Fortune 500 Women Are LGBT Heroes

A decade of research shows that when businesses have gender-diverse leadership, its policies are more LGBT-supportive.

02.05.16 6:13 PM ET

Want to know how likely a company is to become LGBT-friendly? Look up its board of directors and count the women.

That’s what Dr. Alison Cook and Dr. Christy Glass, both associate professors at Utah State University, found after they analyzed 10 years worth of data from Fortune 500 companies in conjunction with their scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI).

Their study, published in the journal Human Relations, concludes that “firms with gender-diverse boards are more likely than other firms to offer LGBT-friendly policies.” Firms with female CEOs are significantly more likely to provide two such policies: domestic partner benefits and gender identity non-discrimination protections. In the absence of either a female CEO or a gender-diverse board, LGBT employees can suffer.

“When men CEOs have a non-diverse board, their performance with regard to LGBT issues is very poor,”  Cook told The Daily Beast. “This is why one of our main implications, given the predominantly male CEO makeup of most firms, is that boards need gender diversity.”

In their exhaustive analysis, Cook and Glass collected information on the CEOs and board makeup of every Fortune 500 company from 2001 to 2010. Then, they used the CEI to determine whether or not—and when—these companies implemented domestic partner benefits, sexual orientation protections, and gender identity protections. They also tracked the firms’ overall CEI scores, which measure the full range of LGBT-friendly corporately policies on a scale from 0 to 100.

Crucially, they controlled for variables like company culture and staggered their analysis such that they measured the impact of gender diversity in 2001 on each company’s new policies in 2002, and so on.

This method allows the researchers to suggest that the link they found between gender diversity and LGBT inclusion isn’t just a coincidence.

“I still caution on asserting causality, but it is a much stronger test than if all the variables were from the same year,” Cook explained.

Their study strongly suggests that women in positions of power have been a major force in making corporate America LGBT-friendly, and not just a simultaneously-occurring phenomenon.

The presence of a female CEO predicted domestic partnership benefits and protections for transgender employees but, without a gender-diverse board to back her up, the significance of her effect was limited to those two policies.

Cook and Glass speculate that this limitation could be due to the biases that female CEOs face when they have “token or solo status” in their firms. Not having other women around at high levels of leadership may reduce their “willingness to advance innovative and potentially controversial policies, such as LGBT-supportive policies.”

But add a gender-diverse board to the mix and all of the outcomes that Cook and Glass measured were significantly more likely to take place, even if the CEO was a man.

A little diversity went a long way, too. On average, only 15 percent of board members in the study’s sample were women. The higher that percentage and the more influential those female board members were—as measured by their connections to the boards of other companies—the more likely the firm was to adopt all of the LGBT-friendly policies. Board gender diversity was “the most important factor in predicting [this] policy adoption.”

Why do women have this transformative effect on Fortune 500 companies?

For one, women in the United States are more likely to support LGBT people than men. GLAAD’s second annual Accelerating Acceptance report found in a survey of 2,000 American adults that LGBT allies were more likely to be women and that those who were uncomfortable around LGBT people were more likely to be men. Women in the U.S. have long outpaced men in their support for same-sex marriage, according to Pew.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

For Cook and Glass, some answers may lie in women’s unique management styles. Studies have shown that female leaders tend to be more invested in fairness and equity than their male peers. Some theorists speculate that this is because women and girls are encouraged to take a more cooperative approach to problems; others suggest it may be because they have experienced sexism, making them “more likely to support inclusive policies.”

Whatever the reason, the effect that women have on corporate LGBT policy is almost certainly good for business. As Cook and Glass wrote in their study, there is “mounting empirical evidence” to suggest that LGBT-friendly companies perform better, are more competitive and have happier, more productive employees.

“Thus, while LGBT-friendly policies may target a minority of workers, such policies are increasingly viewed as central priorities of firm management because they advance a range of desired outcomes from productivity and financial performance to worker commitment,” they noted.

So for those companies looking to become more inclusive and potentially boost their bottom line as a result, Cook can offer now-proven advice:

“To advance inclusivity in the workplace, gender diversity on the board of directors is key,” she told The Daily Beast. “Both numbers and influence matter. Multiple women and influential women on the board significantly increase the likelihood that firms will offer LGBT-friendly policies.”

Currently, less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. About the same number have all-male boards and 28 percent have just one female director on their board.