Last year, IBM (IBM ) became a founding sponsor the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. The nation's largest companies are creating new diversity councils and inviting gay employees to participate. And this January, a new bi-monthly magazine called Echelon aims to cater to the gay professional. What gives? Suddenly, the corporate set is going after a once-overlooked minority, exploring what it means to have gay employees in their increasingly diverse workforce and to court the gay population in general.
Thanks in part to the rise of the Internet and better government sampling of the overall population, businesses are finding new reasons to be considered gay-friendly. Some 6% of the U.S. population consistently identifies itself in surveys as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That's some 15 million consumers.
Data from online company MarketResearch.com peg gay buying power this year at $485 billion. That's well behind Hispanics at $653 billion and African Americans at $688 billion, but surveys are finding that gay groups are far more likely to buy from a company perceived as friendly not only to the gay population but to their gay workers as well, according to Harris Interactive.
"From the business standpoint, there's green in them hills," says Maria Campbell, director of diversity at SC Johnson & Sons, the maker of such things as Pledge furniture polish and Ziploc baggies.
Encouraging gay employees to feel more comfortable in the workplace also can help boost productivity and retain good workers. Human-resources officers say closeted workers spend too much time hiding the fact that they're gay or lesbian to co-workers and bosses. In large companies, a relatively small number of employees spending just 2% of their secret lives -- leaving their desks to make surreptitious phone calls, for example -- results in hundreds of hours of lost productivity annually, estimates University of Massachusetts researcher Lee Badgett.
Companies today are reviewing other studies that indicate discrimination still affects gay employees. Nonprofit think tank Urban Institute analyzed 2000 Census Bureau numbers. In a report released in June, 2003, it revealed that the median household earnings of same-sex, unmarried partners was $3,000 below the household income of opposite-sex unmarried partner households.
Twentysomething gay and straight workers essentially had salaries on par with each other, but the gap widened over time. Straight men aged 33 to 44 earned an average of $60,000, vs. just $53,000 for gay men of the same age. Researcher Gary Gates suggests that because the sample is only a small part of the gay population, the wage gap may be wider.
For companies with scant interest in reaching the gay market, that may mean little. But in the boardrooms of companies that already are well on the road to change, there's a sense that such change could be a win for workers, consumers, and the company itself. "Frankly, I hope it's one of my competitors that's behind the times," says IBM diversity director Ted Childs. So do lots of others.
By Cliff Edwards in San Mateo, Calif.