Out and Equal Workplace Advocates CEO Erin Uritus and Steve Roth, the organization’s senior director of global initiatives, both took part in the conference. The Washington Blade had a chance to sit down with both of them.
Washington Blade: Does Out and Equal have any data on what the biggest challenges are to achieving equality in the workplace in Brazil? What could be done in the face of those challenges?
Erin Uritus: We don’t have any specific data on LGBTIQ equality in the workplace in Brazil, because as far as we know this data does not exist yet. However, I think what the whole world knows is that Brazil has the highest number of homicides of transgender people and I think around 400 homicides of LGBTIQ people just in 2017. So, we know that the level of LGBTIQ violence in Brazil is high. But besides this data what we know is coming out of companies that are doing a good work in promoting diversity. Brazilian companies like Mattos Filho, a law firm, and Itaú, one of the biggest banks in the country, are companies that just started their diversity journey in the last few years but they are telling us that they have real data coming from their actual employees in their HR departments saying that it’s easier for them to recruit better people and once they have people they don’t lose them. They are seeing right in front of them real data on how inclusive their workplaces are becoming. We have more data from multinational companies that share with us, such as J.P. Morgan, SAP, IBM and Bloomberg. These are companies that collect a lot of data in the U.S., so they know more about inclusiveness in the workplace. I believe that countries have different laws about what data you can collect and the Brazilian companies have just begun this journey. So, it is only a matter of time before more data comes out about this in Brazil.
Blade: What’s the importance for Out and Equal focusing on Brazil? And why is this happening right now?
Uritus: It’s important for us for many reasons. A few years ago, in Out and Equal’s strategic plan we were largely focused on the U.S. and Fortune 1000 companies and that is still our strongest base. But about five years ago we decided it was time, especially with multinational companies, to start expanding globally. And we weren’t quite sure where should we go. We started doing the work in Brazil three years ago and J.P. Morgan invited us to do our first Out and Equal LGBT Brazil Forum. So now we have three years under our belt working here in Brazil and every time we come back there is not only more good working going on but there is more opportunity to create a bigger impact. For us Brazil is a very strategic investment. We are also doing work in China and India for the second year but it’s much smaller and the political and cultural challenges are much different. In Brazil, we feel like we already have an investment in the local LGBTIQ community and their network is very strong and then you have the leaderships in diversity and inclusion work already taking root in Brazilian companies. For us it is strategically important that not only we maintain but also increase our emphasis in areas of the world like this where all the right pieces of the puzzle are coming together and for us this is Brazil.
Blade: What are the key challenges faced by Out and Equal in working towards equality and inclusion in the workplace and safeguarding it?
Uritus: There are so many challenges, but so many opportunities. Number one we know the community is growing and diversifying in the U.S. and around the world. We know based on multiple studies that 20 percent of millennials identify as LGBTIQ. And we know that in the U.S. 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials by 2025. We also know that 52 percent of Gen Z, the generation coming after the millennials, identify as LGBTIQ or “not straight.” This is not only very interesting and scary for some companies, but it is an opportunity for them to dive in with us in understanding how the community is diversifying so they don’t lose traction and move forward. So, this is a big challenge and it is also a really good opportunity. Another big challenge is gender identity and expression in the workplace. Because depending on the country you are in, city you are in, state you are in and company you are in; there are still people outside our community and even within it that don’t understand identity. So, there is still a lot of awareness and education that needs to happen, especially around transgender identity. Twenty years ago, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies had policies that protected LGBTIQ people from workplace discrimination. Today that is closer to 95 percent. So, the challenge we had 21 years ago when (former CEO) Selisse Berry started this organization was much bigger than today. But in addition to that there is a challenge today that is more mechanical and organizational because there is so much happening today but how do we leverage technology to make best practices available and searchable so people can dialogue about that? One of the things we are thinking of doing today is creating a digital portal where best practices from multinational companies, from governments, from a company from Brazil can all be put in a centralized place because we want to have the most impact possible and we don’t want people starting over in their searching on how to do this. Our challenge is how to bring people together and share.
Blade: You talked about 20 percent of millennials identifying as LGBTIQ. Do you think that as we go forward millennials can be the driving force in promoting equality in the workplace and in the community?
Uritus: What the data shows not only with millennials but even younger, with Gen Z, is that the community is expanding and diversifying specially with the bi-plus and the queer part of that. So, I think the community is growing and what we are getting to know is that not only they want to work in diverse and inclusive workplaces, they demand it. And if you are not a diverse inclusive workplace they will go work someplace else. In fact, there is othe research that has been done that shows how people, especially when economies are good, will choose not only inclusive companies to work for but also inclusive cities to live in. And this is why you see in some of the creative cities movement and work that cities like Toronto and many cities around the U.S. know the importance of being inclusive because millennials will not move there unless they have vibrant diverse communities. We have a lot of hope for the new generation, and also a lot of expectations, enthusiasm and positivity.
Blade: Erin, you have been CEO of Out and Equal for just three months. When you got the job, what was the first thing on your to do list?
Uritus: The first thing I actually did and it is still a priority that I am carrying with me these first few months is to listen. I need to better understand our community as well. This is also a journey for me. So, I want to hear people’s stories about their identities and their experiences in the workplace. Especially I want to listen to their experiences this year. Because if I was the CEO during the Obama administration I would be listening for different things. Now, with the Trump administration in place and with what is happening in the workplace I am listening to both people who are struggling maybe in the government and maybe in companies that are not focused on LGBTIQ equality. But also, even despite the difficulty there is so much work happening that is positive: People who I think are part of the resistance, who are currently in the workplace, I am asking them and listening to what are the experimental and innovative practices that they are trying in face of difficulties because we don’t want to lose the ground that we have gained. My number one priority has been to get to know everybody in the community and to really listen to them to bring all of that data into our strategic planning process. In addition to that I am getting to know all of the talents of my wonderful staff. The staff is incredibly smart and strong, and they have been doing really good work. I am also getting to come to a country like Brazil and understanding what it’s like in one of the countries that we’ve been supporting.
Blade: We already talked about how the transgender community is marginalized, especially here in Brazil. Do you think trans rights and inclusion in the workplace is the next frontier?
Steve Roth: I think it’s one of the biggest challenges for sure and that is what we are hearing in our meetings and seeing here in Brazil. But also, people of color, someone pointed out that there was one or two here in the conference. So, what that is about more broadly is diversity within the LGBTIQ community. Transgender people are a particularly important issue right now. Education is a big challenge with the transgender community because most kids get kicked out of their homes so they don’t get a good education which means they can’t get a good job and often much end up working on the streets as sex workers and it becomes this kind of building cycle. Just this week we talked with some companies that are starting transgender initiatives and programs, and part of it is focusing of course in education and training. But there is also the need for sensitivity training within the company, so people can understand transgender issues. In my understanding of Brazil, there is still confusion between sexual orientation and gender identity. People still think that someone gay wants to be a woman. It is a big need but there is some work starting to be done. In our Brazil Forum last year, we hosted a panel on transgender issues and we at Out and Equal have what we call our transgender guidelines, which is a document a company needs to facilitate the process to transgender workers who are transitioning at work.
Blade: Are there different issues in different places around the world in terms of equality in the workplace around the globe or are there general issues that everyone faces?
Uritus: At the very core of that issue there is the reality that different countries have different laws and workplace policies. There are places where you can still suffer for coming out. And in fact, even in the U.S. we don’t have laws protecting our community in 29 states. You can come to work and put a picture of your partner at your desk, come out and be fired that day. Around the world it starts with what the local laws are and the workplace policies. What we know about belonging and authenticity based on recent social science research is that you can be in a room full of people and feel lonely, and you can be with only one person and be able to be authentically yourself. It is really about being able to be your true self and for us in our community that means being out and able to bring your whole self to work.
Roth: I agree. And I think that the core is that around the world the same kind of issues and challenges are faced. They may manifest themselves differently in each country or context depending on laws, culture and society. Just to talk about the examples we know, like Brazil, has a traditional religious culture with Catholicism and now the growth of evangelicalism, but you have a pretty friendly legal framework working for LGBTIQ people. In June, we are going to China and there is not illegal to be gay but the government is very involved and very controlling of everything so you have to be careful about what you say and don’t say. When we go to India in July or August we will be faced with a much different scenario because there is the misunderstanding, even in HR departments, that it is illegal to be gay, which is not, what’s illegal technically is gay intercourse. So, if an HR director thinks it’s illegal to be gay, of course they are not going to have any kind of programs for LGBTIQ people in the workplace. So that is a special kind of educational challenge. We are going to do special events there for HR, but also for legal departments because they need to know the reality of their legal situation.
Blade: What can we expect from the Out and Equal 2018 Brazilian Forum on Nov. 28-29?
Roth: This is our third year here in Brazil and the event has been building and growing each year. At its core, the forum is about some of the things Out and Equal does best, which is bringing people together to exchange ideas and to share best practices, network and connect. This year we’ll have a full day of programming, and for the first time we are going to have two tracks, divided between companies that are just beginning to implement their programs for LGBTIQ people and companies that are already doing a lot of initiatives. We are speaking with more NGOs and institutions here in Brazil, like the LGBT Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, so you’ll see more collaborations with those groups and what they are doing. Last year for the first time we introduced our Brazil Excellence Awards and we are going to expand that so we have more categories and more recognition. We are having a reception the night before the forum to promote even more networking. And also, this year we are going to reach out more for places outside of São Paulo, where the Forum takes place, so it’ll be even more of a national event.
Blade: When a company asks why does inclusion in the workplace matter, how do you answer?
Uritus: I think inclusion matters first of all because it is the right thing to do if you care about your employees. But I think that the data that keeps coming out from reports shows that it is good for business because being more LGBTIQ inclusive attracts better talent and people who feel welcome at the workforce will stay and be loyal to your company. We also know that it contributes to innovation and creativity. And finally, if you have a more diverse and inclusive workforce you naturally understand your customer base better. It is something called customer orientation where the diversity inside helps you understand how to better advertise and sell your products to a more diverse society.
Blade: The word advocate is a part of your organization’s name. What is your definition of an advocate?
Uritus: I think advocating, in our case for workplace equality, is about standing up for what is right, standing up for LGBTIQ people and professionals in whatever work environment they are in. I think also in recent years advocating includes the work of allies. It’s not just about gay people advocating for gay people anymore; it is including everybody who cares about us and just wants to do what is right. So, to me it also means helping allies help our community in the workplace.