For Jesse Torgerson, being out at work has been crucial to success in his career. However, while he is open and proud now — leading Designer Brands’ LGBTQ+ business resource group — that hasn’t always been the case.
“I was uncomfortable at first,” DSW’s SVP of allocation, store planning and advanced analytics said. “I came out after college and was working in a corporate environment. I didn’t see leaders who were part of my community and so I felt like I needed to hide. That is an immense amount of pressure that we put on ourselves to try to hide an element of who we really are, and that pressure prevented me from doing my best work, from having the best relationships and connecting with the people around me.”
Torgerson is not alone. Despite progress in recent years — including 2020’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination — there are still barriers to full inclusion in the workplace. Many LGTBQ+ employees face daily microaggressions, and according to recent studies, almost half of LGBTQ workers say they are closeted at work.
“That coming out journey never really ends,” said Torgerson. “Every time you join a new team, every time you change jobs, you end up coming out over and over again. But the more you see acceptance, the more it becomes easy. Once I was more open about who I was, I felt much more comfortable in my own skin and I started to do better work, get better results and achieve more.”
The Path to Understanding
After a year of a social justice reckoning, companies are being held accountable for their diversity and inclusion initiatives more than ever before. And what is imperative is that companies cultivate cultures that allow those who have felt “othered” to see a commitment to advance equality for all.
For Rob Smith, founder of gender-free fashion brand Phluid Project and Get Phuid, a diversity and inclusion training program, change starts at the top.
“I like to go to the C-suite, which tends to be cis-gendered, heteronormative, Caucasian older men,” Smith said of his program, which aims to create affirming spaces in the workplace for the LGBTQIA+ community, specifically transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals. His goal is to look past a company’s employee resource group (ERG). “That’s preaching to the choir.”
Smith said his purpose is to educate business leaders on the changing workforce.
“The gender-expansive community is a new frontier for many companies,” he said, noting that he often explains the differences between sex assigned at birth, gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression. “There’s a huge generational gap between the C-suite and employees coming out of college [who will make up the majority of the workforce], so there’s a lot more work to be done with this evolution of understanding the idea of who you go to bed with to who you go to bed as and teaching them the difference.”
Creating understanding only invites a more welcoming environment that in turn increases LGBTQ+ employees’ job satisfaction, loyalty and performance, Smith said.
At Reebok, the company is making significant headway in its diversity and inclusion journey by accepting employees for who they truly are.
“I am a gay man, but I’m also a Black man and Latino,” said Reebok’s manager of customer service, Cristian Cabrera. Though he was out before joining the company, Cabrera said Reebok’s culture has furthered his ability to be his true authentic self. “You are yourself whether you’re out on the street or if you’re inside of a meeting room,” he said. “That doesn’t leave when you walk in through our doors, and that understanding helps folks like me feel more open to bringing our whole selves to work, whereas in other environments, it just wasn’t encouraged.”
A Vital Resource
One important tool in cultivating an affirming workplace is ERGs. Cabrera said that through the programs at Reebok he’s been able to address issues surrounding communities he is part of. Additionally, workers in ERGs are able to interact with like-minded people who have gone through similar experiences — or meet and empathize with people who are different from them. At Designer Brands, for instance, half of its LGBTQ ERG is composed of allies.
In October 2020, Tapestry Inc. launched an ERG called Prouder Together, to support its LGBTQIA+ colleagues and it has quickly grown to over 200 members. However, the company has long worked to create a welcoming environment for employees. For seven consecutive years, Tapestry has achieved a score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index.
According to Carmen Arocho-Blanco, senior director of equity, inclusion and diversity, hitting that milestone year after year comes down to education, which is supported through multiple initiatives, such as Tapestry’s Be Heard sessions — open forums for employees to speak up about their experiences and have a community of peers to support them.
Sock brand Bombas has a similar tactic in place revolving around storytelling, where at the company’s All Hands meetings employees can share vulnerable moments in their lives. “It helps paint that picture of what it means to have a certain identity and how everyone within that identity is still their own person,” explained VP of people Myke Mansberger.
These seemingly small actions can make a profound impact, he added.
In 2019, a Bombas employee, who had been living with HIV/AIDS, died. During a Pride celebration the year prior to his death, he shared his story at an All Hands and helped to change the stigma around people living with AIDS. Since then, the company remains committed to furthering his lasting legacy. “I still continue his story because I want that to become normalized even after him,” said Mansberger. “From seeing how everybody rallied around him in his final days to the company naming our new library after him, it is really special. It’s a priority to make sure that our underrepresented groups are elevated. It helps me feel proud about the company.”
Small Things Matter
In the larger dialogue around diversity, being an equal opportunity employer is simply not enough, experts said. It’s the nuances that are making all the difference.
For example, at Deckers Brands’ Goleta, Calif., headquarters, there are gender-inclusive bathroom placards. The company also offers some transgender reassignment coverage in its benefits and is exploring more robust options.
Meanwhile, conversations about pronoun use in the workplace are continuing to become normalized as well. At Tapestry, its corporate email signature guidelines are templated to include pronouns. According to HR experts, that is meant to create a safe place for those who may be struggling with their identity, while also supporting gender-expansive employees.
Despite a year of indescribable challenges for the marginalized, members of the LGBTQ community believe progress is being made. Efforts are in place to bring recognition to those obstacles, but it’s an ongoing journey.
Said Smith, “Inclusion is a commitment. This work is much bigger than Pride. It’s about a movement versus a month, and it’s never ending.”
Throughout Pride Month, FN is spotlighting LGBTQIA+ executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business. Be sure to check back for updates.