With small-town roots, an early marriage, and then kids, Ryanne Fox (she/her) never intended to be a trailblazer while building out a career as a software engineer. Yet more than a decade ago, after one year on the job at GoDaddy, Fox came out as transgender — the first to transition at the then early-stage company.
Fox considered leaving GoDaddy and starting fresh somewhere else post-transition, but the company’s broad nondiscrimination policy, which covered gender identity, promised a safe haven for remaining in the role. Nevertheless, this was uncharted territory. Fox worked with HR and company management to figure out a plan for bathrooms and healthcare, how to communicate the transition story, and lay the groundwork for policies that would support and protect future transgender colleagues.
Being the first to openly transition wasn’t easy, but Fox hoped the path would free others from nagging fears. “I worried I might be fired, I worried I might not be supported by my peers, I worried about healthcare,” Fox recalls. “The company was all in supporting me, but at the time, we had no idea what we were doing.”
A decade later, times have changed — a little. Fox is no longer “an only” as there have been others to transition along with an active LGBTQ+ community at GoDaddy and within the tech industry in general. New policies have been instituted, healthcare and spousal benefits have been expanded, and a variety of LGBTQ+ communities and support organizations have bubbled up, from Out in Tech to Lesbians Who Tech to a throng of corporate-side enterprise resource groups (ERGs), all focused on promoting diversity and inclusion (D&I).
Yet despite the corporate efforts and round-the-clock D&I discussions, the LGBTQ+ community still grapples with the same discrimination and on-the-job challenges that other marginalized groups such as women and people of color face in the notoriously nondiverse world of high-tech. Research from the University of Michigan and Temple University found LGBTQ+ STEM professionals more likely to encounter career limitations, social exclusion and harassment, and the devaluation of their knowledge compared to their non-LGBTQ peers. The paper also found this segment more likely to experience health difficulties and were more inclined to leave their professions — patterns that were not correlated to differences in training, experience, or dedication.
In a June 2020 survey conducted by Blind, a community of professionals providing feedback with heavy representation from the tech sector, nearly 40% of respondents said they witnessed some form of harassment of LGBTQ+ employees. While 86% of those surveyed described their companies as safe places to work for LGBTQ+ individuals, that number dropped 10 points among actual LGBQ responses (76%) and sunk another dramatic 12 points (64%) when members of the trans and gender nonconforming (GNC) communities waded in.
“From a legislative and conversation standpoint, we’ve made huge progress and there are new roles and departments whose entire job is to make companies more inclusive,” says Gary Goldman (he/him), senior program director for Out in Tech, founded in 2012 and now comprising more than 35,000 members. “There is heightened awareness and understanding of the problem … but there is still underrepresentation of queer people within the tech industry, which is the biggest industry of our time.”
It’s hard to know exactly how underrepresented because to date, the industry hasn’t focused on tracking LGBTQ+ employment, and companies are only now starting to offer self-identification opportunities to get greater transparency into the makeup of their employee base. While identifying gender and race is a common part of the onboarding process at most companies, sexual orientation and gender identity are not, which makes it all the more difficult to gather metrics.
Because the decision to share that status is voluntary, LGBTQ+ employees have a different experience than other “visible” minorities, says Jeff Raver (he/him), a top-level IT executive, who openly identifies as gay. “Gay people must choose to share who they are and this affects people in multiple ways,” says Raver, vice president of strategy, growth, and innovation at SAIC. “Since teams may not know they are working with an LGBTQ co-worker, both unintentional and intentional bias becomes a greater challenge. Additionally, the stress of not sharing your authentic self requires substantial energy and can become a huge distraction for LGBTQ persons that choose to remain in the closet.”
Battling LGBTQ+ backlash
Raver wasn’t necessarily in the closet as he rose up the ranks at SAIC — his bosses, co-workers, even some clients knew all about his sexual orientation and it wasn’t seen as a big deal. Three years ago, when Raver was approached about helping establish SAIC’s Equality Alliance, one of seven corporate ERGs, he decided it was time to reveal his authentic self on a much bigger stage.
“Everyone knew in my immediate group, but that’s a different thing than coming out to more than 26,000 people all over the United States,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Do I really want to be this out in my company,’ and almost immediately, my second thought was, ‘I have to do this.’ No one should ever have to ask that question again.”
Tech employees who are officially out at work face a number of issues, including microaggressions, outright bullying, and most commonly, misgendering or snide commentary about gender identity. Like with other marginalized groups, it’s also hard to envision a career trajectory if the higher-ups at your firm don’t look like or present like you do. “It’s incredibly important to see people in positions of power,” says Rue Roman (she/her), a senior software engineer and Android developer at Capital One. “It starts to feel like something is achievable — not that I can’t ever do that because I’m gay.”
For Roman, who identifies as a Puerto Rican lesbian, it didn’t start out that way. She always struggled to find people that looked like her as she worked her way up in application design and eventually mobile development, mostly at smaller shops. Just as she started getting comfortable being her authentic self — wearing unconventional clothes and makeup and opening up about her sexual orientation — Roman was laid off. As she threw herself in the job search, she was determined to find the right cultural fit, which led her to Capital One.
The sheer size of the firm, the range of internal LGBTQ+ resources, including the Out Front business resource group (BRG), and the widespread use of pronouns in company emails were among the first signs Roman took that Capital One would be a better fit. Outspoken about her opinions, on code and other business issues, Roman says she occasionally encounters friction or feels overlooked, but she doesn’t chalk it up to being openly LGBTQ+. “I’ve had scenarios where I suspect someone might be underestimating me, but I try not to assume it’s because I’m gay,” she says. “Maybe they don’t like me and that’s fine.”
LGBTQ+ professionals not openly out at work, either by choice or due to circumstances, will inevitably find the exercise mentally taxing and a drain on productivity. Mindy Ferguson (she/her) learned that lesson the hard way after years of keeping her personal life mostly under wraps during her early career and while climbing the executive ladder — often taking cues from company cultures and corporate management.
Unlike her colleagues, Ferguson drew a hard line between work and home. She was not quick to share details about weekend plans or her personal life for fear that she would be asked a question she wasn’t comfortable answering. When she did open up about what she did on weekends or other personal details, she made it a point to change pronouns. Even her wedding to her long-time partner in 2008 after the passage of California Proposition 8 wasn’t widely discussed or celebrated outside of her close professional circles.
“It was a strange dance, and it required a lot of effort,” says Ferguson, now managing vice president at Capital One, where is she out and active in the LGBTQ+ community. “I was not doing the best work of my life because I didn’t have the capability to show up and be 100% myself.”
As she rose up the management ranks, Ferguson believes the mental gymnastics it took to hide her authentic self also undercut her ability to be an effective manager. “As a leader, the expectation is you care greatly about your team and you bring people together through team-building exercises,” says Ferguson. “I didn’t engage in pretty normal leadership activities out of fear of where the conversation would go. I was leading through fear — afraid of what would happen to my career if I was found out, afraid of what my team would think of me, afraid of getting fired.”
Corporations step up the D&I response
Any concerns Ferguson had about her future as an LGBTQ+ executive have greatly dissipated since coming onboard at Capital One, where she is now one of the leading voices for D&I. The work of the company’s Out Front group, the substantial number of allies and sponsors participating in Pride and related events, even the attention paid to topline accomplishments for this community on the cover of its 2020 annual report are all benchmarks, Ferguson contends, that Capital One takes LGBTQ+ inclusion issues seriously.
Salesforce is another company generally viewed in the forefront of advocating for D&I and specifically for the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to Outforce, the LGBTQ+ ERG, the company offers LGBTQ-inclusive healthcare policies covering fertility, parental leave, and gender affirmation surgery. CEO Marc Benioff was one of the first to speak out in 2015 against Indiana legislation that discriminated against the LGBTQ+ community, and Salesforce has been actively leveraging the business community to apply pressure to the legislature in various states ever since.
One of the most effective ways Salesforce promotes D&I for this community is through its voluntarily self-identity program, which encourages employees to declare their pronouns in their Workday profiles when onboarding or at any time during their tenure, says Molly Ford (she/her), vice president global equality programs at Salesforce. Having this information in the company’s system of record helps guide new benefits programs — for example, exploring how to evolve the fertility benefits covering IVF after six months of trying to conceive to address the unique needs of LGBTQ+ employees. It also lets the community stand up and be recognized, Ford says.
In fact, the use of pronouns for all employees — not just for the transgender or nonbinary community — is one of the most impactful parts of the D&I journey, Ford says. “If we only let them/they do pronouns, then we are giving ‘them’ a scarlet letter,” she says. “With pronouns in the signature of your email profile or on Slack, you introduce yourself properly and it starts the journey of allyship.”
Dustin Pitts (he/him), a Salesforce senior manager, solution engineering, says simple things like pronouns in the HR system and joining your non-LGBTQ+ peers in events such as Pride parades goes a long way in feeling like a valued and recognized member of the work community.
“It’s a big thing to drop down a menu and ID as gay internally at work,” he explains. “I’ve been coming out my whole life to my peers, my customers, to the guy at the butcher shop. With pronouns, there are no gray areas and it signals allyship. It’s very subtle, but powerful.”
Lianna Newman (no pronouns), a software engineer who identifies as nonbinary, recalls how a manager’s use of pronouns in emails even after being asked to use Lianna’s name felt alienating and hurtful. “It’s one thing to say it, but to continually write it after gentle reminders turned a small thing into a situation,” Lianna says. Lianna has also been asked to create trainings to explain what nonbinary means to peers — an assignment Lianna believes shouldn’t be up to the LGBTQ+ employee, but rather part of the HR management mandate.
Tech workers looking for an LGBTQ+-friendly workplace should be prepared to do their homework. Digging into the company’s social media, scouring benefits packages, doing research on Glassdoor and other online sites, and most importantly, walking the floor to make sure you see others like you are invaluable to finding a place where you can live and work and fit in as your authentic self, Ferguson advises.
“You see companies stuck hiding behind numbers and metrics — maybe they interviewed X number of diverse people so the mission is done,” she explains. “But how we think about diversity in the workplace has to monumentally move. We have to not just think about diversity as how many people we’ve spoken to or hired, but once they’re actually in the door, are we providing a psychologically safe work environment where they feel included?”
GoDaddy’s Fox says between last year’s pandemic and the activism spurred by George Floyd’s murder, there is plenty of opportunity to see how companies step it up to support employees. Even 10 years back, the experience of transitioning while at GoDaddy couldn’t have been more positive. Yet in hindsight, Fox admits the focus then was to not rock the boat as opposed to advocating for the transgender experience. Moreover, as an early and well-known GoDaddy employee prior to transitioning, Fox believes colleagues were more willing to accept and see the person beyond any single transgender story.
“It wasn’t like asking a random person how they feel about transgender people; it’s that Ryanne is transgender and transitioning,” Fox explains. “It’s easier to be supportive when you know and care about someone.”