Why are there no out LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100?
We share an inside view on what it’s like to be out in the business world
By Becky Hardy
February was LGBT+ History Month and, this year especially, it taught us a lot. It taught us that there have been, and still are, a lot of bad-ass individuals, groups and communities out there breaking boundaries, blazing trails and and killing their respective games. It taught us about the dangers the LGBTQ+ community face, the challenges they have overcome and still have to overcome, and the victories they’ve achieved. It also taught us to challenge what we recognise now as ‘the norm’ but which, perhaps, shouldn’t be so widely accepted.
That encouragement to question what we know and expect is something that we’ve seen continued in the public consciousness. #choosetochallenge was the official theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, and it’s certainly something that we at HLN are going to try our best to keep doing throughout this year and beyond.
So when it came to our attention that there are currently no publicly out LGBTQ+ CEOs in the FTSE 100 – a share index of the 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange with the highest market capitalisation – we became curious. After all, a person’s sexuality surely isn’t seen to impact their ability to do their job anymore, right? Wrong, actually. Apparently, for some reason unbeknown to us, it still does.
Kris Britton is the CEO of international ‘mega-marketing’ company, KAYBE. With more than 10 years’ experience in his field, Kris heads up an ever-growing team of experts who help hundreds of brands around the world take their business strategies to the next level. Safe to say, he’s no stranger to hard graft. We’ve no doubt that, as with us all, the pandemic brought new, previously unchartered difficulties to overcome for KAYBE. But upon our introduction to Kris, we’re met with a laidback, positive guy who, while he speaks eloquently on such a problematic subject, doesn’t refrain from throwing the odd joke into the mix. Oh yes, we almost forgot to mention – Kris is gay, too.
With a life partner, a beautiful Quayside apartment and a position of power within a business that is still flying high despite COVID, it would be easy to assume that, for Kris, life as a LGBTQ+ CEO is just one easy ride. But while he’s out and proud to his colleagues and staff, some of his clients are deliberately still left in the dark.
‘I don’t go out of my way to tell our clients,’ he explains. ‘I won’t lie, but I won’t be forward in announcing that I’m gay or that I have a partner. I do believe it still affects people’s attitudes and I know it would affect me commercially. That sounds crazy to say, but the reason I say it is because I’ve witnessed first-hand how some people still respond to those of us within the LGBTQ+ community even in this day and age, especially in other areas of Europe. I knew a client in Germany, for example, who, once he found out that I was gay, wouldn’t shake my hand.’
The intercontinental aspect of the business world is an interesting point. Many heterosexuals – whether in a relationship or single – wouldn’t think twice about where in Europe they’d go on holiday. But for anyone within the LGBTQ+ community, something that should be as simple and exciting as picking a holiday destination always comes with the overriding consideration: will I be safe there?
And while the UK may be ahead of some of its global counterparts, we still have a long way to go. Kris highlights that the general consensus among our society that everyone is straight until proven gay is problematic at the most basic level.
‘I don’t think you can immediately tell from meeting me that I’m gay,’ he says. ‘So it’s then naturally assumed that I’m straight. I’m asked: “so are you married?” “Do you have any kids?”
‘That assumption, at the very earliest point of meeting, is still that if you are in a position of power, you’re a heterosexual who has a stereotypically heterosexual family life. Whatever we may hear to the contrary, that is still the aspiration and expectation of modern day Britain.’
What happens, then, when a publicly accepted person of power – a CEO of a successful business, for example – then brings along their same-sex partner to a work event?
‘There’s always a sense of surprise!’ Kris laughs. ‘A lot of the time, clients assume Jack is my brother or friend. That’s usually the first assumption, actually. During lockdown it’s been interesting to see people’s reactions when he’s walked past in the background of my Zoom calls. For some reason, I still didn’t expect to be met with people saying something like: “oh, I didn’t realise you lived with your brother!” And when you’re on an important business call, you then don’t want to go into the ins and outs of everything by correcting them, because that can open up a can of worms.’
But while Kris can’t help but laugh off some of the reactions he’s met with, he’s often forced to confront the harsher, way more damaging impact other reactions can have on a person’s mental health. When he’s not working, Kris volunteers with the Samaritans. A large proportion of the people he meets belong in the LGBTQ+ community, but feel they have nowhere else to turn to.
‘Loads of us watched It’s A Sin recently and the public conversation after that was all about how awful it was, the way those guys were treated,’ Kris says. ‘And it’s great when programmes like that highlight those issues. But that treatment towards the LGBTQ+ community isn’t confined to the past. With the Samaritans, I stay on the phone with a lot of individuals who, sadly, feel that the only way out of the situation they’re in is to end their lives. All we can do is talk to them and make sure that they’re not alone. And that actually blows their minds sometimes – that you’re there, offering emotional support to them and not passing judgement.
‘The amount of LGBTQ+ individuals I speak to who bring up work-related situations where they feel trapped or where they don’t feel that they’re being true to themselves is significant. One of the questions I tend to raise is: are you different in work than you are when you’re with your friends? If their answer is yes, then they aren’t being true to themselves. And that resonates with me, because I’m different with my friends compared to when I’m at work. Some of my colleagues, who I’m very close to, see a noticeable difference in me as soon as I go on a call with a client. I’m normally pretty energetic, relaxed, I make a lot of jokes, but then when I go into a strictly-professional environment, who I am naturally just goes out the window without me even thinking, and I become quite reserved and conservative. So I can easily understand why, without the right support around you, that becomes too much. It’s something that many – myself included – feel we have to change about ourselves at work.’
While he may not be out to some of his clients, a big part of that valuable support network for Kris comes from his colleagues. But they provide a positive influence in his life because he has been clear about the values KAYBE stands for and supports and, therefore, the employees he wants to attract. But this isn’t always something that a CEO is able to influence.
‘At KAYBE, we try and be very clear about who and what we accept – and that goes much further than race, gender or sexuality,’ Kris explains. ‘No matter someone’s age, size, background or appearance, if you do the job well then you’re part of the team. That’s what is difficult with larger enterprises. Everyone jumps on the Pride bandwagon around June, right? So many businesses will temporarily change their logo to incorporate the rainbow flag and all of that. But how many of those businesses – unknowingly, perhaps – are still hiring people who are homophobic?
‘Obviously, in many cases they won’t know that’s who they’re hiring, because you can’t ask that as a question in an interview. But it remains a difficult thing, because you see those logos change but you can’t help asking yourself: how many of those businesses are run by a pale, male and stale group?! Because actually there still aren’t many female leaders, there still aren’t many gay leaders, male or female, because in so many cases, there’s no-one on the board who would support them being promoted right to the top of the chain. Even if they ran for CEO, the likelihood of them getting the job would be very low.’
So is it less a case of CEOs not having the confidence to come out publicly and more that employees who are already out are being prohibited from making it to those high levels in business?
‘I think it comes down to that cigar and whisky club we’ve got at the top of most businesses,’ Kris reasons. ‘That small number of individuals – around 10 or 15, predominantly (if not exclusively) men – who run the show. A lot of corporates say they’re working to break the stigma, but we’re yet to actually see the results of that stigma being broken. And that’s not just in regards to sexuality, it’s about age and gender too. It’s that whole square peg, round hole analogy – if you’re young, female, from an ethic minority or LGBTQ+, you just don’t fit into that club. So yes, it does hold you back professionally.’
What all this boils down to is a recurring cycle that is all too convenient for those currently in power: the people – sorry, the men – at the top of the business world are older and white; they’re unlikely to accept LGBTQ+ individuals who are publicly out and apply to become a CEO, thus keeping those individuals in lower professional positions; any CEOs who identify as LGBTQ+ but who aren’t publicly out are unlikely to come out for fear of jeopardising the position on a board that they’ve worked hard – and sacrificed much – to join; LGBTQ+ individuals at entry-level roles don’t feel like becoming a CEO is a realistic, achievable or desirable ambition, because they have very few role models to look up to. And the cycle continues.
So what needs to change?
‘It needs to be a more talked-about topic,’ Kris suggests. ‘In the media, particularly. Take a look at The Economist – how many times have you read an article about LGBTQ+ business leaders in The Economist? I can count on one finger, and that may be one finger too many! What is the kind of publication the pale, male and stale group are most likely to read? Yep, probably The Economist.
‘You can’t underestimate the power of the media, because it really does influence what people think. If we can start talking about this kind of thing more publicly, hopefully the media will start to hook onto it more and encourage all of us to be more open. Think back to It’s A Sin and the kind of attitudes that showed us. It wasn’t until Princess Diana publicly shook the hand of someone with AIDs without wearing gloves before the media cottoned onto the fact that the disease couldn’t be transmitted by touch and that, more importantly, these were real people dying, who deserved our sympathy and compassion.
‘Until there’s that shift in media coverage, I don’t think much will change. Because it takes someone with real gumption to come out in business and risk something they’ve worked so hard on, for probably the vast majority of their life. But we can still have these conversations and we can work together to make that change happen one day.’
Our huge thanks and gratitude to Kris for speaking with us