THE BLOG
02/11/2016 11:37 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2017

Seeing is Believing: Unlocking the Power of Senior LGBT Women in Business

The first time my lived version of professional success was staring me in the face, the penny finally dropped: I finally saw that an out LGBT woman could not only succeed, but thrive in a global corporation.

I did not see or know of an openly gay woman in business until I was introduced to Sally Susman, then a rising star at American Express and today a shining one at Pfizer. I was late coming out myself - my spouse will never let me forget the night I left her in our hotel room rather than bring her to a work dinner in a resort town; it was her birthday - and while my first boss was an openly gay man, at the beginning of my career, I couldn't see anyone like me in the executive ranks. Sally opened my eyes: she brought her whole self with her to work, leveraged her expanding platform to bring greater awareness and encouragement to LGBT women in the workplace, and continues to be a role model and engaged LGBT leader today.

Lisa Sherman, whose own coming out while an executive at Verizon is now a Harvard Business Review case study in how businesses can and should embrace difference as a competitive advantage, was another early role model; Lisa has since leveraged her experience as an LGBT woman to help establish the first LGBT cable channel and raise awareness of pressing social issues, as CEO of the Ad Council.

Today, two of my favorite inspirational LGBT women senior executives today are EY's Beth Brooke-Marciniak, whose courage in coming out later in her career lent that much more impact to the eloquence and leadership she has brought to the discussion ever since, and Martine Rothblatt, the transgender CEO of United Therapeutics, whose favorite hobbies are demolishing assumptions and over-achieving to the point of near-transcendence (you need to read her book).

They are among hundreds of such openly LGBT women leaders making a mark at their companies - such as Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd's - and in the culture.

And yet:

Only 5% of the Fortune 500 CEO's are women. None identify as LGBT (and only one man does, Tim Cook of Apple). The Financial Times publishes an annual list of the world's leading LGBT executives; in 2015 only 24% of the list were women.

Openly LGBT women who have risen to the top of global companies have done so against tremendous odds. They face increased stigma, discrimination and legal disadvantages because they are women, and additionally because they are LGBT. LGBT women of color face higher rates of discrimination because of their multiple identities. Those women who succeed do so despite lacking role models, and opportunities for connection.

At Out Leadership, we work directly with business leaders who are doing the work to make LGBT inclusion a reality. We hear the question "Where are the women?" unfortunately often. Even organizations that are deeply committed to creating equitable and inclusive workplaces struggle with this important issue.

That's why we're launching OutWOMEN, a new talent initiative for LGBT businesswomen: to bring awareness to their unique contributions and experiences, and to share the ways they have paved the way forward.

In launching OutWOMEN, we're determined to not only connect senior LGBT women in business to each other, but to publicly champion their work - to colleagues and fellow executives, to the next generation of leading LGBT businesswomen, and to the entire business world. When business leaders see the important business impact that openly LGBT women leaders have, perhaps more LGBT women will given the opportunity, and the resources necessary, to lead.

When employees have to hide their authentic selves at work, their engagement suffers by up to 30%. Compared to their counterparts, closeted and isolated LGBT employees are 73% more likely to say they intend to leave their company in the next 3 years. Inclusion drives productivity and retention. That's why forward-looking companies have worked so hard to shore up their LGBT inclusiveness.

LGBT leaders bring different perspectives to the table, which can help companies make better decisions. And their presence at the top of an org chart galvanizes the rest of the LGBT employee community. When companies have openly LGBT senior leaders, it helps employees feel safe, and motivated, to reach higher. The implication? Inclusiveness at the top can help create a more motivated and ambitious workforce, and a more competitive company.

Last month, Out Leadership conducted a focus group with several women who participated in our initiative OutNEXT, the first global talent development program for the next generation of LGBT leaders. We found that overwhelmingly, their number-one priority was to find role models. Many LGBT women who participated in the discussion worked at major global firms where they had no one they could point to that resembled them, or shared their life experiences. One woman pointed out, "on my floor, on my team, there are still few women in leadership; there are no out women leaders at all, not even in our LGBT network groups."

With OutWOMEN, we hope to help to change that.