Diverse skill sets and life experiences add depth to boardroom conversations, and LGBTQ+ individuals are beginning to be recognized as members of an underrepresented group ready and able to expand the perspectives and talent in the boardroom. According to data from Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, the openly LGBTQ+ population is growing dramatically: approximately 7 percent of LGBTQ+ people are 65 and older, 20 percent are in their thirties, and 30 percent are aged 18 to 24. As businesses and investors assess board composition in light of a company’s future consumers, employees, and other stakeholders, this is certainly a trend line to note.
I recently spoke with Todd G. Sears, founder and CEO of Out Leadership, whose Quorum initiative focuses on increasing LGBTQ+ representation on boards, about the growing attention to LGBTQ+ diversity, barriers, and myths leading to underrepresentation, and how the conversation is beginning to change.
First things first: As used by Out Leadership, LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer. The “+” represents the various other ways that individuals identify their sex or gender, and is inclusive of people who are HIV+. According to Williams Institute research, 58 percent of the US LGBTQ+ population is white, 21 percent are Latinx, 12 percent are Black, 5 percent are more than one race, and 2 percent are Asian. While a Harvard University study estimated that 7 percent of the total US population is LGBTQ+ (considered by Out Leadership to be at the low end of estimates), LGBTQ+ people occupy only 0.2 percent of board seats.
It’s important to note that the push toward LGBTQ+ inclusion in the boardroom is not about altruism—it is about what Sears, a former investment banker, refers to as “return on equality.” The general benefits of board diversity, including decreased groupthink, better decision-making, and increased innovation, apply. Sears mentioned an additional benefit: greater empathy. “There’s great research that shows that LGBTQ+ people have increased levels of empathy. This develops from learning how to navigate between the gay and the straight world,” he said. “We bring that into the boardroom, with a unique and valuable ability to see multiple perspectives.” Furthermore, an LGBTQ+-inclusive board policy expands the pool of talent intersectionally across gender, race, and ethnicity.
During our conversation, we touched on a few historical barriers and Sears dispelled a few myths. He described barriers including self-exclusion due to lack of visible role models; the “lavender ceiling” that has limited openly LGBTQ+ executives (particularly openly self-identified lesbians and trans individuals) from reaching the roles that serve as traditional pathways to the boardroom, such as CEO or chief financial officer; and critical intangibles such as the ever-elusive concept of “fit.”
The myth that there is a limited pipeline of LGBTQ+ talent was quickly dispelled when Sears, commenting on the 1,400 leaders in the Quorum database, said, “They have all created profiles and self-identified so that when companies finally say gay board members matter, we can say, ‘Great, here they are.’” Another myth Sears feels strongly about is the view that companies shouldn’t ask about or disclose a director’s sexual orientation. Noting that companies in 37 countries ask LGBTQ+ employees to self-identify at all levels of the organization, he says, “People don’t have to disclose their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, but if you don’t ask, they can’t.”
The interest in LGBTQ+ diversity is growing. California board diversity law AB 979 and the Nasdaq proposal currently pending before the US Securities and Exchange Commission both include it in their definitions of diversity, and it is seeping into broader stakeholder conversations around board diversity, as well. Out Leadership’s report, Visibility Counts: The LGBTQ+ Board Leadership Opportunity, includes a call to action with the following recommendations:
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of NACD Directorship magazine.
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