When Apple CEO Tim Cook declared, “I’m proud to be gay,” in a published, widely discussed personal essay in October 2015, it broke a significant barrier in the workplace: He was the first Fortune 500 CEO to publicly be out at work. Many of Cook’s colleagues already knew he was gay, but Cook had come to believe that he had a responsibility to do more. Part of the impact that he hoped for was to “inspire people to insist on their equality.”
Many business leaders applauded his stand (though in the three years since Cook’s announcement, no other big-company CEOs have come forward about their sexuality or gender identity). Today, more than 90% of the Fortune 500 offer non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ employees, up from single-digit percentages two decades ago. Yet legally it’s still okay to fire someone for being gay or transgender in most U.S. states.
Across the nation, legislation and litigation continue to unfold about individual rights regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, and much of it impacts the workplace. Amid the tumult—and the seeming hostility of the Trump Administration—people of all orientations continue to go to work each day, interacting with each other, navigating through unclear messages. Careers and lives hang in the balance, not to mention the health and effectiveness of corporate cultures, as policies and legal requirements shift around us.
Special Report: What It’s Really Like To Be Out At Work In 2017
What, really, has changed in the workplace since Cook’s historic step? To help answer that question, and to understand the often fraught calculations that go into coming out in a professional setting, we partnered this fall with a team at WNYC Studios public radio in New York City, which produces the podcast Nancy, dedicated to the LGBTQ experience. Over two months, the team surveyed nearly 3,000 people about how they’ve navigated gender identity at work. The findings were reassuring in some ways, alarming in others.
What stood out most, as our special report, “Out at Work,” compiled by editor Rich Bellis, reveals, is just how varied and uneven workplaces can be, whether in the public sector or the private, at nonprofits or for-profits. The underlying message, as so often is the case in business, is about leadership: The tone of what is acceptable within organizations is set from the top, with rippling impacts through the ranks.
That’s not to say that individual courage at all levels doesn’t leave its own mark. The Cook Effect, if we can call it that, is the extreme candor in so many of the responses: The personal tales of struggle and opportunity, in a realm where personal privacy has long been the hallmark, and where the risks of openness often greatly outweigh any near-term benefits.
The workplace is both a laboratory for change and a harbinger of the world of tomorrow. The conversation under way about sexual identity at companies reflects our larger cultural dialogue, from newsrooms to classrooms to dining rooms. Like so much else about our places of employment, they can no longer be viewed as isolated realms, but rather reflections of our larger social realities. The way we engage with each other on the job, as colleagues, partners, and even competitors, indicates and grows from how we interact with each other overall.
And here’s the hopeful kicker to all this: Equality and openness, by every measure and all studies, leads to better performance outcomes in business. Making the workplace more accepting enables more creative problem solving and welcomes wider communities of talent to reach their potential and do their best work. This may be a constitutionally encouraged approach, and it may be more empathetic culturally. It also makes business sense. Regardless of politics, that means the marketplace will continue to encourage it.