminatory laws, such as bans on “gay propaganda”, which restricts minors’ access to information on sexual orientation or transgender identities, for example in Russia and Hungary.5 As of 2019, homosexuality was punishable by death in ten countries, to which Uganda was added this year (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Countries where homosexuality can result in the death penalty
Note: In Qatar and Mauritania, the law applies to Muslims (the latter only men). Laws are regional in parts of Nigeria and Somalia where sharia has been adopted.
Source: Statista, 20196 and The Guardian, 20237
Even countries where being LGBTQ+ is not a crime can fail to protect people. For instance, the UK government has delayed its ban on conversion “therapy” – a practice aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity – and said it would not include transgender conversion “therapy” in the law, as it deems it too complex. In a historical first, it recently blocked gender recognition reforms in Scotland, further damaging the lived experiences of and rhetoric around trans lives and identities.8,9,10
LGBTQ+ rights, and the progression of them, are not synonymous with the reversal of other people’s rights
“While general inclusion for LGBTQ+ people has come a long way, we’re only ever one changing government or minister away from potentially having rights repealed,” says Daniel Clark-Bland, head of IT change and Pride co-chair at Aviva.
“There seems to be this terrible overarching view that, if you give trans people rights, you remove rights from women. That’s not the case. And that’s the same for all LGBTQ+ people,” he adds. “LGBTQ+ rights, and the progression of them, are not synonymous with the reversal of other people’s rights.”
At work, in those places where it is at least legally safe to disclose one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, challenges revolve around a lack of representation in corporate environments, particularly of trans and non-binary people. Not only do they lack role models, but being an “only” – the only lesbian or the only trans person, for example – can also fuel anxiety and isolation.11
Although young adults increasingly identify as non-heterosexual and non-cisgender, in a 2021 global survey only four per cent of Gen-Zers identified as transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid or “in another way” – compared to one per cent of people over 40. Eighteen per cent identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual or asexual, compared to nine per cent of the overall population.12 These small numbers make LGBTQ+ people more likely to be an “only” at work, particularly non-cisgender people.
Equal access to paid family and medical leave is another concern
Another concern is equal access to paid family and medical leave, where policies don’t support non-traditional family structures and gender transitioning. Some LGBTQ+ individuals may be afraid to even ask for leave if equal protections aren’t expressly offered, as doing so might disclose their identity.13
But LGBTQ+ people at work also suffer overt prejudice and discrimination. According to a 2019 McKinsey survey in the US, while women overall face more microaggressions and sexual harassment than men, LGBTQ+ people face more than straight colleagues. LGBTQ+ employees may also face discrimination from clients, vendors, or other business partners, and can face danger when they travel for work to less LGBTQ+ friendly countries.14
This discrimination is more pronounced against certain members of the community; transgender people have reported higher rates of bullying or workplace discrimination.15
On a day-to-day basis, entrenched practices and stereotypes translate into assumptions and cultural signals that reinforce a particular heteronormative, gendered view of employees. People’s tendency to assume heterosexuality, for instance by asking about a husband or wife instead of a partner, can make an individual feel alienated, even when the question is well intended.
In terms of specific LGB challenges, Clark-Bland says there is often a lack of lesbian representation and visibility of lesbian women in corporate spaces, whereas gay men face the challenge of how to overcome toxic masculinity and harmful stereotypes, for example.
Just because someone has slightly more camp mannerisms, is gregarious or feels more like themselves if they wear makeup, they’re not less of a man
“Masculinity takes many forms. Just because someone has slightly more camp mannerisms, is gregarious or feels more like themselves if they wear makeup, they’re not less of a man,” he says.
He adds bisexual people often have tough challenges in terms of representation and feelings of belonging too, but also in social understanding and acceptance. They are often told they cannot belong in either straight or LGBTQ+ categories, which can make them feel isolated, as well as being on the receiving end of jokes aimed at their sexual orientation.
“All these are harmful stereotypes that seem to be more freely loaded towards the bisexual community,” says Clark-Bland.
Gender identity challenges
“Thematically, across the globe, there is a negative and harmful rhetoric for trans and non-binary people, so if you are trans or non-binary, just existing must be tough,” says Clark-Bland.
In addition, because trans and non-binary people are so few, the lack of representation and voice is even more pronounced than for other LGBTQ+ groups, so gender identity issues remain unspoken and invisible in many workplaces.
While younger generations increasingly embrace a more fluid and inclusive approach to gender identity, the gender binary remains omnipresent, from toilets to forms and legal documents. This effectively excludes non-binary people, who are confronted with the absence of their gender identity in daily life.16
Morningstar’s Cooper says one of the biggest issues is people’s lack of knowledge and experience.
“The trans population of the UK is around one per cent. That includes trans men, trans women, non-binary people, but also, for trans people, those who have socially transitioned full-time, part-time (for example, only outside work), and those who haven’t yet started to transition socially, so it is an even smaller number,” she says. “And many people may not realise a person they know is trans, so people’s experience is minimal.”
The current anti-trans rhetoric can more easily take hold because people can’t associate it with the reality of someone they know
This also means the current anti-trans rhetoric in some parts of the mainstream media and social media can more easily take hold because people can’t associate it with the reality of someone they know.
“It’s easy to demonise groups people don’t know,” says Cooper. “It marginalises an already marginalised group even further and makes the struggle harder.”
She says it also creates more uncertainty for trans people when they meet people, including at work.
“I never know how other people will perceive me. Not knowing when you could next face transphobia, not knowing if new colleagues, even a new boss, will support trans rights can be hard,” she says. “Unless an environment is explicitly trans inclusive, you can never really be sure every person you encounter supports trans rights.”
She also says passing privilege makes a difference in trans people’s experience, as those who conform more closely to socially acceptable gender stereotypes are often more accepted.
“There have been trans models like Andreja Pejić and Lea T, and people think trans women who look like them are acceptable. But if somebody conforms less to it, things can be harder,” she says.
The challenges also vary depending on the stage of the transition.
“From a mental health perspective, I have fewer challenges now than I did before I transitioned full time,” says Cooper. “Before I transitioned at work, I used to have anxiety attacks regularly because of the cognitive dissonance of how I was trying to exist. Now, nine years after I transitioned full time, that doesn’t happen anymore. There is a huge mental and emotional health aspect.”
Unfortunately, even though most people would rather not hide their sexual orientation or gender identity, coming out or transitioning socially remain difficult.
“For a trans person, you never know what reaction you will get. Coming out is one of the biggest risks you can take,” says Cooper. “You could lose family, friends, jobs, even where you live depending on your landlord. It is probably the biggest thing you can deal with, especially in the current environment.”
Coming out is not just a one-off; it must be done repeatedly, every time they meet someone new, which can be exhausting
And for people who haven’t yet socially transitioned at work, as well as for LGB people, coming out is not just a one-off; it must be done repeatedly, every time they meet someone new, which can be exhausting.
“Part of the problem is we’re conditioned to just assume,” says Clark-Bland. “It’s, in the most part, not from a harmful place, but it makes you feel like you are constantly either having to hide yourself or having to come out when it shouldn’t matter.”
Junior employees and women in particular tend to avoid coming out, for fear it will lead to discrimination or hold back their careers.17 It means there are fewer voices to speak out for LGBTQ+ inclusion and fewer role models, but the closeted individuals themselves may be condemned by their peers for not being authentic. Respecting each person’s decision as to when and whether to come out is also important to being inclusive.
Strengths of the community
But Cathy Denyer O’Leary, head of operational governance and controls at Vanguard and chair of InterInvest, says there are also specific pros to being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Resilience is inherently part of any person within the LGBTQ+ community, which may not be the case for other people
“When you’re saying, ‘my wife’ instead of ‘my husband’, that takes a huge amount of resilience; that is built up from the moment people come out,” she says. “Resilience is inherently part of any person within the LGBTQ+ community, which may not be the case for other people.”
And while they all fight not to be moulded into someone else by corporate culture, they are both adaptable and empathetic.
“At some point in every person of the LGBTQ+ community’s lives, they’ve had to play at being someone else,” says Denyer O’Leary. “This is a generalisation, but most can empathise with how being an outsider feels, which makes them strong and caring leaders as well.”
Progress and pushback
Thankfully, LGBTQ+ inclusion has seen progress in recent years, particularly on LGB.
In a 2022 survey across 12 geographies, Deloitte found most companies (80 per cent) had incorporated LGBTQ+ inclusion in their talent or inclusion priorities, which had led to meaningful support for LGBTQ+ employees across the organisation, but also in employees’ home countries. As a result, over 70 per cent of respondents were more likely to stay with their current company.18
Progress has been particularly noticeable in talking about LGBTQ+ issues in the workplace, fostered by employee resource groups (ERGs) and LGBTQ+ networks, DE&I training, and large numbers of vocal and passionate allies, including among senior leaders.
The gay female and male parts of the LGBTQ+ community have become more normalised
“Certainly, the gay female and male parts of the LGBTQ+ community have become more normalised,” says Denyer O’Leary. “And once it becomes normal, people begin to accept it. That is beginning to look like it's successful in parts of the LGBTQ+ community, although not yet in others.”
DE&I and inclusivity policies are also being increasingly adopted, as are initiatives to foster inclusive behaviours and deter intolerant ones, including monetary rewards for members of DE&I networks, and fines and other punishments for homophobic or transphobic behaviours.
On transgender inclusion, Cooper says huge progress has been made, certainly in London. She was educated during the period of Section 28 laws, which barred local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality, meaning schools could not talk about it, not to mention gender identity.
“We grew up in this environment where, in theory, nobody at school was queer,” she says. “It affects how you think about things, the language you use; we didn’t have that.”
Then, in the 1990s, gay and queer rights began to get accepted, and in 2014, Time magazine ran a “Transgender Tipping Point” issue with Laverne Cox on the cover.
“Orange is the New Black was the new show at the time; Janet Mock was in the press in the US; Paris Lees here,” adds Cooper. “There were suddenly relatively high-profile trans women in the media and press, and [the reality TV show] Big Brother had trans people in it. People were seeing trans people for the first time in the media where they weren’t punchlines, perverts, representations of the tropes you see in film, and it helped normalise being trans.
“To go from Section 28 to one of the biggest magazines in the world writing, ‘trans people are here, they’re normal, get on with it,’ was huge progress,” she adds.
But she says in hindsight, that is when pushback started from people defining themselves as “gender critical” (GCs), whose anti-trans rhetoric was picked up by some politicians and socially conservative media, with social media playing a major role.
Certain celebrities, politicians, and most newspapers present trans rights as a threat to cis women’s rights
“Certain celebrities, politicians, and most newspapers present trans rights as a threat to cis women’s rights, and trans women as a physical threat to women and children,” says Cooper. “It doesn’t matter this isn’t backed up by crime statistics, it’s the narrative that is out there, and it finds its way into general discourse and opinion. Unless this can be successfully challenged, it’s only going to get worse.”
Taking a positive view, however, she says that, like all progress, it is a cycle, with the hope the amount of progress will outweigh the negative reaction.
“We’re at that point now with this huge pushback, but there are also more allies than ever. What we need to do next is reverse that pushback, and hopefully start moving forward again,” she adds.
What remains to be done
Some of the gaps in companies’ approach to creating an LGBTQ+ inclusive culture are in policies, for example to include coverage for trans people’s transitionary process through private health insurance offered by employers. There also needs to be better accountability for targets. Some initiatives can seem like a tick-box exercise rather than a will to foster real inclusivity, while others confine themselves to participating in Pride Month without seeking to improve behaviours day to day.
Firms need to move beyond performative gestures of support and create a more positive work experience for LGBTQ+ colleagues. This should include not expecting gay and trans colleagues to work with clients who are homophobic or transphobic and, if it happens, supporting the LGBTQ+ employee.
If possible, don’t take on clients who have anti-LGBTQ+ agendas, including media clients
“And if possible, don’t take on clients who have anti-LGBTQ+ agendas, including media clients,” says Cooper. “You need to show you’re doing the work and it’s not a tick-box exercise, that you’re not scared to alienate people. You have to take those stands.”
Clark-Bland adds that, as well as reviewing the representation of LGBTQ+ identities in systems, processes and products, investment management firms can do more on the ethics of their investments.
“Do asset managers consciously stand by their ethics and not invest in non-inclusive companies or countries where it’s still illegal to be LGBTQ+?” he says.
In addition, Denyer O’Leary says money speaks louder than words, and investment is still missing across a number of asset management organisations, which is hampering progress, particularly if companies do not hire for dedicated DE&I roles. Cooper agrees, adding money is needed for partnerships with specialist organisations like LGBT Great and the Diversity Project, giving budgets to networks to put on events, and setting up management training.
“It’s essential management have DE&I training, especially in organisations where, due to the industry we work in, senior management tend not to see a lot of diversity,” she says.
Taking others on the journey
More effort is also needed to educate all employees to foster understanding and inclusivity. ERGs and individual behaviours of immediate colleagues are essential to build an atmosphere of psychological safety. Simple actions, like the generalised use of pronouns, can be strong belonging cues, while sharing people’s stories and experiences humanises them, creating cultures that support and include all kinds of people, no matter their background or how they identify.
More effort is also needed to educate all employees to foster understanding and inclusivity
To Denyer O’Leary, that makes care the most important value to have within a company’s culture, so people are comfortable asking colleagues how they are impacted by current events and news around LGBTQ+ issues, such as anti-trans rhetoric or the postponed ban on conversion therapy.
“They are the kind of conversations we should be having internally to ask people how it is impacting them,” she says.
This would go a long way in making people more comfortable sharing their data too, to give companies a better idea of how many LGBTQ+ employees they have and how best to support them. Denyer O’Leary says this data is generally poor, as many people don’t want to disclose.
“One, it's creating that atmosphere of inclusion. But it's also it's also incumbent on companies to explicitly explain what they are using the data for,” she says.
Senior allyship and representation are also central to building trust, and leaders should embrace and recognise a broad range of styles in terms of what success looks like. In that regard, showcasing successful LGBTQ+ colleagues can make a real difference to people who may be worried about coming out.
It's saying there are queer people who can succeed
“It's not just saying there are queer people here,” says Cooper. “It's saying there are queer people who can succeed.
“I have a reasonably high profile within our business due to my role; I’m also part of the EMEA leadership team of our LGBTQ+ network and the regional DE&I champion for my global business group. People know who I am, they know I’m trans, and they can see that isn’t holding me back at work. If you feel able to do it, it’s really important,” she adds.
However, she also says we need to be wary of minority tax, where the work to make workplaces more inclusive falls on people from the marginalised groups; allies must step forward as well.
Heightening the focus on trans inclusion
But, as discussed earlier, one key gap is a focus on trans rights and inclusion.
“As a community, we need to make sure we’re being more inclusive and pushing those agendas even if we don’t know whether we have representation from the trans community in our company or in our sector-wide initiatives like InterInvest and the Diversity Project,” says Denyer O’Leary.
Trans people can wait years for the help they need to be able to live as themselves
For Cooper, this includes pushing governments to deliver better recognition, stronger rights and, crucially, better healthcare for trans people. One difficulty in the UK is that, if a trans person uses private medical care for any part of their transition process, they immediately lose access to any transition-related NHS care, including things as simple as blood tests or renewing repeat prescriptions. This makes it hard to choose private care exclusively, and ties people in with their employer, as they risk losing access to care if they change jobs.
But Cooper says there are only seven gender identity clinics in the UK. The transition process requires a trans person to undergo two assessments to confirm a diagnostic of gender dysphoria before anything else can be done. With so few clinics and so little funding, waiting lists for a first appointment have risen to three and a half years. This puts a heavy burden on trans people’s mental health, as they can wait years for the help they need to be able to live as themselves.
“Trans people have among the highest suicide rates of any group,” says Cooper. “Things are progressing, but people are still dying as a result of these delays.”
Within the workplace, the biggest area of focus must be to ensure trans people are safe and show them they are.
“Safe covers a wide range of things,” adds Cooper. “A company needs to buy into DE&I properly, it needs to train management, it needs LGBTQ+ campaigns.”
The importance of allies
Creating psychological safety also requires strong allyship.
Allyship is about knowing when to stand behind, stand beside, and stand in front
Clark-Bland quotes a saying used by Global Butterflies (an organisation that aims to bring better awareness to the business sector about the trans and non-binary community): “Allyship is about knowing when to stand behind, stand beside, and stand in front.”19
Allyship requires being visible and present, using your influence, educating yourself, and simply being kind – for example, using pronouns, asking colleagues how they are, and questioning your assumptions.
Speaking out in the face of homophobia or transphobia and standing up for your colleagues is a key part of allyship. But beyond this, there are many ways to support LGBTQ+ colleagues, from being vocal and visible to creating safe spaces within teams, making sure everyone is heard and valued, or being ready to listen and support colleagues who need to talk.
Figure 2: Examples of allyship that make LGBTQ+ people comfortable to be out at work
Source: Deloitte, 202220
Denyer O’Leary says a great way to be an ally is to ask an LGBTQ+ person how best to support them, highlighting the importance of asking questions.
“We all make mistakes, you just say sorry and move on,” she says. “Don't be afraid to ask, because most people will be happy to answer questions if you're not sure. Just allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask them to tell you if you accidentally say something wrong or offensive. That's the key.”
Two important points to note when asking trans people questions, however, are that it is never acceptable to ask about “dead names” (i.e., the name someone was given at birth); nor is it ever acceptable to ask whether someone has had gender-affirming surgery.
Allies need to acknowledge they know less than they might think
“That is really sensitive, personal information,” says Cooper. “It is the most private thing possible, and it is completely irrelevant.”
Self-education can help too, and Cooper says allies need to acknowledge they know less than they might think.
“Recognise trans people face issues other people don't know, whether it's in mental health, backgrounds that include anxiety and depression and this kind of thing,” she says. “Everybody from a minority group faces microaggressions all the time, and they take a toll, so it's recognising there is a struggle.”
To learn and show support, allies should attend the educational sessions set up by ERGs, as well as encouraging others to attend.
“You can't be a good ally and just go to the Pride Party,” says Cooper. “You have to do the other work as well.”
Being trans inclusive
Pronouns are of course very important to trans and non-binary people, and allies should do their best to use the correct ones. In addition, they should add their own pronouns to their email signatures, MS Teams or Zoom profiles, and social media profiles, to normalise the practice, and make it easier for trans and non-binary people to share theirs.
Whether it’s LGBTQ+, carers, age, whatever it is and whoever you’re working with; act with kindness and you cannot go wrong
“If four of us are on a call and I am the only person with pronouns by my name, it looks politicised,” says Cooper. “But if all four of us have them, it starts to be normal.”
In addition, it is important to ensure a company’s women’s and LGBTQ+ networks are specifically trans-inclusive, and to communicate that fact clearly, so trans people can be assured they are safe spaces for them too.
Finally, says Cooper, companies need to make all these measures inclusive of all trans people, whatever their degree of passing privilege.
“Just be kind,” concludes Clark-Bland. “Whether it’s LGBTQ+, carers, age, whatever it is and whoever you’re working with; act with kindness and you cannot go wrong.”