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DAVOS – When Apple CEO Tim Cook announced last year that he is gay, I was inundated by emails and telephone messages from executives around the world. As an “out” executive at Ernst & Young (EY), everyone seemed to want to know what I thought this meant for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) inclusion on a global scale. Apple, after all, resides in fifth place on the Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest companies. Was this the end of the “lavender ceiling”?

In his Bloomberg Businessweek article, Cook describes how being gay has affected him: “I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me. Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day.”

My own experience of being “different” is multifaceted. Like Cook, being in the minority informed my propensity to be an inclusive leader. Unlike Cook, in addition to being closeted, I was a woman and an introvert, and my politics tended to differ from those of my peers in my heavily male, extrovert-dominated profession. Since coming out in 2011, I have been publicly truer to myself and more authentic with others. That has made me a better leader. And being out in a leadership position in a global organization has provided me a platform to talk openly on a wide range of issues.

There is no question about it: Cook’s announcement was a huge step forward. And international organizations have made considerable progress in LGBT inclusion by relying on external and employee networks and non-discrimination policies.

But most of today’s available statistics reflect progress in Europe and the United States. According to a recent study by the women’s advocacy organization Catalyst, 62% of Fortune 500 companies now offer health insurance to domestic partners, while 87% of Fortune 500 companies – and 94 of the top 100 – have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation.

By contrast, Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, an advocacy group for LGBT employees, estimates that 90% of LGBT workers in Asia are closeted. In 78 countries, including Uganda and Nigeria, being gay is still illegal. Singapore recently upheld its stringent anti-homosexuality law. In Russia, on the same day Cook made his announcement, a memorial to Apple founder Steve Jobs was dismantled, ostensibly to comply with a law prohibiting “gay propaganda.”

Even in the US, where members of the same sex can marry in 35 states (as I did in New York last April), in 29 states it is still legal to fire someone solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. In 34 states, it is legal to fire a transgender employee.

That said, multinational companies can take several steps to further their LGBT inclusion strategies on a global scale. For starters, they can strengthen the “ally effect.” Research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that allies – people who support LGBT colleagues or work as advocates – play a decisive role in creating an inclusive community. In fact, 24% of the LGBT workers surveyed attribute their decision to come out professionally to their network of allies. Employers can create networks that invite straight colleagues to support their LGBT co-workers and sponsor LGBT individuals and groups.

Likewise, senior executives being visibly out makes a huge difference. Cook is a great example. LGBT employees are 85% more likely to be out at companies where senior executives are out (24% versus 13%). At EY, our LGBT leadership participated in the “It Gets Better” video project in 2011, sharing stories for the benefit of at-risk LGBT youth. I took advantage of the opportunity, and, with the full support of EY’s leadership, officially came out. I not only talked openly about my own experiences; I also shared how my organization’s philosophy played an important role in my decision.

That leads to a more general point: The more people hear, see, and know about what is going on in an organization, the more quickly cultural change takes place. Speaking up is an important part of that, because people not only listen to what is said, but also notice what passes without being challenged. Too often, when an organization does not correct a misstatement, it is taken as agreement.

Customized solutions also help. Companies should meet with LGBT groups at other organizations, both locally and globally, and implement policies from the more progressive regions in which they do business (say, Europe and the US). But one size does not fit all. Strategies work best when they are tailored to fit the requirements of specific conditions, such as geographic locations, business unit type, or department function.

Finally, companies should continue to facilitate an inclusive workplace for everyone, not just LGBT employees. That means shifting from a culture of diversity, with its implicit focus on “them,” to an inclusiveness-centered culture of “us.”

Cook and I share many of the same attitudes about our LGBT identity. And I find that his announcement accords with my own experience: “[Being gay has] made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life. It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry.”

The lavender ceiling has been cracked, but there is nowhere in the world today where inclusiveness has been fully achieved. There is still much more to do.

Beth Brooke-Marciniak is Ernst & Young’s Global Vice Chair of Public Policy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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