WHEN American politicians, television presenters and even clergy come out of the closet these days, it barely makes the headlines. But the corporate world is different: until Apple’s boss, Tim Cook, said on October 30th that he is gay, there had never been an openly homosexual CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
The crossing of this symbolic threshold demonstrates both how much conditions have improved for gay executives and how far boardrooms lag the rest of society. Optimists see Mr Cook as the tip of an iceberg: since the average CEO is over 50 years old, others who are gay have already spent decades in the closet and are unlikely to come out now. Their successors, coming from a generation that has found it ever easier to be “out” at work, will be more visible.
Employers used to avoid hiring gay people for fear of alienating prejudiced customers—John Browne, who ran BP until he was outed in 2007, says Walmart, based in conservative Arkansas, withdrew an invitation to join its board in deference to the “religious right”. Such concerns now look unfounded: recent campaigns to boycott Starbucks and Target shops over gay-friendly policies had little impact. The number of big American firms scoring a maximum 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index—which requires a “public commitment” to gay rights—has risen to 304, from just 13 in 2002.
Some employers have even begun looking for gay managers. In 2010 Heidrick & Struggles, an executive-search firm, established an “inclusion network” of smaller, minority-owned headhunters to help it diversify the lists of candidates it compiles for clients. Among its four members is McCormack & Associates, which specialises in identifying gay talent. (American employers must not discriminate on grounds of sexuality when hiring, but can ask search firms to compile a shortlist of candidates that includes specific types of diversity.) Although about half of McCormack’s clients are gay- or AIDS-related organisations, the firm has also conducted searches for businesses such as Scholastic, a publisher, and Johnson & Johnson, a maker of drugs and medical devices.
Employers have various reasons to seek out homosexuals. Some think their business will do better if its workforce is as diverse as its customer base. One study found that employees were happier working for gay bosses than straight ones. Perhaps the strongest argument is that the discrimination gays still face makes them an underutilised pool of talent: other studies found that gay men earn 10-32% less than straight counterparts in similar jobs. Yet another found that quoting on your CV that you were treasurer of the college gay group is far worse for your prospects than saying that you had held the same position in a campus socialist club.
Though employment policies, such as providing medical benefits to gay partners, are changing rapidly, corporate cultures evolve slowly. It is no coincidence that the first big firm with an openly gay boss once had “Think Different” as its slogan.
In his book, “The Glass Closet”, Mr Browne notes that two-fifths of gay, bisexual and transgender Americans are still closeted at work. Even in banks making an effort to be gay-friendly, he finds, many still keep quiet about their sexuality, just in case. Kenji Yoshino of New York University’s law school notes a tendency for those who are “out” to become ever more open among colleagues until they become candidates for top management, when they begin to play down their sexuality anew. Acceptance of gay people in business is growing, but there is still some way to go.
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