Brendan Eich, chief technology officer and senior vice president of engineering for Mozilla Corp
Brendan Eich, chief technology officer and senior vice president of engineering for Mozilla Corp © Bloomberg

Twitter hashtags such as “#wontworkwithbigots” and “#wrongsideofhistory” help explain why Brendan Eich lasted little more than a week as chief executive of the Mozilla Corporation.

Mr Eich stepped down from his post as the head of the corporate arm of the organisation behind the Firefox browser in April this year. This was after employees and the general public became enraged about a prior $1,000 donation to a campaign to ban gay marriage in California.

His swift departure showed how attitudes towards corporate leaders who oppose LGBT causes and rights are shifting fast in liberal communities such as the technology industry in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Chris Wood, executive director and co-founder of the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, says that many corporate leaders still oppose gay marriage, some far more explicitly than Mr Eich, whose views became known because political donations in the US are public.

“There are many people who run corporations around the world that probably would share the same view as Brendan, but he was in a unique position,” he says.

San Francisco has long been at the centre of a large gay community. Its Castro district was one of the first gay neighbourhoods in the US; Harvey Milk became the first openly gay politician to be elected when he served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.

The city’s annual Pride march shows how the technology industry has embraced the LGBT cause. Where other cities might have small contingents of political or not-for-profit groups, in San Francisco long, T-shirt-clad armies from companies such as Apple and Facebook trail past spectators for hours.

When Proposition 8 was put on the ballot paper in California in 2008, trying to overturn the right to same-sex marriage which had already been granted, about 83 per cent of employees donating from the top 11 companies gave money to the campaign against it.

Mr Wood says: “This creative environment is often very liberal. You ended up in a place where employees were forward-thinking, but the person at the top [of Mozilla] opposed same-sex marriage, so they all revolted and asked for his resignation.”

Mr Eich, who had co-founded the not-for-profit bodies the Mozilla Project and Mozilla Foundation, tried to comfort his workforce with a blog outlining his commitment to fostering equality at Mozilla and an apology for having “caused pain” with his donation to the people advocating Prop 8.

But after a boycott of the browser led by dating site OkCupid and a social media storm, he resigned. Mozilla says that it didn’t push him and even offered him another position, but then accepted the decision.

Mozilla has since engaged with many diversity efforts in a push to demonstrate that it does not exclude LGBT employees. However, Mr Wood points out that outside California, 29 US states lack statutory workplace protection for LGBT employees and that rapid resolution might be unlikely.

When the chief operating officer of Chick-fil-A, a US fast-food chain, made comments opposing gay marriage, the strong public reaction pushed the company to say that it would leave the policy debate to the politicians. But no one resigned and in many other parts of the world, where homophobia is more accepted, few may have noticed at all.

However, Mr Eich’s resignation was not universally celebrated. Even in parts of the LGBT community, some individuals had doubts over whether a corporate leader should be pushed out for his personal views, rather than how he behaves towards his employees. They worried that this was simply a new kind of intolerance.

Gene Falk, chief executive of StartOut, an organisation that promotes entrepreneurship in the LGBT community, says some felt that the line should not be: “If you’re not completely with us, then you’re not qualified to hold a leadership position.”

He adds: “The community in general was split. The loudest voices, as always, are the outraged but there were many other voices – important ones – [which said]: ‘We don’t want people discriminating against us, but we can’t say that you shouldn’t hold a job because you disagree’.”

How LGBT employees feel about working for a company – and their ability to climb the ranks while being open about their sexuality – is the key factor, Mr Falk says.

Many companies, including more traditional ones such as investment banks and industrials, have “very strong” diversity and inclusiveness policies, and yet employees still don’t feel comfortable coming out, he notes.

And as for the Eich affair, Mr Falk hopes it does not send the wrong message – one that says people are “not entitled to speak their minds”.

“Drawing hard lines like that doesn’t serve the purpose of our community,” he says.

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