Why Are There No Openly Gay Fortune 500 CEOs?

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By Patrick Coffee Comment

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Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times asked a very important question this morning: how did professional football–the very epitome of a traditional industry averse to change–embrace an openly gay personality before corporate America?

Her point is that, despite widely-accepted rumors about certain executives at certain tech companies, not one of the nation’s 1,000 biggest businesses has an openly gay CEO.

We asked Howard Bragman, Chairman of Fifteen Minutes PR–who happens to represent Michael Sam–for his take on the issue.

Bragman writes:

Like women and people of color, openly gay CEOs have far too few seats at the head of the table. Society and businesses will be better served when those at the top begin to embody the diversity that society is increasingly comfortable with. It sends a message of inclusion and gives everyone the chance to rise without a lavender ceiling.

He’s right, of course: as Miller notes in her piece, only five percent of those 1,000 companies have a woman in charge. The first black chief took control only 15 years ago. Change is slow.

The problem, really, is that many executives eager to avoid rocking the rhetorical boat at all costs still believe that the risks of presenting an openly gay CEO to the world outweigh the benefits. As Miller puts it, a common strategy boils down to:

“We’re tolerant, but our customers might not be.”

This sentiment–and the fact that a recent Deloitte survey found that a significant majority of professionals at all levels don’t reveal their orientation to their colleagues–may seem a bit odd at a time when brands as “mainstream” as Bud Light embrace the cause of gay rights. It comes down to a core desire to avoid making unnecessary waves.

Our theory: the first gay CEO will go public sooner rather than later. But–and this is a key point–he or she will follow the Michael Sam playbook in insisting that the public focus on performance rather than personal matters like orientation that shouldn’t have any effect on corporate reputation.

The world is not perfect. Like it or not, here will be headlines.