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Bay Street boyz

Is it okay to be gay in the business world?

02.14.2013

Imagine a land where the sidewalks are pink granite, skyscrapers radiate proportion and decorum, and power lunches, handshakes, black umbrellas and taxicabs rule the daylight hours. Welcome to Bay Street, Toronto’s central business district and Canada’s financial engine.

For those who have limited interaction with the world of dollars and sense, it may seem an excessively ordered, insular universe. But what’s beyond the granite veneer? What is the workaday reality for queer employees? Is it intimidating to toil in the corporate fray? Or is Bay Street so driven by the almighty dollar that it’s too busy to discriminate?

After interviewing some bankers, lawyers and corporate decision-makers, I decided the world of Windsor knots is not only efficient and productive, but inclusive as well. Almost all the people I talked to praised a workforce that is welcoming and committed to employee growth. 

“Things in the world of finance used to be a boys’ club, basically,” says Jeffrey Bower, of Scotiabank. “But globalization and competitiveness have opened the doors to business and other international markets, requiring the corporation to focus on the strength of the employee and not on their ethnicity or sexuality.”

Scotiabank offers spousal benefits unheard of in many other industries; the company flew Bower’s boyfriend to Mexico while Bower was on an extended work trip abroad. 

Abed Ayesh, of Sears Canada (and one of this issue’s cover guys), agrees that corporate intolerance is largely a myth. “It’s a pretty relaxed environment here. I don’t feel like I face any discrimination at work because I am gay.”

Deloitte’s Michael Mirpuri, the president of Out on Bay Street, agrees. “I wanted to work where I could network with people on a regular basis in a professional environment. Business allowed me to further my development, and Deloitte is an open environment where I am encouraged to be myself.”

Out on Bay Street is an organization that helps bridge the gap between school and career. Mirpuri and his team — which includes Ayesh, Shane Hebel and Justin LoPresti — organize social events at which law and business students can hobnob with community and business partners. Hebel believes that Out on Bay’s queer mandate is more effective than other student support systems because it is “targeted specifically to their needs and challenges.” 

But what are their needs and challenges if things are as rosy and accepting as these fellows say? 

Brent Chamberlain, executive director of Pride at Work Canada, which partners with big business to develop diversity, feels there is always room to make workplaces more inclusive. Before taking this position, he worked for Stonewall in the UK, which had more than 600 partner agencies, versus the 50 or so working with Pride at Work.

“Granted, the UK economy is quite a bit bigger than the Canadian economy,” he says, “but even the Americans, who have a comparable economic force to the UK but with very little supportive legislation, are doing fantastic work on a larger scale than we are.”

While it is still legal in many American states to fire people because they’re gay, Wall Street has seized the opportunity to attract queer talent by mandating inclusion of sexual identity and gender expression in anti-discrimination policies, seeing it as simply good business to expand the talent pool.

Here in Ontario, provincial legislation protects LGB and now T people from discrimination, and many companies are proud of a corporate vision that fosters personal development and allows employees to “bring their whole selves” to the office. 

LoPresti admits he is intimidated when faced with the “out or not” question at recruiting interviews, despite working with the Out on Bay Street contingent. He’s currently completing his MBA at the Rotman School of Management, an environment in which queer representation is low, making the choice to be visible more difficult.

“When I went through the recruiting process, I considered covering [my sexuality] on my resumé, but I decided to leave my involvement in Out on Bay Street on there.”

There’s so much competition that any perceived professional disadvantage can be enough to zip the glittery lip. Lawyer Adam Keeping, of Glass and Associates, says he felt that pressure.

“When you’re an articling student, you want to get hired back as a lawyer.  They’re unlikely to hire all of you back, so people will avoid coming out at work because it might be the only disadvantage. If there’s a little hair that will tip the scales, I want to make sure it’s in my favour.”

That scale is subjective, however. Some companies feel that queer perspectives in the workforce are an advantage, given that so many of their customers are queer or allies. Pride at Work’s website notes that 74 percent of gay and 42 percent of straight consumers are less likely to buy products from organizations that hold negative views of lesbian and gay people, and many Bay Street businesses know that shaking their corporate booty-shorts at Toronto Pride will pay off in spades.

But even amidst the changing global climate, there are still many who fear that revealing who they are will hinder their career development.

Many people declined to be interviewed for this article, and two interviewees wished to share their perspectives anonymously. One is out at work but felt that his office would not approve of his inclusion in this article, while the other is closeted and had to leave his workplace to take my call.

“I think you should hunker down and wait until you’re at the top and can run the show before you let the cat out of the bag,” he says, while pacing the block outside his office. “To me, it’s an exercise in risk management. Someone may be nice to my face but may be in control of my future behind my back.” 

Not everyone walks into the office “waving a rainbow flag, but if they ask me about it, I’m open about it,” says LoPresti, who feels that, ultimately, being out will allow him more room to grow in his next job. “Stay focused on your goals. You don’t have to hide who you are or pretend to be who you’re not. People will respect you for being authentic.” 

Chamberlain acknowledges that a welcoming environment on paper isn’t enough to coax employees out of the closet and that unrest amongst those who keep quiet reflects in their work. “There is a perceived ‘pink plateau’ that a lot of LGBT-identified individuals who are not out refer to. They feel that their silence hinders their profession, as they’re not able to form the same kind of relationships with their colleagues.”

Ryan Tollofson wasn’t always out at work. Now the president of the Ontario Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, he remembers the day a collision between work and homelife threw open the closet doors: “One of my staff members invited me to her wedding, and I wanted to bring my partner as a guest. I had to deal with coming out . . .  if I wanted to be present.” A number of myths were dispelled as a result. “For me it was empowering. You enjoy work more and realize that your fears were higher than reality.”

Chamberlain is optimistic about the future of inclusiveness: “Corporations are all about productivity and growth, and they understand that people need to be themselves to perform. If I return to the workplace and find that an employee has come out of the closet, then I will have a much easier time implementing our programs with the employer. Without visibility, there’s no perceived need.” 

For more information, go to prideatwork.ca, outonbayst.org and oglcc.com.


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