Breaking the lavender ceiling

A groundbreaking new report by Korn Ferry and Out & Equal looks at the progress and continued challenges faced by out LGBTQ+ leaders in the workplace.

Four. There are only four openly LGBTQ+ CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies.

Despite the progress made to foster more inclusive workplaces, major employers still lack LGBTQ+ representation among senior executives—and in leadership pipelines. LGBTQ+ employees face what advocates call the “lavender ceiling”: a calcified mix of overt and subtle bias, limiting stereotypes, and structural inequalities that block career growth.

Research shows that visibility and representation are incredibly powerful—for inclusion, for well-being, for career mobility, and for performance. In fact, Korn Ferry studies show that diverse and inclusive teams are 87% more likely to make better decisions, and companies that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are more likely to score higher on measures of corporate effectiveness, such as employee engagement and development, innovation, and financial strength.

In this groundbreaking new study with over 130 LGBTQ+ leaders and allies, and Korn Ferry and Out & Equal found that visibility is important, but alone is not a cure-all for persistent biases and headwinds that LGBTQ+ leaders experience on the job. Instead, to create more inclusive, representative leadership, companies will need to foster cultures that leverage diversity, promote career advancement with concrete programs in place, and drive collective progress.

Based on interviews and survey results, our report, Experiences of the Lavender Ceiling:Progress and continued challenges facing out LGBTQ+ leaders at work, uncovers themes and narratives that not only highlight the challenges LGBTQ+ leaders face, but also showcase their resilience and ingenuity as they pursue their career goals, as well as feedback on how organizations can improve. Here are three key insights from our research.

1. Visibility at work is central to LGBTQ+ leaders’ sense of responsibility to themselves and others.  

For 94% of the LGBTQ+ leaders surveyed, visibility is a non-negotiable responsibility to themselves and to others. These out-at-work leaders want to step up and pave the way—fostering welcoming, inclusive, and comfortable environments for the next generations and empowering others to feel safe to be their authentic selves.

LGBTQ+ respondents were also clear on the benefits they receive personally from being fully open at work—from improved relationships with colleagues to maximizing their own potential and increased productivity. Non-LGBTQ+ respondents also noted these benefits, flagging the value of being open at work for the LGBTQ+ individual and for the organization.

Visibility and openness at work lead to positive health outcomes and stronger relationships. Nearly nine-in-ten (89%) LGBTQ+ respondents reported improved health and wellness after coming out at work, with 85% saying their life and relationships outside of work also improved. It can also positively affect career mobility: 45% of all LGBTQ+ respondents reported that being out at work resulted in greater access to mentorship opportunities and resources for career growth.

To sustain and maximize the effects of visible LGBTQ+ leaders, organizations should engage in regular workplace climate assessments to surface challenges to LGBTQ+ employees’ sense of safety and belonging as out employees.

2. All headwinds are not experienced the same way across the LGBTQ+ community.

LGBTQ+ leaders do not experience discrimination the same way—or for the same reasons. Experiences of bias are as diverse as the LGBTQ+ community itself, with experiences of bias along lines of race, gender, and gender identity creating crosscurrents of career barriers.

For example, nearly four-in-ten (38%) of white respondents reported their sexual orientation as the primary source of bias they experience. Whereas roughly four-in-ten (41%) of non-white LGBTQ+ respondents said race/ethnicity was the primary source of bias they’ve faced, followed by sexual orientation and gender identity both at 15% each. •White and non-white respondents self-reported experiencing subtle bias at similar rates, (68% of white respondents and 64% of non-white respondents). However, non-white respondents were more likely to have experienced overt discrimination (22% to 15%).

Seven-in-ten (71%) transgender leaders cite gender identity as the key driver of workplace bias faced, compared to 15% of cisgender respondents. Four-in-ten (43%) of all transgender respondents reported personally experiencing discrimination due to their gender identity or expression. Over six-in-ten (65%) of cisgender LGBQ+ respondents reported none or very little personal experience with discrimination due to their gender identity or expression.

To be effective, programming aimed at supporting LGBTQ+ talent and addressing both subtle and explicit bias must be intersectional. LGBTQ+ people from multiple marginalized identities often face heightened scrutiny, and barriers to career advancement, compared to their peers. People leaders need to be supported in spotting and addressing bias, including in nuanced manifestations across the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ talent segment.

3. Mentorships and sponsors can change everything—for both mentors and mentees.

Mentorships and sponsors continue to be the most important, supportive, and needed way to bring up emerging LGBTQ+ leaders through the ranks of an organization. Over 60% of survey respondents work in organizations with formal mentorship programs, but only 10% report that their employers have LGBTQ+-specific mentorship offerings, surfacing a significant area of opportunity for companies. Over 60% of respondents engage in some current form of mentorship, while another 20% had mentors or sponsors in the past.

Yet, access to formal and informal mentorship appears to be split by identity. While non-LGBTQ+ respondents are twice as likely to be in formal mentorship programs, LGBTQ+ respondents are more likely to have informal mentors, many of whom are allies.

Over half of LGBTQ+ leaders reported that non-LGBTQ+ mentors have been instrumental to their career growth to a moderate or significant degree. And although all respondents reported that having a mentor increased their job satisfaction, confidence, and empowerment, LGBTQ+ respondents were more likely to experience those impacts to a significant degree. As companies work to increase the pipeline of LGBTQ+ leadership, they will need the support of allies to coach, mentor, and offer emerging leaders a seat at the table. 

The benefits of mentorship can extend to mentors as well. More than half of survey respondents mentor LGBTQ+ employees. Of those acting as mentors, 80% report that mentoring has increased their own confidence and empowerment at work.

Organizations can and should leverage self-ID programs for LGBTQ+ employees to opt into and align with mentorship programming opportunities. These and other recommendations are contained in the report.

This article was co-authored by Out & Equal’s Deena Fidas, Managing Director – Chief Program and Partnerships Officer and Isabel Porras, Director of Learning and Development

Click here to read the full report, “Experiences of the Lavender Ceiling.”

For more information, learn about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion capabilities.