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Queer Mirror: The pink ceiling in corporate Calgary

Wednesday 03rd, December 2014 / 18:30
By Kevin Allen

queer-printCALGARY — Gay athletes in professional sports have made big headlines recently. These leagues seem to be on the homophobia frontier with proponents and detractors each taking highly visible punches with regard to the viability of being out in sport.

Another frontier closer to home is corporate Calgary, particularly parts of the energy and financial sectors. Many queers I know who work for Calgary’s big corporations are either fully in the closet or operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality with their co-workers. Their reasoning varies but often has the theme of either preserving their privacy (everyone’s human right!), or protecting their promotions and bonuses in where being gay is perceived as either not as competitive or as a downright handicap.

It seems that when there is a lot of money to be made and/or big deals to be had, it brings out a certain kind of alpha-male behavior, which includes a lot of competitiveness, booze, trips to see strippers, and lewd commentary about women. Gay people, like many others, often do not thrive in that environment.

Yet, cracks in the pink ceiling have begun to appear. This October, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, publicly came out in a Businessweek editorial. Cook is the first Fortune 500 Company CEO to do so and it made world news (it also made me marginally less frustrated with iCloud). Previous to that John Browne, the former superstar CEO of British Petroleum was brought down in 2007 by trying to suppress a newspaper story about his sexual orientation. He publicly stated, “I was terrified about being known as gay,” and is now a born-again LGBTQ corporate diversity campaigner.

During the past decade, TD Bank has been thumping on the same gay drum. Recently retired CEO, Ed Clark, has talked often about his conversion. Clark was floored to learn that one of his senior executives had been in the closet for years, despite their close working relationship. Speaking at the Calgary Petroleum Club, Clark expounding on TD’s diversity strategy, noting that offering same-sex benefits does not go far enough in removing barriers to an inclusive workplace.

However, has that message really been heard in Cowtown?

I did an informal survey of many friends who work in the downtown towers of corporate Calgary. The unscientific consensus was that full inclusion and a thorough respect for diversity has not happened here.

Of course one cannot make sweeping generalizations, and my friends did comment on nuances in their corporate existentialism. Some important points are: most companies are, superficially at least, supportive of diversity, and mention it in their policies, annual reports and communication departments. There is also a generational effect, where more senior cohorts cleave to the old boys’ club ways of doing things. They also noted pockets of corporate Calgary where machismo seems to chillingly run unchecked.

There are some indicators of thaw however. Pride at Work Canada, a network of businesspeople and corporations whose aim is to put the case for LGBT diversity and inclusion on the mainstream business agenda, has a thriving Calgary chapter. Shell Canada Limited, whose corporate headquarters are here, is involved with Pride at Work, and has for 20 years been on the leading edge of pro-gay policies.

When I asked my friends if they were out at work, most of them said they are, at least to their most immediate co-workers and bosses. However, for many there was a definite undercurrent of discretion. When asked if they would bring a partner or a date to the corporate Christmas party, almost everyone said no. I wonder what Santa would have to say…

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