Issue deep-dive: LGBTQ+ Justice
Tuesday, June 29, 2021
Tuesday, June 29, 2021
A deep dive of sustainability topics with Ethic's lead data scientist
Issue deep-dive: LGBTQ+ Justice
Tuesdays with Travis is a collection of monthly interviews with our data science lead, Travis Korte, that explores the complexities of expressing values through data.

In this month’s Tuesdays with Travis, we explore the topic of LGBTQ+ Justice and how we think about it through the lens of sustainable investing.

Emma:

Okay, Travis: It's Pride Month. A lot of people are turning their attention to how they can support LGBTQ communities. Obviously,  LGBTQ+ Justice is one of Ethic’s pillars—but can you speak a little more broadly about what that actually means?

Travis:

Definitely. The goal of Ethic’s LGBTQ+ Justice Pillar is to improve the material living conditions for LGBTQ people, people who have been historically disadvantaged because of their gender identities and sexual orientations. We can look at material living conditions in a few different ways: there are a lot of disparities around health outcomes, being targeted by violence, increased poverty rates, worse workplace outcomes. So, we really want to try to address some of these gaps and help foster a better life for people in these communities.

Emma:

Well, that makes sense to me. With that in mind, what are some of the ways that company behavior can actually impact LGBTQ individuals?

Travis:

The way that we often think about different social issues is by considering three different groups of stakeholders. We think about the workers at the company, the customers of the company's products, and the public at large that's affected by more general externalities—more general company behaviors that may be negatively impacting communities. 

There are a lot of ways that workers are affected. That's maybe the most direct way, the way most people would start thinking about this issue: companies have a lot of different levers to directly impact their workers. For one thing, we can think about discrimination at all stages of the employment process: hiring, pay, promotions, et cetera. Another area we’re interested in is benefits. If there are benefits given to workers’ spouses, are the same benefits also given to domestic partners? If there's paid family leave, is that also extended to parents or partners of the same sex? If there are health plans provided, are those health plans inclusive of the needs of particular groups that fall under the LGBTQ umbrella? Are there trans-inclusive health benefits, things like that. So there's really a lot that employers can do to improve the material living conditions of these folks.

There are also company behaviors that affect customers: things like tobacco production or retailing. These are products that have historically advertised to, and directly targeted at, some of these communities. (1) And in fact, LGBTQ folks, in the United States at least, have substantially higher rates of substance abuse. (2)So, companies that are exploiting those disparities with predatory products also get taken into account. 

And then lastly, we look at impacts on the public at large. Firearms and gun violence come up in this category, because people from sexual and gender minority groups experience high rates of suicide and intimate partner violence, both of which are more likely to be fatal when a gun is involved. (3)

Emma:

That's pretty consistent with what we've discussed regarding racial justice as well. It seems that it cuts across all different communities, historically marginalized communities— we see the same kind of harmful practices.

Travis:

Absolutely. I think there are a lot of similarities across a lot of different marginalized groups. And we see the same kind of trends around discrimination, around worse outcomes in the workplace, worse outcomes in life, higher poverty rates, health disparities, all of these sorts of things are very much recurring. So yes, Ethic’s model is intersectional in that respect: in the sense that we're incorporating research that is studying behaviors that affect different groups individually, and also marginalized groups in general.

Emma:

So how easy is it to actually gather all this data? Do you have all the data you'd like at your disposal— and what are some areas in which you'd like to see greater transparency?

Travis:

Yeah, there's a lot of ideas around ways that we can improve, particularly around the workplace experience for LGBTQ people. The data on those issues is really just beginning to emerge. That’s not to say that it hasn't existed in the past, or that these folks haven't been in the workforce in large numbers, but I think there is increasing acknowledgment, at least in the ESG space, that this information—around parental leave and domestic partner benefits and other things like that—is especially relevant. I think that's a data set that's just starting to develop.

We're just starting to see large-cap US companies collect information, but we want more and more of that from more and more different kinds of geographies. It's a little bit tough to advance that goal globally because in the West these communities generally enjoy more societal acceptance, more visibility in the public eye than they do in other countries. And so, the pressure to disclose here in the West is somewhat different than the pressure to disclose elsewhere. We don’t think those data gaps, especially in global markets, are going away, but we do hope that in the longer term that will also trend in the right direction.

Emma:

Overall, do you think things are trending in the right direction? Are we getting more visibility into how companies are treating their LGBTQ workers, customers?

Travis:

To some extent, yes. I think we joke more or less every Pride Month about certain kinds of...cosmetic displays of support that big corporations give to LGBTQ communities. You know, the rainbow flags on the Twitter profile pictures and things like that. And I think people are right to poke fun at that, because it’s a very low-effort, low-impact way of supporting LGBTQ people: they don’t need a rainbow flag Twitter icon as much as they need inclusive health benefits. However, it's true that these [LGBTQ+] communities are increasingly in the public eye, and increasingly a target—at least nominally—of support from a lot of big companies. And even though we don't think that some of these behaviors are the most impactful, we do hope that the increased visibility of these issues will elicit more conversation around, "We actually need to have these better kinds of benefits. We need to have better whistleblower protections. We need to have better policies and controls around workplace discrimination because this is a community that’s important to us."

Emma:

For sure. So if companies wanted to sort of expand upon these efforts and take a really proactive approach to supporting and promoting LGBTQ+ Justice, what can they do to set themselves apart?

Travis:

We've been talking about inclusive benefits and workforce protections and things like that. But one area that we haven't talked about a lot is— because there is such a dramatic health disparity among some of these populations, one way that we think about positive behavior is increasing access to medicines that are particularly important to these groups. So funding or developing medicines in, for example, antiretrovirals: the drugs that treat HIV and are of particular importance to these communities. We look at whether companies are developing and creating these medicines, but also whether they are expanding access to them. For example, are there programs to increase access among vulnerable populations, or to provide reduced-cost medicines to those across the world who might not otherwise have access to these life-saving drugs?

That's one area where we think that companies can do a lot better. Also, along the same lines in the United States, the health care system is such that a lot of folks have trouble understanding the prices of certain kinds of drugs. And so we're hoping for companies to provide greater transparency around drug pricing. The more that we have that kind of information, the more people can make informed decisions that affect their health—and hopefully, we can start to close those health gaps.

Another thing we haven’t mentioned is reducing particular pathways to discrimination. There was a landmark Supreme Court decision in the US in June of 2020, prohibiting employment discrimination against LGBTQ folks. However, similar sorts of protections don't apply to discrimination in other areas such as housing, education, credit—things like that. We’d prefer that companies providing these kinds of services and goods take a proactive approach to prohibiting discrimination in their own policies, even where there’s not a Supreme Court decision mandating it. We want companies to have that anti-discrimination baked in.

Emma:

So what would you say an adequate company policy looks like in terms of defining discrimination and outlining protections for LGBTQ individuals?

Travis:

Explicitly calling out sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression: calling these things by their name, not being too vague. Being explicit about what is protected and what populations are protected. Also, being very specific in whistleblower policies to make sure that all workers—and particularly workers in these communities—are protected from retaliation. Again, there’s a lot of different pathways through which discrimination takes place in the workplace. It's not just hiring, pay, and firing. It's also just in the normal course of working: there can also be discrimination among colleagues. And we want to make sure that when these people are affected, they can report that wrongdoing and are not facing retaliation from their company. 

And then lastly, another policy that companies can have, which we think is helpful, is having non-discrimination standards apply to contractors and suppliers as well. A lot of companies will put into place agreements with their suppliers, stating that you as a supplier must also have these kinds of protections and non-discrimination standards in place before we'll work with you. Those kinds of policies can help expand the scope of non-discrimination standards beyond even just the companies who have prioritized it for their own sake. If you're trying to sell a product and your buyer wants you to have these standards, you're going to be more motivated to have those standards yourself.

Emma:

Yeah, definitely. If Walmart or Target approach you and they require that, then you're probably going to get in line real fast.

Travis:

Absolutely.

Emma:

I imagine one of the challenges that we face here concerns diversity data, because there's obviously been a big push to achieve more gender equity, more racial equity in the workplace. I can imagine there'll be some challenges with determining representation in terms of sexual orientations and gender identities. I’d guess it’s not only quite hard to glean that data, but a lot of people wouldn't actually want to disclose it.

Travis:

It's very complicated. And exactly, yeah. We’re not even at the moment attempting to measure sort of like workforce participation numbers in gender and sexual orientation. Precisely because of this issue of disclosure. A, we don't want companies to force disclosure or even worse, try to guess.  And B, that information is sensitive, private information that we also want to have protected—particularly in countries or communities where being gay is stigmatized or even criminalized. 

We want to be very careful about protecting the information on who identifies as what. There are risks to disclosing this kind of information, so we're not expecting or asking companies to be disclosing these workplace numbers just because it’s so sensitive. Sure, we would like to have more of a view into how diverse these companies are and how successful their recruitment efforts and their retention efforts in LGBTQ communities have been. But we don't think that having a database that you store somewhere in your company, telling you who identifies as what, is the right way to do it.

Emma:

That makes perfect sense. And your points about privacy offer a good segue to my next thought: companies really do need to be very careful about how they protect customer data because that in and of itself is something that can prove quite harmful in the event of a breach. 

Travis:

Yeah, it's a complex problem. And I think it's one that doesn't necessarily immediately come to mind unless you connect it to the fact that a lot of companies that have a lot of personal data are operating in countries that have criminalized being gay.

There are 70-odd countries in the world that have some degree of criminalization and a handful where it can be punishable by death to be gay or to have same-sex romantic relationships. (4) If you are a company that is operating in one of those countries, if you have user data with personally identifiable information, there's a great deal of risk to those people whose data you're collecting—especially if there's a breach, if you improperly disclosed this information, and it falls into the wrong hands. It becomes a matter of life or death. We get a lot of questions about why we are including data privacy and security as a piece of the LGBTQ+ Justice pillar, but that's why. This is private, it’s personal information, and we don't want it to be disclosed to bad actors when it’s a matter of life and death.

Emma:

For sure. For most of us, data breaches are an unfortunate fact of life and an inconvenience, but for certain communities, they can actually be really, really damaging and potentially dangerous.

Travis:

Very much so.

Emma:

So we already touched on the fact that LGBTQ+ Justice intersects with some of Ethic’s other sustainability issues and pillars. Could you talk a little bit more about some of them?

Travis:

Sure. We've already discussed LGBTQ communities and their roles as workers—we have a Worker Treatment pillar that's very much concerned with working conditions and fair labor practices and things like that. There's a lot of overlap there. Particularly because folks in these communities often experience poor working conditions, poor labor protections, things like that. 

Similarly, with our Corporate Ethics pillar, there’s a lot of workplace behavior that we think is relevant. One that we haven't talked about quite as much is the overlap with Poverty. Poverty rates among people in LGBTQ communities are much higher than the general population, and there are a lot of different kinds of behaviors that affect the poverty levels of workers, and potentially customers, in the form of predatory lending, but also the public at large. (5) So are companies making irresponsible decisions that could affect the larger economy and how might that be felt by these communities that are more likely to experience poverty? 

And then I would also add Health and Wellness, which is one pillar that I don’t think we don't talk about enough in connection with LGBTQ+ Justice. In addition to different kinds of health disparities—around increased rates of mental illness, increased rates of suicide, things like that—certain segments of the LGBTQ population, especially trans people, are much more likely to be the victims of violence. (6) So there’s a lot of overlap with health issues in general. And I think that's something that we definitely don't want to be lost. Even as these communities are getting more representation, and as companies are attempting to cater to them more, what we don't want to be overlooked are these important, material health outcomes that are still lagging behind the representation outcomes that might be more easily observed. Even though we're going in the right direction, we think there are still so many different areas where there's a lot of material improvement to be done.

Emma:

That's all helpful context. I think, to me at least, it's pretty obvious what the moral case is for the LGBTQ+ Justice pillar. Everyone should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—including, of course, LGBTQ people. But let's also talk about some of the benefits for companies and the broader economy.

Travis:

Sure. The argument is going to be essentially the same for a lot of different marginalized populations, which is that there are economy-wide benefits and firm-specific benefits. The economy-wide benefits are to aggregate productivity, which is to say: if companies expand the labor pool to hire and promote a broader group of people than they historically have, a broader group that includes folks who have been left out of the process, then that's a larger talent pool. That's more people who can use their talents and more people who can grow the overall level of productivity in society.

That's the argument at the economy level. At the firm level, friendliness to these communities makes a company more attractive to workers, particularly younger workers in the United States, and also more attractive to customers. (7) You can see it—every once in a while, some CEO or some executive will be in the news for making an insensitive comment about these communities and usually it comes with an immediate, visible backlash. There’s a business risk that comes with that insensitivity, and that risk will come from the company's workers and customers.

Emma:

And there is usually some sort of financial risk associated with these reputational crises as well.

Travis:

Absolutely, absolutely. You never want to be on the receiving end of a widespread boycott and you never want to be sort of a company that is associated with these kinds of outmoded and prejudiced and bigoted opinions. So that's definitely a material concern for many companies.

Emma:

Certainly. I was recently looking through the data and it suggested that over the years, we've seen growing support for LGBTQ communities. And I think the majority of individuals, spanning different political affiliations, now support equity for LGBTQ workers and back same-sex marriage. (8) I think it's something that's just garnering more and more support every year.

Travis:

It's really true. And on the one hand that's encouraging, right—in the sense that if popular opinion is trending in the right direction, then we hope that companies will follow? On the other hand, it really highlights the fact that the devil is in the details. There's going to be a substantial lag, I think, between public opinion shifting and actual company behavior, policies, and ingrained thinking to shift. That's going to lag a little bit. So, I just hope that we and other stakeholders can help these companies increase the pace and really help address the important material disparities that still remain in these communities.

Sources and footnotes

(1) https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/disparities/lgbt/index.htm

(2) https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/substance-use-suds-in-lgbtq-populations

(3) https://everytownresearch.org/report/remembering-and-honoring-pulse-anti-lgbtq-bias-and-guns-are-taking-lives-of-countless-lgbtq-people/

(4) http://internap.hrw.org/features/features/lgbt_laws/

(5) https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/lgbt-poverty-us/

(6) https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender-health

(7) https://hbr.org/2016/02/lgbt-inclusive-companies-are-better-at-3-big-things

(8) https://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/

Contributors

Travis Korte is the Data Science Lead at Ethic. Previously, Travis organized civic-minded technologists at Hack for LA and advised a wide range of clients on data science, data policy, and quantitative methods. You can follow him on Twitter at @traviskorte.

Emma Smith, a native of the UK, creates content at Ethic. Throughout her career to date, she has managed the communications initiatives of major financial services clients at various NYC-based public relations agencies.