Fortune 500: Apple’s Tim Cook was first out gay CEO © Getty

A storm is heading straight for Selisse Berry but she does not seem unduly worried. Ms Berry, founder and chief executive of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, is in Florida for the organisation’s annual summit and is expecting 4,000 people from more than 35 countries — Hurricane Matthew permitting — to participate in sessions promoting the rights of LGBT employees.

When we speak, the afternoon seminar on unconscious bias — the gut reactions we all have that govern our actions before we can even think about them — has already taken place. The aim of the session was to tackle this gulf between what people say and what they feel, a principal ambition of the LGBT equality campaign.

“We all grow up with homophobia,” says Ms Berry, “so you carry that around with you.” It is unsurprising, she adds, because most images that people see are of straight people.

The direct effects of unconscious bias are, by definition, hard to discern. However, you can see the effect of it in how few LGBT people come out in the workplace and in surveys which reveal how many LGBT employees feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at work.

As one example, there was no openly LGBT chief executive in the Fortune 500 until Tim Cook, Apple’s head, came out in 2014. Given broadly accepted estimates that between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of people are LGBT, this is a significant underrepresentation.

When it comes to LGBT people’s perceptions, Deena Fidas, director of the workplace equality programme at the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organisation, says unconscious bias can contribute to a chilly atmosphere that drives a wedge between LGBT workers and their colleagues.

Research conducted by the HRC has begun to develop what Ms Fidas calls an empirical narrative that captures both the incidence of unconscious bias and its effects. HRC’s 2014 study about workplace inclusion, “The Cost of the Closet”, found that more than half of LGBT workers surveyed in the US remain closeted and suggested a strong reason why that might be so — “water-cooler conversations”.

Four-fifths of non-LGBT people said they felt that their LGBT colleagues should not have to hide who they were in the workplace but less than half of those straight respondents said they would feel comfortable hearing LGBT workers talk about dating. The main reason LGBT workers gave for not being open was the possibility that it would make people feel uncomfortable.

Organisations such as Out & Equal claim considerable success in changing people’s explicitly stated opinions on sexual orientation or gender identity. Ms Berry insists workplaces can change attitudes by adopting policies that make it wrong to discriminate against members of the LGBT communities. “So much of it is education,” she says, adding that it does not matter if you are talking about sexism, racism or homophobia. Education, she says, in all cases can help people to understand their unconscious biases.

Not everyone is convinced. “Sadly, I have not found any evidence suggesting that diversity training programmes work [on unconscious bias]. It is very hard to de-bias mindsets,” says Iris Bohnet, a behavioural economist at Harvard University and author of What Works: Gender Equality by Design, a book that focuses on what can be done to address unconscious gender bias. Instead, she says, “we should focus on de-biasing our practices and procedures to make it easier for our minds to get things right.”

If companies do not take action to identify when they are getting things wrong — perhaps inviting employees to bring spouses to a social event, without thinking to use the terms “partner” or “significant other” — they risk alienating their LGBT staff, says Neil Grogan of Stonewall, the UK-based LGBT advocacy organisation.

There are, however, some positive signs, he says. Stonewall’s annual anonymous survey of employees has shown LGBT employees are now more likely to feel engaged and supported in their company and visualise themselves at the top one day.

A body of research in the US has picked up a change in attitudes over time. Academics analysed data from a psychological test designed to detect unconscious bias as well as explicit, or self-reported, bias. More than half a million people participated in the study between 2006 and 2013. The team found that unconscious bias against lesbian and gay people was 13 per cent lower in 2013 than in 2006. Explicit bias had fallen by 26 per cent in the same period.

“The two findings together offer a speculative interpretation: substantial explicit change may occur first and perhaps enable the slower implicit change that occurs later,” wrote the authors.

If the US study is to be believed, Ms Berry’s optimism about changing unconscious bias might not be misplaced.

Tips: Iris Bohnet’s guide to de-biasing

Iris Bohnet © Getty


1 Use “screens” — hide information on résumés that allows bias to drive poor hiring decisions

2 Compare two or more candidates against each other rather than measure them against your own ideas

3 Take out gendered language from your job advertisements (such as “competitive” for male-dominated occupations)

4 Ask candidates the same questions in the same order during the interview

5 Give candidates job-related tasks to complete as part of the selection process


1 Collect data so you can diagnose problems and measure progress

2 Use goals and participate in rankings to motivate staff to compete towards equality

3 Remove barriers by presenting information in a simple, salient and comparative way

4 Add portraits to your walls — seeing is believing. Research shows that women who saw portraits of female leaders performed better on leadership tasks than those who did not

5 Evaluate your current diversity training schemes — do not assume they are working

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