There are an estimated 7 million LGBT people in the United State’s private sector workforce. Charlita Shelton is one of them.
“What do you see when you see me? What’s obvious? I’m black. And I’m a woman,” she says in an online video. “But what you don’t see is that I’m a very proud lesbian and president of a university.”
The video — part “It Gets Better,” part coming out announcement — is posted on the home page of lgbtqpresidents.org. The website is the digital home to a loosely formed group of academic leaders that in 2010 gathered in Chicago to unite and bring attention to the lack of open LGBT leaders in higher education and foster diversity and outness. Just three years before the Chicago meeting, a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the industry’s bible, reported there were only three out LGBT leaders at all of the nation’s colleges.
Today, by Shelton’s count, there are 32.
While Shelton and her colleagues are just a fraction of a percent in the expanding out LGBT workforce in the U.S., the fact that the number of LGBT university presidents has spiked from three to 32 in less than a decade points to something much larger.
PLUS: Gay Ambition Blogger Paul Collation shares his takeaways from the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Convention here.
While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have always been employed, progressive cultural workplace norms, a positive sea change in public opinion toward the LGBT community, the extension of protections created by a growing number of states that afford relationship recognition to same-sex couples and a rebounding economy are some of the ways it’s become easier for people to create a work–life balance that includes being out.
“I have to be out,” Shelton told me as we sat in her downtown Denver office. Shelton is the president of the University of the Rockies, a Colorado private university specializing in organization leadership and psychology. “(But) I define that. It doesn’t define me.”
The University of the Rockies was founded in 1998 as the Colorado School of Professional Psychology in Colorado Springs. In 2007, Bridgepoint Education Inc. purchased the school and changed its name.
Shelton was appointed president in 2008.
“Dr. Shelton’s commitment to diversity is just one of the many reasons we wanted her to lead the University of the Rockies,” said Don Bird, chairman of the school’s board, in a media release announcing Shelton’s hire. “It became quite evident early on in the interview process that she embraced the mission of the University and she was able to connect with the team. She clearly demonstrated that she values diverse groups of individuals who are pursuing a quality graduate education.”
In 2013, under Shelton’s guidance, the university opened its Denver campus at the Tabor Center on the 16th Street Mall. The school, which started with 200 students in 1998, now serves more than 2,000.
Being out, or in other words, bringing your full self to work, brings richness to the office and team you work with, Shelton said. Each person, whether they’re trans, white, Christian, military or living with a disability, has a degree of diversity in them that can be tapped to further an organization’s success — but only if those identities and life experiences are recognized, communicated and appreciated.
Not everyone can be out, Shelton understands. But compelling data shows if employees do come out, they may help ensure their own optimized career path.
According to a 2011 study by The Center for Talent Innovation, 52 percent of employees interviewed who identified as not being out at work felt stalled in their career, compared to only 36 percent who are out at work and said they felt the same way.
Other findings included:
• 48 percent of those closeted at work felt satisfied with their rate of advancement (compared to 64 percent of those out).
• Employees not out at work are significantly less likely to achieve senior management positions.
• They are 73 percent more likely to say they’ll leave their companies within the next three years.
• They are 75 percent more likely to feel isolated at work; even more so if they are men.
• They are more likely to perceive the work environment as hostile and 40 percent less likely to trust their employer.
“If all institutions realize that there is richness with diversity, meaning if people who attend the institution are, richness comes from that,” Shelton said discussing a Supreme Court case validating Affirmative Action. But she said later the same principles apply at the workplace. “You have a diversity of thought that comes from that. It helps the institution become better because now you have ideologies from many different people and not just one classification of people.
“At the University of the Rockies, we bring everyone to the table and we say ‘all of you have something to offer relevant to your diversity. And we’re going to ensure we’re going to create an inclusive environment based on your differences. But what you will find is that you have more similarities then you have differences — and that’s what’s going to help us get along.’”
It behooves employers to create a workplace that respects individual identities as a resource, Shelton said. Not doing so can create hostilities among employees.
“When people feel excluded you’re going to lose people and productivity,” she said. “People want to feel appreciated and recognized. That’s how they’re going to engage and be productive.”
A 2013 follow up study by The Center for Talent Innovation agrees.
“After our 2011 work, we felt there was still much to explore with respect to how employers can make full use of their LGBT talent: specifically, the opportunity companies have to drive business and the bottom line by leveraging the leadership potential and connections of their LGBT employees and allies,” co-author Sylvia Ann Hewlett said in a media release announcing the study.
• A significant gender gap persists between LGB male and female employees with respect to how their sexual identity benefits them in the workplace. Men are nearly twice as likely to consider their LGB identity an asset in the workplace.
• The creation of a workplace where LGBT talent can thrive is due in large part to allies. Twenty-four percent of LGBT workers credit their decision to come out to allies.
• LGBT women are more likely to face discrimination because of the “double jeopardy” of gender and sexual orientation or gender identity – 74 percent of lesbians say they encounter bias compared to 51 percent of gay men.
• Discrimination continues to pressure LGBT individuals to resort to “passing” as heterosexual. Twenty-three percent of men and 15 percent of women believe that changing their mannerisms, voice or clothing or hiding relationships or friendships in order to “pass” at work has helped their career.
• Bias and discrimination are an issue within the LGB community. Gay and bisexual men are 114 percent more likely than women to report LGB discrimination. Bisexual men and women are 59 percent less likely than lesbians and gay men to feel a part of the community.
• Being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity gives LGBT professionals access to business opportunities through which they can exercise leadership.
“I’ve become stronger as a leader because of struggles,” Shelton said. “So whether it’s the personal struggle of coming out or the struggle of being an African American woman, struggles help me become stronger.”
In 2000, 51 percent of Fortune 500 companies had policies that specifically protected LGBT people from workplace discrimination. A decade later that number jumped to 85 percent, according to a Harvard Business Review study.
But 48 percent of employees surveyed still remained inside the closet.
Today, it’s still within the law to make personnel decisions based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity in 29 states. Colorado isn’t one of them, but to bring the remaining 15 percent of Fortune 500 companies around to extending protections to LGBT people, to see Congress pass a federal nondiscrimination act that would forbid employers from discriminating against LGBT people, to create an open and affirming workplace in downtown Denver, it starts with the brave employee who decides to come out, Shelton said.
“We have to come out organically,” she said. “We need to not be afraid of being ridiculed. We need to be transparent with who we are.”
Shelton said she uses a sales technique — the assumptive close — when it comes to her outness. “I just assume people are fine with who I am when I talk about my spouse Lynn. I assume they have no prejudices at all. I’m not running around waving my flag, but I’m true to myself and hopefully they’re going to have an appreciation for who Charlita is.”