When Apple CEO Tim Cook announced to the world that he was gay, I was inundated by emails and telephone messages from executives around the world.

As an out executive at EY, everyone seemed to want to know what I thought this meant for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion on a global scale. Apple is, after all, number 5 on the Fortune 500 list. Was this the end of the “lavender ceiling”?

In his Bloomberg Businessweek article, Cook states: “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me. Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day.”

My own experience of being “different” is multifaceted. I was a woman, an introvert and closeted, with politics that tended to differ from peers in my heavily male, extroverted profession. Like Tim, these differences contributed to my natural propensity to be an inclusive leader, since I had experienced the minority position in many dimensions. Since coming out in 2011, I have been publicly truer to myself, and more authentic with others. Quite simply, it has made me a better leader. And being out in a leadership position in a global organization has provided me a platform to talk openly on a wide range of issues.

There’s no question about it: Cook’s action is important. And international organizations have made huge progress in LGBT inclusion by using external and employee networks and non-discrimination statements. However, most of today’s available statistics are focused on progress being made in Europe and the US. According to a recent study by Catalyst, 62% of Fortune 500 companies now offer domestic partner health insurance benefits; 87% of Fortune 500 companies now have non-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation; and 94% of Fortune 100 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation.

Beth Brooke Marciniak

But LGBT inclusion differs around the world, country by country. According to Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, 90% of LGBT workers in Asia are closeted. There are 78 countries, including Uganda and Nigeria, where being gay is still illegal. Singapore recently upheld its stringent anti-homosexuality law. In Russia, on the same day Tim Cook made his announcement, a memorial to Apple founder Steve Jobs was dismantled, ostensibly to abide by a law combating “gay propaganda”.

And, in the US, while members of the same sex can marry in 32 states (and I did, to Michelle Marciniak, in April 2014 in New York), in 29 states it is still legal to fire someone based solely on their sexual orientation. In 34 states, it is legal to fire a transgender employee.

What can multinational companies do to further their LGBT inclusion strategies on a global level? I recently spoke in Japan about five things global organizations can do:

  1. Strengthen the “ally effect”. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that allies – people who support LGBT colleagues or work as advocates – play a decisive role in creating an inclusive community. In fact, 24% of the LGBT workers surveyed attribute their decision to come out professionally to their network of allies. Employers can create networks that invite straight colleagues to support their LGBT co-workers and by sponsoring LGBT individuals and groups. The two groups can jointly participate in company events, and organizations can create and display ally identification in their workspace.
  2. Senior executives being visibly out makes a huge difference. Tim Cook is a great example. LGBT employees are 85% more likely to be out at companies where senior executives are out (24% versus 13%). At EY, our LGBT leadership participated in the “It Gets Better” video project in 2011, sharing stories for the benefit of at-risk LGBT youth. I took advantage of the opportunity, and, with the full support of EY’s leadership, officially came out. I talked openly, not only about my own experiences, but also shared how my organization’s philosophy played an important role in my decision.
  3. Talk – people are listening. The more people hear, see and know what is going on in their organization, the more quickly cultural change takes place. And speaking up is an important part – too often, when an organization doesn’t correct a misstatement, it is taken as agreement. People are listening not only to what is actually being said but also to what passes without challenge.
  4. Design customized solutions. One size does not fit all – strategies work best when tailored to fit the requirement of such individual conditions as geographic locations, business unit type or department function. Implement new ideas from the more progressive regions in which you do business (e.g. Europe and the US). Work with LGBT groups at other organizations, both locally and globally.
  5. Shift from diversity to inclusiveness. Companies can continue to facilitate an overall inclusive workplace for everyone, not just LGBT employees. Consider changing an existing diversity-focused culture of “them” to an inclusiveness-centred culture of “us.”

Tim Cook and I share many of the same attitudes about our LGBT identity. And I find his words apply equally to my journey. “[Being gay] has made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life. It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry.”

The lavender ceiling has been cracked, but there is nowhere in the world today where we can tick the global LGBT inclusion box as “done.” There is still much more to do.

Author: Beth Brooke-Marciniak is EY’s Global Vice-Chair of Public Policy.

Image: A transvestite holds up a rainbow coloured umbrella during the 15th Gay Pride Parade in Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo June 26, 2011. REUTERS/Nacho Doce