LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - LGBT business leaders hailed the appointment this week of Beth Ford as the first openly lesbian chief executive of one of the 500 largest U.S. companies, calling her a role model for aspiring female executives.
Land O’Lakes promoted Ford from chief operating officer to head the Fortune 500 agribusiness and food company. She will take up her role on Wednesday.
“(Being out at work) is a change-maker to be honest,” said Margot Slattery, country president of Sodexo Ireland, the Irish subsidiary of the world’s second-biggest catering services company.
“When I look at when I was in the closet versus where I am now, it’s night and day. It’s been a while since I came out, but it’s radically different.”
Amanda McKay, quality director for major projects at infrastructure group Balfour Beatty, added: “Being able to be oneself at work is an incredibly empowering thing; it gives you so much more energy to get on with life.”
The number of gay male chief executives has risen in recent years and includes Tim Cook at Apple and Alan Joyce of Australian airline Qantas Airways, but there are few lesbian or female bi and trans heads of major companies.
Britain’s Inga Beale was appointed chief executive of Lloyd’s of London, the specialist insurance market, in 2014, but has announced she will step down next year.
“As the first openly lesbian CEO on the Fortune 500, Beth Ford’s appointment sends an incredibly important signal to LGBT people around the world,” said Ruth Hunt, head of British LGBT rights group Stonewall.
“In business in 2018, we still see a chronic lack of diversity in the people who lead our major companies, and that matters.
“We need to support more visible lesbian representation across society and more LGBT role models in the workplace at all levels.”
Overall, gender representation at the top of the business world remains highly unequal, with just under 5 percent of the top 500 U.S. companies listed by Standard & Poor’s headed by women.
“(The appointment of) Beth Ford is brilliant news, but the fact that it is news shows how far we have still to go in making being LGBT+ in the workplace a non-issue,” said Ori Chandler, managing director of INvolve, a diversity business group.
“Companies can reinforce this message by working to create visible, vocal role models. It’s impossible to underestimate the power of being able to look up and see someone who ‘looks like you’.”
People perform better when they can be themselves, said Daisy Reeves, partner at global law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.
“If someone feels they must self-edit and pretend to be someone they are not, studies show it can significantly impact that person’s general enjoyment of workplace life and even have an impact on their mental health.
“It can also affect their productivity.”
Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org