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Beth Brooke on how corporates can lead on global gay rights

We talk to Ernst & Young’s Beth Brooke, one of the world’s 100 most powerful women, about her role as an advocate for LGBT and women’s diversity
Beth Brooke marching with Ernst & Young's group at World Pride in London.
Photo by Scott Nunn.

As the global vice-chair of public policy at professional services giant Ernst & Young, Beth Brooke is one of the world’s most powerful women in business.

And since coming out as gay, she has emerged as a major champion for LGBT diversity in the workplace.

With revenues of $22.9billion (€18.5billion), Ernst & Young – a leading professional services company around the world and one of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms – has a lot of power to change business and even society when it decides it wants to.

Brooke’s job is to shape policy and E&Y and to influence regulators, policymakers and capital market shareholders. And she has some powerful friends and contacts, having held a key role in the US Department of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration.

Her advocacy for the advancement of women sees her serve on the board of Vital Voices and chair the Board of The White House Project. She is regularly named by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s 100 most powerful women.

So it’s no surprise she is a champion not only for diversity in the workplace but also for what she calls ‘inclusive leadership’ – the idea that leaders are best at leading and getting the strengths out of everyone when they can be themselves and express themselves.

We caught up to her in the last days of the London 2012 Olympic Games and started by asking her about how sport had trained her to be a leader.

You played collegiate basketball so how important was sport to you as a woman and a gay woman in inspiring you to believe you could achieve what you wanted in your life?

Hugely important. I attribute a lot to that. I don’t know if you are familiar with Title IX, the US legislation that promoted equality in education and sport for women? I was in the first year when Title IX was implemented so was one of the first round of female athletes to get an athletic scholarship to go to college.

The team aspects of sports teaches you so much. The fact that on a basketball team you wouldn’t just have the best shooters, you’d have a mosaic. So the concept of team, discipline, focus – I can’t imagine not having that in my background. I think it teaches leadership skills that you can’t probably learn anywhere else other than perhaps the military.

There were only around 23 openly LGB athletes in the Olympics. Far less than 1%. And the International Olympic Committee doesn’t even fully include LGBT people in their charter under their diversity section. Do you think there is not enough leadership from top sporting bodies to encourage LGBT people in sport?

I simply don't know enough on that issue, but what I can say is that I think it is an incredibly complicated issue. Personally, I wasn’t out back then when I was an athlete. That’s a complicated past of not even knowing who you were and figuring that out. And trying to avoid the stereotype.

I liken it to being a business professional. I wanted to be known as a successful business professional. I didn’t want to be known as the gay professional. When I walked into the boardroom I didn’t want it to define me before who I was.

Everyone is striving to be something. Yes they are gay but they are striving to be excellent in sport or excellent in business or something and I give that a lot of space personally. So do bodies need to allow people to be whatever they want to be in that space? Yes. But it is uniquely personal for every individual.

But you also promote this idea that authentic leadership is important and if you feel comfortable about who you are you tend to perform better. So presumably that would ring true of athletes too.

I would attest to the fact that I am much better than I was [before I was out]. I think once you are your entire authentic self you perform much better.

You were in the Clinton administration. How important for LGBT issues do you think the November election is going to be?

The November election is really important for that. The president has shown leadership on this issue.

His authenticity around the decisions he has made and acknowledging he was on his own personal journey [on same-sex marriage equality] I think was very well done. It gave people permission who had their heals dug in on that issue to not be judged, not feel a sense of being judged, but to come along on their own journey, rather than just to have to flip a switch and suddenly feel differently.

Your ex-boss Hillary Clinton has been incredibly influential in is global LGBT rights. It is also something Ernst & Young and other top level companies have really started to push on. So what’s the most important contribution you can make as a company in that space?

Be a leader. Many companies have economies that are bigger than the size of countries. Each company has to view themselves in the sense they have their own policies, just as countries do. Obviously when we are in 140 countries we have to intersect that with local cultures and customs and be sensitive to that. But we do have our own cultures and our own values and we have globally shared values so it is important we try to be a leader on those issues.

And in countries where it is more difficult we should try to lead gently and work with local customs and cultures but recognize we have employees who look to our culture and that is one of the reasons they are with us.

I actually think the private sector is a great beacon for change and can be – on women’s issues, on LGBT issues, on inclusiveness overall. And in my role that is something I take very seriously with what we are trying to do around the world.

On women’s issues there is a huge mountain to climb in many countries and it is a direct workforce access issue…

It is a workforce access issue. It’s an entrepreneurship issue. Countries ought to care. They care about economic growth. They need economic growth. There is no country in the world that doesn’t. So they can’t ignore their populations that can contribute to economic growth but they continue to do that.

Given the economic climate, people can be tempted to cut back on this diversity work. Would you say that’s understandable or a mistake?

Absolutely a mistake. It’s strategically important to us as revenue growth. It’s a workforce issue, a customer issue, it’s a reflection of who we serve.

But it’s an interesting question – five years ago I would maybe see some other companies pulling back. Now I can’t imagine that. I think people understand the importance of this. Now, the issue is whether they can execute, are they making progress? People are really struggling with that. It is hard work. But I don’t think it’s for lack of trying for a lot of companies.

We just held an intern conference. We had about 2,500 people together in Florida in early August for it and our leadership is perpetually astounded by the diversity. You look at those nearly 2,300 interns and it is the most diverse group. They are gender diverse, culturally diverse, LGBT, just every aspect of diversity and that’s the future. That’s who we need to be at all levels.

You have reached the top of your profession as a woman and a gay woman but what’s your next goal?

Small goals. Everyday. I am driven every day by making a difference. This LGBT space is a very big space where we have a unique ability to make a difference but it’s a broader issue of inclusion. For me, right now, the world needs inclusive leaders. It’s about embracing difference. It’s about understanding that everyone’s perspective matters.

You go back to that intern conference and you match that up against any company’s leadership in the world and you get a mismatch. But you put all those diverse perspectives together and it’s just pure magic.

Having leaders who understand that there is so much power in bringing difference together to solve societal problems or corporate problems or community problems, that is just a huge passion of mine. The world needs more of it.

Post financial crisis you look at who was trying to solve all the problems and get us out of it and it’s pretty much the same people who got us into it. What is wrong with that picture? But when you understand inclusive leadership and the power it brings, you see you have to assemble difference. So that’s the next big thing. How that manifests itself I hope to have a hand in.

See Beth Brooke tell her story about coming out at work:

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