The world is taking two divergent paths on gay rights. In many countries there is growing acceptance of LGB&T people and legal protection from discrimination. Other nations are taking a very different path: there are now over 80 countries with laws repressive to sexual minorities, and hostility is growing, fueled by a toxic mix of religious fundamentalism and populist politics.
To stem the spread of anti-gay legislation around the world, more than a dozen of the world’s leading big businesses have launched Open For Business, a coalition of global firms making the business and economic case for LGB&T rights. The group’s founding partners include American Express, AT&T, Brunswick Group, EY, Google, IBM, Linklaters, LinkedIn, MasterCard, McKinsey, Standard Chartered, Thomson Reuters and Virgin Group.
Although many US and UK companies have become vocal activists for LGB&T rights on their home soil, this is the first time businesses have come together to focus on the global challenge. Each of these companies is putting time, resources and reputation into this issue. This begs an important question: Why should they bother?
Alongside the moral case, there are powerful business and economic arguments. This is captured in a report just published by the coalition, which I co-authored with my colleague Lucy Parker. It’s called ‘Open For Business: the Economic and Business Case for LGB&T Inclusion,’ and presents a substantial evidence base on three levels:
• Economies perform better. LGB&T discrimination often goes hand-in-hand with a culture of corruption, a lack of openness, and a weak civil society; LGB&T inclusion is associated with higher levels of entrepreneurship and is correlated to GDP growth.
• Businesses perform better. Companies that support LGBT inclusion are better able to compete for talent, they are more innovative, they are more collaborative, and the evidence shows they perform better.
• Individuals perform better. This applies to all individuals in a company, not just the LGB&T ones: people working in inclusive workplaces have much higher levels of engagement and satisfaction, and they are more likely to speak up with new ideas.
Of course, none of this is news to the companies supporting Open For Business. There’s a long running and deep-rooted belief in the business world that promoting equal opportunity for all is good business. Today’s focus may be on LGB&T rights, but business has a long history of expanding diversity and openness.
For example, in apartheid South Africa, the global brewer SABMiller defied the regime by putting in place policies guaranteeing equal treatment for black employees. Or take MTN, the cellphone operator, which works in countries where cultural diversity can be very challenging, such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iran: the company proactively recruits from different tribes, to ensure a diverse workforce.
Or consider IBM: in the 1950s, more than a decade prior to the passage of the US Civil Rights Act, the company opened manufacturing facilities in the heart of the racially segregated US South – but IBM refused to comply with segregation. The company also took a progressive stand on women’s rights, enacting equal pay for equal work in 1935 – almost three decades before the US Equal Pay Act.
So it should be no surprise that businesses are now focused on global LGB&T rights. Of course, promoters of intolerance will complain about ‘imposing Western values’ – but now the debate has moved on. This is about creating a healthy environment for businesses to thrive and for economies to prosper.
Open For Business can be seen in the context of a bigger aspiration for business: that everybody is able to fully participate in business life – and in society more broadly – regardless of personal attributes such as background, class, gender, race, sexual orientation or gender identity.