Straight, cis-gender leaders still dominate the C-suite. But there have been a handful of LGBTQ milestones in corporate America recently.
Apple’s Tim Cook famously came out in 2014, and in March, James Fitterling became the new CEO of The Dow Chemical Company. This week, Land O’Lakes made headlines by naming Beth Ford its first female CEO. But Ford’s appointment marks another milestone: she is also the first openly gay woman CEO to run a Fortune 500 company.
“I am extraordinarily grateful to work at a company that values family, including my own,” Ford said in a statement to CNN. “The Board chose the person they felt best met the criteria to drive success in the business. I realize this is an important milestone for many people and I am pleased to share it.”
There are already very few role models for women in business. The number of female CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies is constantly in flux. Several high-profile female CEOs announced they were stepping down last year, including Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and Irene Rosenfeld at Mondelez. Following these exits, the number of women leading Fortune 500 companies dropped by 25% between 2017 and 2018.
For gay women, visibility is even scarcer. LGBTQ CEOs like Inga Beale, of Lloyd’s of London, and Martine Rothblatt, of United Therapeutics, have long held positions of power in their respective industries. But until Beth Ford, no openly gay woman CEO has broken into that most elite of all business clubs – the Fortune 500.
“Her authentic leadership as an out lesbian is well-known in the LGBT corporate community, and the fact that she is assuming this role as an out lesbian sends an especially powerful message,” says Deena Fidas, director of workplace equality at the Human Rights Campaign. “This is not a story of someone getting into the higher echelons of leadership and then coming out, this is someone walking into this role with her full self.”
Fidas points out Ford’s announcement is significant for more than just the title. According to a recent survey from the Human Rights Campaign, nearly half of all Americans aren’t out at work. While some members of the LGBTQ community may come out at school or in their personal lives, Fidays says research shows some reenter the closet once they enter the working world.
“That speaks to the notion that still for many LGBTQ people, the luxury of being out is one you can only have once you’ve established yourself, as opposed to walking in the door as your authentic self,” Fidas says.
That could be changing with the next wave of talent, says Matt Kidd, executive director of Reaching Out MBA, a nonprofit organization for the LGBTQ MBA and graduate community.
“Where we can kind of measure success is with mid and lower-level employees, seeing an increase in LGBTQ representation there,” he says. “They’re going to be out their entire careers, and the presumption is they’ll rise up as others have, and what we want to look closely at is if someone is starting their career as out, is that in any way hindering them as they advance?”
As someone who rose the ranks as an out gay woman, Ford is paving the way for future LGBTQ leaders.
“I made a decision long ago to live an authentic life and if my being named CEO helps others do the same, that’s a wonderful moment,” Ford said.