CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Renee Brown and her wife decided to start a family, the decision came with an added layer of stress. Brown, who now works in Charlotte as Wells Fargo’s senior vice president and director of enterprise media, said informing her colleagues of her child’s impending birth included unique coming out experiences.
First would come congratulations, Brown said. Then questions.
“I didn’t know you were married,” her colleagues would say.
“I’m not,” Brown would respond, leading ultimately to important conversations and “teaching moments” for her colleagues.
Brown also serves on the board of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a national organization working to ensure more equal and inclusive workplaces for LGBT people. Brown joined three other women leaders in Charlotte on Sunday at Park Road Books. They shared their experiences of being out in the workplace and read passages from their new anthology, “Out & Equal at Work: From Closet to Corner Office,” released in January and containing the personal experiences and stories of 36 LGBT executives.
“We’ve been doing these book readings around the country; we have regional affiliates in 18 cities in the United States and little by little we’re getting through,” said Out & Equal Founder and CEO Selisse Berry. “We just did one in Rochester, N.Y., and we’re lining up ones in Dallas, Houston and Atlanta and other places where we already have a presence.”
About a dozen people, including board members from the Charlotte Business Guild, attended Sunday’s reading. Panelists and audience members agreed: the corporate workplace is becoming increasingly more LGBT-friendly as more and more companies adopt fully-LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits. In cities like Charlotte, major corporations like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy are leading the way. Each have perfect or near-perfect 100 ratings in the national Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.
“I like to think that Out & Equal played a role in creating more out and equal workplaces,” Berry said. “I definitely think the larger companies get it, that we’re not just their employees, but we’re also their customers and clients, and so if you’re LGBT-friendly, you’re opening up all sorts of market opportunities, as well.”
But, more work remains to be done. Many smaller companies don’t have inclusive employee protections or benefits. In many jurisdictions, government workers aren’t protected. In 29 states, including North Carolina, LGBT people can still be fired based solely on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Even at larger companies, some fear corporate leaders aren’t ready to tackle the changes newer and younger employees will bring to the workplace. Millennials — those who are in their early-30s or younger — have grown up in a world with increasing LGBT inclusion.
Shane Windmeyer is executive director of the Charlotte-based Campus Pride, a national organization working with LGBT college students. He told the panel on Sunday that many of his students are being told to keep LGBT-related school or community work off their resumes. Others don’t identify with the binary “male” and “female” roles and labels, presenting potential challenges and conflicts within more traditional corporate settings.
“They will bring changes,” Brown said of younger workers. What changes? No one is quite sure, but Berry thinks her organization has laid the groundwork for more inclusive change. And, she’ll keep working to ensure fair and equitable workplaces.
“It definitely feels as though we’re moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go,” Berry said.