LGBTQ Students Leverage Their Leadership

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Wednesday, August 18, 2021
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/LaylaBird
The next generation of business leaders is making every effort to shape a future where all employees can bring their authentic selves to work.

The business world is more welcoming to LGBTQ employees than it has ever been. That’s due in part to both the efforts of a growing number of global advocacy organizations and anti-discrimination laws passed by world governments. But while many countries and cultures have become more inclusive—particularly in Europe, Australia, and North and South America—parts of the world still have discriminatory laws on their books. And even in countries that offer legal protections, many in the LGBTQ community still feel reluctant to reveal their true selves at work.

The nonprofit Catalyst, formed to advance women in leadership, has compiled data from a number of studies that show that 46 percent of LGBTQ workers in the United States still remain in the closet at work. In addition, 20 percent report having faced discrimination themselves.

What will it take to continue making progress toward creating more universally inclusive business organizations? Many LGBTQ leaders emphasize that it will require leaders with the skills to raise awareness across organizations and the courage to speak out against direct and indirect discriminatory behaviors.

Aidan Currie is executive director of Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports MBA students in the LGBTQ community. He has noticed that MBA students and alumni are showing growing enthusiasm for mastering these leadership skills, so they will be prepared to make their workplaces and communities more diverse, inclusive, and equitable for everyone. MBA students “are very privileged in the sense that they are getting this great business school education,” says Currie. “ROMBA seeks to fulfill its mission by leveraging those who are already influential—and who, more importantly, have a seat at the table in the boardroom or wherever it may be to effect change from the top down.”

Many of today’s LGBTQ business students are working harder than ever to pave the way for the next generation, agrees Zayne Imam, engagement officer at IE Business School in Madrid and a member of the advisory board of the IE Out & Allies student club. The club's student leaders, says Imam, “are taking the approach, ‘Let’s do things that matter to push the conversation forward without being unnecessarily flashy. Let’s make sure that every student who comes here feels like they have a voice.’”

In other words, as LGBTQ students pursue more purposeful forms of leadership, they are looking to do more than simply achieve the objectives of their organizations or advance in their own careers. They want to continue breaking barriers, changing minds, and opening doors for those who follow in their footsteps.

Going Beyond Mentorship

How future LGBTQ leaders reshape the business world depends largely on the leadership lessons they learn and the role models they have in business school, say Imam and Currie. For instance, Currie points to the fact that even as business schools promote diversity and inclusion, the vast majority of case studies they teach in their courses do not feature LGBTQ protagonists.

Carissa Thomas, a student at IE Business School and current vice president of the IE Out & Allies club, says that she sees this lack of representation firsthand. “The cases in my classes often highlight examples of straight leaders and rarely share ideas from openly LGBT people,” she says. “We need to see more inclusive examples.”

Other students share Thomas’ desire to see more LGBTQ-inclusive cases. At its last leadership summit in April, for example, ROMBA’s club leaders took part in a competition in which they were asked this question: “How would you use 5,000 USD to improve your club?” The winning team from the University of Oxford Saïd Business School in the U.K. proposed creating a collection of business cases relevant to the LGBTQ community and making those cases available to business schools. 

Imam also points out that when it comes to educating leaders to embrace diversity and inclusion, business schools have become very good at providing students with space to explore their identities and find others who have been through similar experiences. For instance, most schools tap alumni with relevant experiences and backgrounds to act as mentors who support young business students in the LGBTQ community.

“So much of the platform we stand on today has been bought by past students who have been brave enough to have hard conversations or start something new knowing it might fail.” — Zayne Imam, IE Business School

But while many alumni are willing to mentor students one-on-one, Imam says that he sees fewer using their seniority to sponsor LGBTQ candidates for jobs and promotions in their companies, create resources for LGBTQ employees, or establish training on topics such as allyship and the use of pronouns.

“We are slowly getting better and better at the mentorship part. Within the LGBT community, we are making very strong connections between alumni and current students,” says Imam. “But where we could all do better is doing more to create job opportunities and more actively pursue sponsorship opportunities.”

Luckily, Imam says, that might be changing. “A good 20 percent to 50 percent of our club members are hellbent on doing whatever it takes to see the next crop of students succeed, because they were offered the same thing,” he says. Such a “pay it forward” mindset might lead some students to use their leadership skills to effect change in their organizations, refer employers to promising LGBTQ candidates, or become strong advocates for policies that support LGBTQ employees and their families.

“We need to act on the understanding that so much of the platform we stand on today has been bought by past students who have been brave enough to have hard conversations or start something new knowing it might fail,” says Imam. “The only real way to pay that debt is to make it even easier for the next group of people coming up behind.”

Larger Than LGBTQ

Over the past few years, says Imam, clubs like IE Out & Allies have begun to expand their diversity and inclusion efforts to address the separate concerns of different underrepresented groups. That is, rather than seeking out policies that support just the LGBTQ community or just women or just people of color, these student leaders are recognizing the importance of making everyone feel visible, included, and significant to their organizations.

They see that the issues faced by one underrepresented group often dovetail into issues faced by another—a lack of representation or implicit bias in business and other contexts affects women, people of color, neurodiverse individuals, and the LGBTQ community, among others, says Imam.

“We need to recognize that a person like myself, who is a person of color and LGBT, has a different set of challenges than someone else who might present as white and straight in the workplace,” says Imam. “We must recognize the overriding principle that you should be comfortable enough to bring who you are to the workplace, and you should be appreciated for it.”

In 2017, Imam was among the student leaders who advocated changing the name of the IE Out Club to the IE Out & Allies Club to reflect the fact that the group had grown larger and more inclusive. Thomas, part of the club’s current leadership, notes that members are talking more frequently about the intersectionality among different underrepresented groups.

“They are not isolated communities—they’re all working toward the same goals,” says Thomas. “That’s why we welcome allies from other communities. Because at the end of the day, we can’t have one person be successful while leaving other people behind. We want to make it a priority for our club to advocate for everybody.”

"Several students told me that they looked only at schools participating in the ROMBA Fellowship program, because they viewed it as a clear sign that these schools were taking diversity and inclusion seriously.” — Aidan Currie, ROMBA

ROMBA, too, is seeing its membership diversify, and its annual conference and other events are attracting an increasing number of attendees who are women, who are Black, and who openly identify as gender-fluid or gender queer. “This is wonderful to see,” says Currie. “I think these increases are indicative of how the world we’re living in is changing and how young people are just a lot more comfortable living in a nonbinary way.” With this increasing diversity in mind, ROMBA’s leadership is currently conducting research to ensure that its board membership and event speaker rosters are more diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity.

The organization also wants to ensure that as many business students are prepared to lead as possible. In 2016, for example, ROMBA started its ROMBA LGBT+ Fellowship program, in which it works with business schools that have agreed to award scholarships of at least 20,000 USD. Schools, which conduct their own application processes for the program, typically choose up to two ROMBA Fellows, who can identify as LGBTQ or be straight allies. Fellows have access to leadership development activities, including an all-expenses-paid retreat in New York City held the summer before they start their MBA programs.

The program started with 14 business schools—it has since grown to 63, with about 75 students receiving the fellowship each year. So far, more than 300 students have been selected. Through their participation in the program, business schools aren’t just supporting individual LGBTQ students, Currie explains. They also are communicating to their communities that they welcome people of all backgrounds.

“I’ve had several students say to me that when they were deciding where to attend business school, they looked only at schools participating in the ROMBA Fellowship program,” he says. “They viewed it as a clear sign that these schools were taking diversity and inclusion seriously and would have a supportive environment for the LGBT community.”

More Influence, Greater Reach

In 2020, when the leaders of both ROMBA and IE Out & Allies were forced to reorganize their annual conferences into online formats, they soon discovered that virtual and hybrid formats would allow them to reach more people of different backgrounds than ever before. Last year, attendance for IE’s LGBT+@Work virtual conference increased to approximately 2,000 people, from around just 300 at its in-person event a few years ago.

At first, club leaders “thought the virtual format would be the biggest disadvantage,” says Imam. “Now a year later, they learned that what seemed to be a setback was an opportunity for them to completely rethink how they could have an impact. They didn't imagine that by taking the conference online, they could have an inspiring impact on someone streaming the event from Nigeria.” This year, IE Out & Allies’ new leadership team will deliver the conference in a hybrid format. 

The next step, says Thomas, is to expand the club’s membership beyond campus to include businesses and nonprofits. She and her fellow student leaders also hope to join forces with other clubs and conferences elsewhere in the world, to reach more people, including those living with physical disabilities and those without the means to attend events in person.

Currie, Imam, and Thomas all emphasize that the more that students can leverage their leadership skills in business school to effect real-world change, the more prepared and willing they will be to continue that leadership after graduation. And that means they’ll have more influence in creating company cultures where all individuals can bring their true selves to work.

“It’s so great when business schools allow students to take leadership roles over things that are important to them,” says Thomas. “The opportunities are really endless.”

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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