Dimensions of Diversity: LGBTQ+ Representation in Leadership

Kira Ciccarelli

Dimensions of Diversity: LGBTQ+ Representation in Leadership

How can companies ensure they include all facets of diversity when searching for new leaders?

Listen to Episode 59 on Apple Podcasts

Guests: Todd Sears, Founder of Out Leadership and Matt Fust, Senior Advisor to Out Leadership

Hosts: Dottie Schindlinger, Executive Director of the Diligent Institute, and Meghan Day, Senior Director of Board Member Experience for Diligent Corporation

In this episode:

  1. LGBTQ+ Representation Today: Sears and Fust discuss the current state of LGBTQ+ representation in company leadership.
  2. The Pink Ceiling: Sears and Fust cover the challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to business representation, and what Out Leadership does to help.
  3. Hope for the Future: Sears and Fust detail the slow but positive progress being made and their predictions for the future.


As calls for increased diversity in company leadership continue, how can we best work to support LGBTQ+ representation, an oft-overlooked facet of diversity, in company leadership? Hear from Todd Sears and Matt Fust of Out Leadership on the current state of LGBTQ+ representation, the work they are doing to support LGBTQ+ leaders, and methods organizations should be utilizing to move the needle.

LGBTQ+ Representation Today

Sears begins with a quick introduction to their organization, Out Leadership: “Out Leadership works with about 700 CEOs globally. We publish research on representation and inclusion, and are the first and only global LGBTQ business. Our goal above all is to advocate for equality and LGBTQ leadership.”

They then detail the scarce data on LGBTQ+ representation in company leadership and boardrooms. Fust gives a quick overview of the history, “When we started, there were only two companies in the Fortune 500 who included LGBTQ in their definition of diversity.” This lack of visibility and recognition went beyond the companies themselves: “Search firms essentially told us, ‘until our clients want it, we don’t really care.’”

Sears provides more context, “This has been an ongoing frustration and a difficult question to answer. How many people who identify as LGBTQ+ sit on boards? For years, even figuring out the gender of board members was difficult because of lack of disclosure requirements. Those who were interested were forced to hunt through profiles in proxy statements and search for pronouns. Once you move beyond that, there’s no structure to determine race/ethnicity, let alone LGBTQ+ status.”

The Pink Ceiling

Fust discusses how the issue first came to his attention: “Wherever I worked, wherever I went, every woman I knew had a glass ceiling story. So, I began to wonder whether members of the LGBTQ+ community faced a sort of pink ceiling in the workforce.” That’s how he became connected with the Quorum initiative: “We have three pillars: encouraging companies to adopt more diversity practices, engaging with investors to encourage their portfolio companies to embrace LGBTQ diversity, and engaging directly with LGBTQ executives, many of whom have never been considered for board membership.”

Sears details a few key challenges: “We need to totally rethink definitions of leadership and what companies are looking for. Companies have to expand into a broader pool. Think about not only where you’re fishing, but what you’re looking for. This is not a supply issue. It requires companies to think about hiring differently, and to think more holistically about skills and experiences.” Turnover here is key, according to Sears: “The chicken or egg conundrum sets us up for failure: you don’t have to be on a board to get on a board. Look at the FTSE 100: they have term limits, and they’ve been able to increase turnover.”

Fust continues with some recommendations and advice for companies looking to diversify: “Much of the work you can do to improve representation here mirrors work that has been done or is being done with other underrepresented groups. One great method is encouraging companies to specifically adopt more diversity guidelines that include LGBTQ status. We already have these guidelines in place for things like gender or international experience.”

Implementing such guidelines is crucial, says Fust: “Amending those policies, a process typically led by nomination and governance committees, is an important signal and first step. Then, when boards turn to recruiters for refreshment, that dimension is included in diversity specifications, which guides the search firms.

“Much of this is not rocket science. Much of the work you can do to improve LGBTQ+ representation here mirrors work that has been done or is currently being done with other historically underrepresented groups.”

Matt Fust, Senior Advisor to Out Leadership

Hope for the Future

Fust discusses some recent progress: “Visibility counts. Since we started, we have gotten 17 other MNCs to change their diversity policies. This is a huge victory, but it still feels small: It translated into 26 out board members, which is roughly .4% of the fortune 500.” This is still a huge disparity compared to demographic information, where 10-25% of people in the US identify as LGBTQ+.”

These are reasons for hope. Sears summarizes tentative optimism in one apt statement: “Ten years ago, CEOs didn’t speak out against anti LGBT laws. That would have been totally unheard of.” Things have changed quickly in the fight for LGBTQ+ representation in business, particularly over the last two years.

Sears digs into tangible changes: “We’re seeing more companies focus on their policies around LGBTQ+ visibility. This is partly generational: 30% of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ+. They expect inclusion and intersectionality. It will require more intersectional allyship from employers, and that goes back to diverse leadership.

Fust adds, “We’re seeing this continue to play out on the focus on corporate board diversity. We’re in a formal coalition with LACD, the Black Corporate Directors Foundation, and many more. These organizations and communities have worked increasingly closer together. The recent legislation we’ve seen on the issue was in large part because of active work by these communities working together for a bigger pie instead of fighting over the same small slice.”

“Is this a moment or a movement? I don’t think we know yet. The structural and systemic challenges still exist. Can companies themselves actually change that?”

Todd Sears, Founder of Out Leadership

Also in this episode…

Sears gives his prediction for the boardroom of the future: “I believe that ten years from now, ESG will just be how companies do business. It will be integrated from the board down. It won’t be considered separate from the business at all.”

He also discusses his passion project: “I work with the trans and nonbinary community. This community is under attack from legislation. I work to advocate against these laws with the business powers that we have. It’s an opportunity for these leaders to create more visibility and support in this space.”

Resources from this episode: