As corporate pride campaigns during the month of June are becoming more mainstream, businesses see increasing pressure to make more tangible commitments to the LGBTQ community than just adding rainbows to their logos or marching in parades.
Employees play a particularly prominent role in getting companies to speak out against government policy proposals they see as anti-LGBTQ, and pushing their employers to reexamine business practices that may affect those communities.
Sixty-nine percent of companies say employee attention contributed to their overall political activity in 2021, according to a May study from the Conference Board, a business membership and research group.
But although companies have generally become more comfortable paying lip service to Pride Month, many times it ends there, according to Jean-Marie Navetta, director of learning and inclusion at LGBTQ advocacy organization PFLAG National.
“One of the biggest pitfalls is when we see companies that only want to have this conversation in June,” she said. “That is problematic because people who are queer are queer every single day and every single month of the year.”
“We quite frequently have companies saying our employees are putting pressure on us to do more,” said Keisha Williams, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Workplace Equality Program. “We have a lot of companies coming to us saying, ‘We want to do more. What do we do?’”
One of the most influential ways companies can promote LGBTQ equity is by using their “corporate voice,” particularly speaking out against legislation that targets the LGBTQ community, said Williams, whose organization advocates and lobbies for LGBTQ rights. With anti-LGBTQ proposals flooding state legislatures, corporations taking a public stance has become even more relevant.
Employees at the Walt Disney Co., for example, staged a walk-out in March to pressure CEO Bob Chapek to oppose Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. Chapek eventually spoke out against the bill, which restricts discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, saying the company would push to have it repealed.
In Texas, a group of 65 companies including Apple Inc., Google LLC, and Microsoft Corp. asked Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in March to abandon his directive requiring the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents of transgender children who permit them to undergo some gender-affirming procedures. The state “policy creates fear for employees and their families,” the companies said.
On the federal level, at least 112 entities have lobbied on the Equality Act this year, compared with 68 in 2020, a Bloomberg Government analysis of lobbying disclosures shows. Unilever PLC, AT&T Inc., Marriott International Inc., Cardinal Health Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and Home Depot Inc. are among the corporations that have thrown their support behind the gay and transgender nondiscrimination bill.
Companies also can take industry-specific measures to support LGBTQ people, Williams said. Mastercard Inc. and Citibank NA have made it easier for transgender people to change their name on credit cards, and Nike Inc. supports transgender athletes and features them on advertisements.
“We’re seeing companies lean into their expertise and seeing what ways they can utilize that expertise to make a broader impact,” Williams said.
Pride campaigns also carry some weight, according to research from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth advocacy organization. A survey from the group found over more than half of youth said brands that support the LGBTQ community positively impact how they feel about themselves.
“When a visible brand amplifies the LGBTQ experience, it can create a groundswell of support and affirmation for the community,” said Shira Kogan, director of corporate partnerships at the Trevor Project. “It’s also important to remember that many LGBTQ young people find themselves in unsupportive environments and communities—so a brand’s loud support for their existence may be the only affirming messaging that they see.”
But such moves aren’t always enough, particularly if companies financially support politicians or organizations that back anti-LGBTQ legislation, Williams said.
Companies generally respond to that type of criticism by saying “they have to run a business,” and it’s difficult to keep track of all the political stances of politicians and entities they support, Navetta said.
But businesses should be asking how they can demonstrate their values and divert their resources toward that effort, she said. “And there is space for that. I don’t think saying ‘That’s just the way it is’ is an acceptable answer.”
The Conference Board’s study found that 57% of companies said attention from board members and executives influenced their political activity, in addition to employee pressure. Fewer than 30% of businesses said they were primarily swayed by investor attention and shareholder activism.
“Both boards and senior executives are paying attention to these topics,” said Paul Washington, the executive director of the Environmental, Social and Governance Center at the Conference Board. “So it’s not just your broader employee base, it’s also the top of the house.”
It’s not always easy to take those kinds of positions, and leadership often splits on taking stances on LGBTQ issues over fear of political backlash or other concerns, Williams said.
But a push for corporate board diversity has the potential to shift that dynamic.
The number of corporations disclosing their board members’s sexual orientation has gone up dramatically in recent years, largely because of Nasdaq’s Board Diversity Rule requiring companies to explain the absence of at least one director who identifies as female and one who identifies as LGBTQ+ or another underrepresented group.
Only 6.6% of S&P 500 companies disclosed their directors’ sexual orientation in 2021, according to another Conference Board study. As of April 2022, that percentage rose to 22.7%.
Representation is just a first step, as board members from marginalized communities are often looked at as the “diversity person,” and may shy away from pushing for issues that impact their communities, said Stephanie Creary, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies corporate boards.
“Policies don’t change unless people put themselves out there,” she said.