By Julia Chatterley, CNN
Earlier this week I took part in a ground-breaking event away from the main Congress Centre in Davos. On the 50th anniversary of World Economic Forum, some seven months after the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality (PGLE) was formally welcomed into the Davos fold. Well, nearly.
On the face of it, a breakfast event on the Davos side-lines might not seem like a big deal; but this was something significant. LGBTI issues have been discussed here before, but not quite like this. PGLE, an initiative launched last year by Accenture, Deutsche Bank, EY, Mastercard, Microsoft, Omnicom and Salesforce, in collaboration with the WEF and backed by the UN, is something new. This was as close as you are likely to get to a fully integrated, supercharged conversation here.
Say what you like about Davos, but there is nowhere that ties together the diverse strands of activism, business and government in quite the same way. If you were ever going to find a room to get these groups together, it is in the Swiss Alps in January.
Stonewall’s anniversary was celebrated in my adopted home town of New York with gusto last year. I’ll admit to buying a couple of rainbow coloured cupcakes, and the confident display of Pride that seemed to flow down every street and along every wall felt like a vivid explosion of love. It was also something that could easily lead to a false sense of security. Around the world, LGBTI rights are anything but secure.
Entering this new decade there are still more than 68 countries where the simple act of having sexual relations with a consenting adult of the same gender is criminalised. There are at least nine national laws that target transgender and non-conforming people, making some forms of gender expression illegal.
There are countries where the LGBTI community must risk everything simply to be themselves. In a group of countries that includes Singapore, they face as many as six years in jail for same sex relations. In places like Kenya, South Sudan, Malaysia, Brunei and Myanmar they risk up to a decade. In Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, and Pakistan, incredibly in 2020, the death penalty.
Even in rainbow-flag festooned America, there is no federal protection for same sex couples, and eleven states retain laws, albeit unenforceable ones, prohibit same-sex relations, and that in spite of a 2003 Supreme Court ruling declaring such laws to be unconstitutional. The land of the not so free in this case.
The implications of all this for businesses are obvious. Faced with such restrictions, might they simply not want the hassle of taking on the law? How can workers feel confident that the simple step of being honest about their private lives will not threaten their careers? What about same sex couples and issues like parental leave? Dare they start families in the knowledge that they will not receive the same support as their heterosexual colleagues?
In an age when diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias training is being embraced, and for sound business reasons, this is not only sad, it is bad for productivity and innovation. A happy, diverse workforce is demonstrably advantageous to creating a strong, competitive, innovative company.
During the panel, I heard something that I know to be true from my own experience of colleagues. The enormously impressive Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told the story of the person he ‘created’ at work, because he feared the risk of coming out. I started my career at a large American investment bank, where I appeared to have no LGBTI colleagues at all. Statistically implausible, but something that, to my shame, I didn’t question. Either people were afraid of the consequences of telling the truth or worse they didn’t even apply for a job in the first place. Times have clearly changed, but it’s not enough.
Tuesday’s panel was eye-opening for me, as well as inspiring. As in many areas right now, it seems businesses are actually better placed to move the needle on this issue than governments. Multinationals operating in countries where same sex relations are illegal can be a safe haven for LGBTI people, and the impact those businesses make on the economic bottom line will make any government think twice about legislating against their employees. That means they can shift the political landscape too.
Another theme that emerged was that there are different ways to progress. GLAAD’s Sarah-Kate Ellis spoke of the need to be sympathetic to organisations that have made missteps and how to work with companies that make mistakes, rather than condemn them. This too is important – the notion of a community that is reasonable, forgiving, welcoming and warm is an attractive one, albeit one that is perhaps easier to achieve in countries such as the United States. Likewise, as Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch pointed out, going into a country to try to force down long-held barriers, can risk setting back the LGBTI cause. Evidence suggests that businesses going into those countries and making the economic case for inclusion might be more effective.
That being said, this is not an excuse for businesses to play lip service to the cause, jump on the rainbow bandwagon, or assume that they have cracked this simply by declaring themselves as allies. This is a complex issue and one that – like diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias in general – requires rigorous policing internally, too.
The idea of business as a force for good is a compelling one in this space. Companies can cross borders, they are not subject to term limits, they can be increasingly confident that the LGBTI community, and perhaps more importantly, its increasingly vocal allies, will rush to their defense if they are punished for taking a stand. The economics of inclusiveness, it seems, can win the day for all. Driving this debate more formally on to the Davos agenda was a smart and welcome move. As PGLE executive director Dan Bross remarked, perhaps this debate can continue inside the Congress Centre itself next year.