Hitting the ‘Pink Ceiling’? Ways to Bounce Back

When gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender professionals reach for the stars in the world of business, more often than not they hit the so-called "pink ceiling" of conservative corporate rejection and resistance — a wall-like barrier, expert observers contend, to the business aspirations of the GLBT community.

That point was made during a panel presentation/question-and-answer seminar titled "Business Equality: The Pink Ceiling," held recently at the Prince Music Theater in Center City. The session was part of Equality Forum, the Global GLBT Event, held in Philadelphia. Equality Forum, based in Philadelphia, is a nonprofit group whose mission is to advance national and international GLBT civil rights.

"Overall, there has been dynamic advancement for us in corporate America. Corporations are a hotbed for gay and lesbian advancement in the workplace," maintained Sally Susman, executive vice president for global communications, the Estée Lauder Companies, Inc., New York, who served as panel moderator.

The GLBT population "is the first generation that felt it was okay — that felt it was safe to be openly gay in the workplace," she remarked, adding that "much has been achieved, but more remains to be accomplished. Things are good, but they could be better. There are more women CEOs and more black CEOs, but where are the gay CEOs?"

An audience of several hundred men and women listened, as issues ranging from feeling secure in a job to joining forces with other GLBT professionals in the workplace were examined by the panel that also included John Alchin, executive vice president, co-CFO and treasurer, Comcast Corp., Philadelphia; Karen Magee, senior vice president, strategic planning, Time Warner Inc., New York; Lowell Selvin, chairman and CEO, Planet Out Partners, San Francisco; and Lisa Sherman, senior vice president and general manager, Logo, a New York City-based cable network for GLBT viewers.

Moderator Susman, who said "this panel could not even have been imagined 10 years ago," posed a number of questions to panelists. A key one: "How did the 'pink ceiling' hurt you?" Sherman, for one, who said she was not "out" at the beginning of her work life, related how a workplace-training incident changed that for her.

"The instructor had placed blank, white placards around the room. At the top of each, a different category was written, such as women are, blacks are, gays are, and so on. People were asked what they thought about each group. I was shocked, and became literally physically ill when under gays were written responses such as gays are dirty, gays are crazy, gays spread disease.

"I decided then and there to meet with the company's CEO to tell him of my sexual orientation," explained Sherman, who subsequently left the company because she felt it was the wrong environment for her.

"GLBT people need to thrive personally and professionally," she added.

About the current condition of corporate culture, Selvin stated that "corporations have to do their part to illuminate the gay experience, to let people be who they are."

Pick the Right Time
Alchin offered a hopeful, prudent message: "This is an exciting and challenging time to move the agenda ahead, to gain levels of acceptance. When the 'pink ceiling' barrier is removed and people can be themselves, it makes an enormous difference because both individuals and companies benefit. But you have to know how to pick your time."

There were several questions from the audience, including how to know that right time and place.

Replied Alchin: "It really depends on someone saying, this is where I want to be and here is where I want to make a difference. Also, look carefully at the company's same-sex benefits package."

A young woman also asked whether it's okay to come out at the job interview, and who should initiate it?

"Be ready to discuss it and bring it up only if it's relevant to the job," Susman said.

Selvin was more direct, adding: "I don't care if you're straight or gay — be yourself in the interview."

And is there greater equality in the public or private sectors? "My experience has been that there is more in the private sector. In government, for example, you could find yourself in a bureaucratic place that's a real trap," said Susman, whose own pink-ceiling account is one of workplace fear.

"It was a call at work that my partner's father had died. I was afraid if I left the office to comfort her, there would be repercussions, so I stayed where I was," she explained.

It was nearly 20 years ago, at the beginning of her business career. Since then, she has taken any and all strides forward to be herself, in the process becoming a confident, successful executive.

"I think the best way to overcome any kind of resistance is for people to know you personally. I favor the assertive over the aggressive," relayed Susman.

In answer to a question about the best time to come out in a conservative environment, Magee advised that "it's best not to go to a company where you can't be yourself. But when you've decided on a company and been hired, it's important to find other gay people — 'out employees' at the company –and work to form a network behind the scenes, to find your colleagues and to get out there."

She said it took her more than a year at Time Warner to find 20 senior gay and lesbian people to organize and then request a meeting with the chairman of the company. "It made a difference; the chairman was sincere and wanted to find out about the lives of GLBT people," she said.

"Inevitably, someone's sexual orientation comes up at work, perhaps because of a résumé or through questions about work history. Be prepared to deal with it."

And there are negative consequences to not coming out at work, Sherman said, since careers and career growth are all about one-to-one relationships among friends, family and at work.

"It takes great energy to cover up who you are. People can see that. But once GLBT professionals feel safe, they will come out and stand up for what they deserve in the workplace," noted Selvin.

Magee agreed: "We are going to get to a point where there is total acceptance" in the workplace and in society. 



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