By Guest Contributor Jens Schadendorf
Author of GaYme Changer, Jens Schadendorf, explains the rise of LGBT+ equality in the global #economy and the GaYme Changers working towards the next level.
When I speak on panels related to LGBT+ D&I and corporate social sustainability and/or give presentations related to my books, such as my latest, GaYme Changer, people often ask me what I think about pink-washing. Probably, they expect a harsh critique. My first response is simply:
“I love pinkwashing. We should be grateful for it. It marks a shift – and a basis for reaching out to the next level of the journey.”
A MAJOR SHIFT
Let me briefly explain what I mean. My latest book is about the long struggle of a group of people to be acknowledged and included as equal members of diverse societies wherever they are around the world. Over time, this group’s struggle has reached places where we spend a lot of time and that are not only essential to survival, but also to purpose, leadership, creativity, productivity, and growth: workplaces, local and global markets, and economies.
The group of people, I am speaking of, is, of course, the LGBT+ community, the umbrella term now known by many that includes lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, intersexual, and queer people, plus others with sexual and gender identities different from the norm defined by the majority.
The major shift I am referring to is the steadily increasing contribution of this community to improving not just their own lives, but also the businesses and societies to which they belong. They have made those businesses and societies better in numerous ways, via the many roles that they and their supporters fill: as employees, team leaders, top executives, entrepreneurs, consultants, investors, lawyers, customers, media figures, students, lecturers, researchers, staff in nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, activists, citizens, family members, friends – ultimately, as agents of cultural, legal and economic change.
WHY WE SHOULD BE GRATEFUL FOR DEBATING PINKWASHING
This brings us back to pinkwashing: A decade ago the term didn’t even exist, at least not in the context of LGBT+ inclusion. It was a different world. For example:
- There weren’t the many companies we see today aiming to move visibly towards more LGBT+ inclusion not only at work but also in the markets, communities and societies in which they operate.
- There weren’t the many LGBT+ and ally activists in companies across all genders, ages, ethnicities and hierarchical levels, some of whom are now shown in global and national role model rankings, their activist success celebrated by a variety of awards and on social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook etc.
- There were no CEOs and other top executive leaders – out as LGBT+ or acting as straight allies – arguing the LGBT+ equality business case based on an increasing body of economic and psychological research, and sometimes additionally on the grounds that including every person as she, he or they is, is simply the right thing to do.
- There weren’t all the major and fast-growing organizations in many places around the world that have now developed into a powerful ecosystem of LGBT+ advocacies helping companies, leaders, employees, investors and more on their journey in many ways: providing legal support, networking, benchmarking through indexes, conferences, workshops, how-to guides, background information, research, leading the change, and much more.
- The United Nations, the World Economic Forum and other economically relevant multilateral power centers such as the EU weren’t supporting the path towards LGBT+ equality visibly as they do today.
- There weren’t the many public discussions, programs and events organized by firms, social businesses, corporate coalitions, nonprofits, chambers of commerce, cities, equal marriage campaigns, job fairs, universities, student clubs or multilateral institutions in which we can now participate.
- The general public and the media – traditional and social – weren’t reflecting a zeitgeist of changing values and expectations and a growing body of voices demanding companies be truly LGBT+-friendly and socially committed, rather than merely pretending to be via pink-washing.
BARILLA, A GLOBAL OUTCRY AND TURNING POINT
The list could be significantly more detailed, covering the specific progress of companies, organizations and markets across many industries and sizes globally. This is what I describe in my book, supported by up-to-date research and stories about ga(y)me changing individuals, companies and other organizations and institutions, including state and multilateral agencies, covering five continents.
One is the story of Barilla. In retrospect, 2013–14 represented a key moment when the push for LGBT+ equality in the workplace took on a new momentum. Many factors played a part, some, for instance, related to the UN, some to the World Economic Forum, and some to the fall of 2013, when Guido Barilla made offensive homophobic remarks on Italian radio.
This last incident initiated an unprecedented public outcry globally, marking a youth-driven shift of values and expectations around companies, and pushing the global Italian pasta primus Barilla to start a spectacular and to-this-day credible LGBT+ D&I turnaround.
At the start of this shift, the roughly 150-year old family-owned Barilla Group was suspected of mere image polishing – what today we call pink-washing. Such suspicions should no longer exist – though one should still exercise critical distance in looking at the pasta giant’s ongoing journey.
In any case, Barilla’s story stands as a warning for companies: in a fast-paced, globalized, digital-media, and networked world, there is growing pressure on businesses to take sides for equal LGBT+ rights and opportunities through convincing and verifiable D&I efforts. If they do not, they run the risk of suffering economic damage. The major market jeopardy is reputational and operational – affecting talent acquisition and loyalty, customers, the general public, the media, market partners and further stakeholders, including investors.
At the same time, the details of Barilla’s cultural transformation provide an object lesson in just how quickly a company can manage true cultural change, avoiding the temptation of pink-washing – if it correctly reads the runes, acts courageously in all its markets and sustainably, and is helped by the right people and organizations, including civil rights activists and LGBT+ nonprofits not necessarily directly related to the business world.
NOT A PERFECT WORLD
The Barilla story and others like it do not imply that the world of work and markets has become a perfect place for the LGBT+ community and its growing number of straight allies. It has not. For cultural, religious, legal, power, and/or other reasons, often with deep historical roots, many parts of the globe – including some in liberal Western societies – still do not acknowledge them and their struggle for recognition as human beings and economic actors and their huge potential to contribute economically and socially. It did not take the COVID-19 pandemic to remind us that, especially in times of major crisis, the most vulnerable, which still includes many members of longtime minorities and underrepresented groups, tend to be affected and suffer most. The struggle is not yet over.
However, I have good reason, I think, to argue (here and in my book) that the LGBT+ community is now a powerful factor in the global economy, one that will not be returned to the shadows and cannot be ignored. To the contrary, it needs to be put into the spotlight.
Of course, for both economic and ethical reasons, we should identify and criticize pink-washing companies and push for real change. But to me the mere existence of the term pink-washing reflects substantial progress in the global rise of LGBT+ equality at work. What I love today is that we finally find ourselves debating pink-washing businesses at all, rationally and passionately, and focusing on leveraging the business, economic and social return on investing in LGBT+ inclusion.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in the still numerous places around the globe governed by laws and cultures hostile to LGBT+ people. It would be arrogant and ignorant to forget this. The growing body of research supporting the business and economic case for LGBT+ inclusion shows how failures of equality result in unused human capital and thereby reduced productivity and growth at both company and macroeconomic levels. It should therefore soon be undisputed that it makes business (and moral) sense for firms active in these numerous countries to contribute to greater LGBT+ inclusion there as well. Based on that research, they should focus on their local offices and possibly, depending on the local legal situation, even beyond on their local supply chains, markets and communities. An increasing number of global corporates is doing this already – carefully, and with differentiating strategies, but visibly.
WORKING FOR THE NEXT LEVEL
Beyond the substantial progress made in almost all liberal Western countries, in particular the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Western Europe, and in companies headquartered there, there is no doubt that in these societies and firms too there is still lots to do to make working cultures sustainably open-minded, welcoming and respectful: truly LGBT+ friendly.
The point is that the discussion around pink-washing helps us develop really substantial strategies, tools and best practices for successful LGBT+ workplace inclusion – a more than encouraging sign that we should continue the ga(y)me changing work towards the next level of LGBT+ equality in the economic arena.
Not to go for this next level would mean, at least in the long run, losing talents, customers, business partners, the support of diverse communities and cities, and the diverse perspectives needed for more creativity and innovation in a highly competitive business world. The effects on productivity, sales, revenue, profits and GDP, taxes, the provision of public goods, and much more are huge. Studies, for example, for Kenya and India, show a reduced GDP level of 1.7 and 1.4 percent respectively, due to discrimination of LGBT+ people.
Not to go for the next level would also mean not working for different forms of capitalism, companies and markets in which economic rationales and human rights arguments are not set against each other but thought of together, creating a sustainable win-win for all people and institutions involved.
A WATERSHED MOMENT
I agree with David Pollard, co-founder and Executive Director of Amsterdam-based Workplace Pride Foundation, whom I interviewed recently. “In the greater context of the social changes taking place with the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo debate, and the pandemic,” he sees the world as being at a watershed moment, with businesses and governments likely to take a completely new look at LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace. “I think,” he says, “that everyone will realize that we are in a period of social change as big as or greater than 1968, and that all stakeholders are going to have to adapt to the new reality of being more inclusive around the world.”
There are certainly indicators of a new momentum, some coming from the political arena. For example, in November 2020, the European Commission announced the first-ever strategy for advancing LGBT+ equality in the 27 EU member states, with their roughly 450 million total inhabitants. Just two weeks later, only a month after his election, then President-elect Joe Biden, in a short speech to the International LGBTQ Leaders Conference, committed to building the “most pro-equality administration in history” and pledged to “usher in a new era of LGBTQ rights.”
Both announcements sound promising – not just for Europeans and Americans, but for the world. Still, promises only mean something when they are kept. Economic actors such as business leaders, employees, entrepreneurs, customers, and investors know this well – as do citizens. They also know that there is credible and ongoing action needed to make changes of minds, organizations and cultures happen.
This slightly longer, scene-setting blog is the first in a series that will cover important aspects of “how the LGBT+ community and their allies are changing the global economy” – the subtitle of my book GaYme Changer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JENS SCHADENDORF is an economist, author and keynote-speaker on topics related to diversity and inclusion (D&I), primarily LGBT+ D&I, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and leadership. He also advises companies, scientists, and managers on book projects globally and consults on communications, change, and CSR matters. Alongside this, he is also an independent LGBT+ diversity researcher at the Chair of Business Ethics at the Technical University of Munich, Germany.
The LGBT+ community has experienced a stunning development in a short period of time: yesterday marginalized, stigmatized, and criminalized, now champions of creativity, diversity and innovation in a highly competitive world. In addition, corporate social responsibility and ethical demands for inclusivity have become economic directives that every organization would like to attain. The struggle of recognition is not over yet, but in workplaces and markets, gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and queer individuals have become symbols of diversity and economic power – true GaYme Changers developing the global economy faster and for the better.
Illustrated by fascinating stories around individuals, companies, nonprofits and a fast-growing cohort of organizations, Jens Schadendorf has traced the LGBT+ community and an increasing number of their allies from across the globe to discover the start of a revolution. Supported by up-to-date research, he shows that investment in LGBT+ inclusion delivers a powerful return. Always – even in times of hostility, resistance and crisis – it is economically and ethically beneficial for companies and societies and every human being, to let LGBT+ members develop into dynamic forces, rooted in new forms of cooperation and learning for ga(y)me changing results.