It is often said that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Some people recognise this as a metaphor for the importance of representation. Others see it as a self-limiting statement. Whether you agree with it or not, the data doesn’t lie.
Only five global leaders at the national level have ever identified as LGBTQ+ and just four occupy the CEO position of the largest US corporations. Beth Ford, appointed CEO of Land O’Lakes in 2018, is the first and only open lesbian to run a Fortune 500 company.
Research from McKinsey suggests the situation is more dire for women. LGBTQ+ women feel isolated at work and are regularly the only ones like themselves on teams, in meetings, and at company events. This places unnecessary pressure on them to represent their entire group. These feelings of isolation and pressure create a less than ideal work environment which can impact motivations to climb the ladder.
It helps explain why the representation of LGBTQ+ women begins to drop off at the first rung of the manager level and continues to decrease precipitously.
This lack of representation at the highest levels of public and private sectors means that LGBTQ+ employees are most likely going to be mentored by someone who has no understanding of their lived experience and how it has potentially impacted them personally, academically, or professionally. Especially for LGBTQ+ women working in Product or Tech broadly which is already heavily male-dominated.
Does that matter? It depends.
The reality for LGBTQ+ employees is that sage advice given to counterparts doesn’t always translate, and in the most extreme cases, ceremoniously backfires.
Take, for example, the modern mantra, “bring your whole self to work”. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation report that 46% of LGBTQ+ workers in the US, and 35% in the UK are closeted in the workplace for fear of repercussion.
And with good reason.
Nearly two thirds of non-LGBTQ+ employees think that it is unprofessional to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace. This leaves LGBTQ+ employees between a rock and hard place. To be authentic, and bring your whole self to work requires exposing oneself to risk. Instead, LGBTQ+ employees report higher levels of exhaustion from having to conceal their identities so as not to appear unprofessional.
While we wait for the wheels of progress to slowly turn and diversity and inclusion initiatives to deliver on their promise of representation, there are steps that can be taken.
It is said that great mentors focus on the whole person, not just their career. They share their experiences through storytelling, offering guidance while dissecting their successes and failures. They’re typically a subject matter expert, where relatability is crucial for people to open up, share challenges and allow for vulnerability.
So what does this mean for an LGBTQ+ person seeking mentorship?
Firstly, organisations and mentors need to be open to learning the unique challenges that LGBTQ+ employees face. On any given day they may experience microaggressions, discrimination, and feelings of isolation.
Understand that simply telling them to Lean In, may not be the best advice. Instead, unpack the complex dynamics at play and much like strategic product management, help them weigh up the trade-offs and likely ROI of any action taken based on scenarios they’ve encountered before.
Where possible, pair them with like-minded people who can provide guidance and support their career progression with understanding. This doesn’t mean the only solution is LGBTQ+ mentors, but it does require a certain level of allyship. Why?
Because the key to every relationship is trust. We look to mentors for guidance because we trust what they have to say when sharing precarious thoughts in the hope that they can help. Mentors need to be intellectually dependable people, to be sure, but implicit in that is that they are trustworthy too. Mentees need to trust that they will understand their perspective and not dismiss their experiences.
And lastly, LGBTQ+ professionals who have gotten to a stage in their careers where they not only have wisdom to impart but no longer risk being visible should offer mentorship to other LGBTQ+ employees. Especially when employees don’t see themselves represented on leadership teams.
You have to be the representation you couldn’t see.
Read more great content from our Product Management consultants at the Brainrants Blog.