How Does Equality at Work Become a Reality?

In much of America, you can still be fired for being gay. You can be denied government services. You can lose your home. Ensuring our basic civil rights protections is at the heart of the cases that the Supreme Court is hearing this week. Businesses have been a key community that have stood with us in this legal effort. They signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief in record numbers, and they are a key component of the coalition that is pushing to pass the Equality Act. 

There is another important way that businesses, and other large employers, are showing up for us. Next week, more than 6,000 people will be coming to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Out & Equal Workplace Summit, the largest gathering of LGBTQ professionals anywhere in the world. These attendees come from 38 countries and represent more than 70% of Fortune 1000 companies. And it’s not just the business sector; five U.S. government agencies are also sponsoring this conference. 

Summit is a forum for thought leadership. It brings together a richly diverse group who raise ideas and programs that push the envelope, who give visibility to often ignored identities, and who establish best and next practices. Summit workshops and stages are where the next iteration of LGBTQ workforce inclusion is showcased: The future is pan. It is non-binary. It is unafraid to call out racism. It openly acknowledges the significance of mental health at work. 

What started as a small gathering 20 years ago has grown into a powerful testament of the commitment of leaders of large businesses to further equality and belonging. What can explain this meteoric growth? 

First, large businesses increasingly understand that fostering inclusion impacts their bottom line. When people can show up authentically at work, unencumbered by fears – of social isolation, judgment, or worse – simply because they happen to be LGBTQ, individuals, teams and, yes, businesses and other types of organizations thrive. 

This business case is particularly pronounced when it comes to recruiting and retaining top talent. Companies who fail to create a workplace atmosphere where employees feel comfortable end up losing out. Younger generations, Millennials and Generation Z, identify as not “exclusively heterosexual” in far higher rates than older generations. Business leaders have figured out that they need to adapt if they’re going to survive. 

Second, Out & Equal has transformed its approach to facilitate and support the type of interaction professionals and organizations need to succeed in these times. Historically, organizations like ours invested in developing proprietary knowledge and passing it out to the businesses that we want to impact. That top-down approach may have been the norm in the past, but it is no way to get things done in today’s interconnected world. It’s also a wastefully inefficient way to bring change. 

Our approach starts with the recognition that nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. Rather, the people within these companies and government agencies who work – day in, day out – on improving the work lives of LGBTQ employees have a great deal of knowledge. We can do more for our cause by creating opportunities for these practitioners to come together, learn from each other, and co-create better solutions to the challenges that need to be addressed. 

The 6,000 people who will be at the Workplace Summit will certainly have the opportunity to learn from each other. But it’s not the only such opportunity available to them. 

In the United States, we know that there are different religious and cultural contexts that impact what it’s like to lead LGBTQ lives. Life in San Francisco or New York is different than in the rural South. The tools that have been used successfully in big cities to impact workplaces need to be tailored in order to be as effective in rural settings. This awareness drove us to convene two forums this year in the South. By bringing southerners together to explore the obstacles they face, and the solutions that have worked in their companies, we can catalyze change. The answer is never one-size-fits-all. 

The same logic applies to our work outside of the United States. We forge partnerships across Latin America and hold summits in Brazil, India, and China. We know that the most impactful thing to do is bring together our partners who function in those regions so that they can figure out together the strategies and nuances that they need to pursue to make their workplaces ones where all people are equal, belong, and thrive. 

You might be surprised to hear that businesses are sharing their best practices with one another. They certainly are! I can tell you, in these trying times, they are less interested in competing in the areas of diversity and inclusion, than in coming together to more efficiently improve their organizational cultures. This realization drove us to develop a new online Global Hub (in partnership with JP Morgan Chase) that gives change agents in each organization a secure portal in which they can engage with their colleagues at other businesses – anytime, anywhere. 

The legal advocacy being done to protect LGBTQ rights to employment, at the Supreme Court and vis-à-vis the Equality Act, matters. As our community pursues these basic protections, we also need to invest in what it takes for each of us to be ourselves and to thrive at work. 

Work is where we spend most of our waking hours. We interact with our coworkers. We brainstorm together. We grab coffee together. It is who we share our lives with. But too many people in our community, even if they do not fear that they will be fired for who they are, do not work in a space that allows them to fully share who they are. The work that gets done at Summit in Washington next week, and all around the year by Out & Equal and our partners, is how this reality gets better. 

Erin Uritus is CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, the world’s premier nonprofit dedicated to achieving global LGBTQ workplace equality.