Event Write Ups

Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling: How LGBTQ+ people can thrive and succeed at work

We spoke to Layla McCay author of Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling: How LGBTQ+ people can thrive and succeed at work.

By MattHaworth · July 3, 2024

On July 3, 2024, Claire Ebrey from Pride in Leadership hosted an insightful online discussion with Dr. Layla McCay, the author of Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling: How LGBTQ+ People Can Thrive and Succeed at Work. The event focused on the barriers LGBTQ+ individuals face in their careers and the strategies to overcome them.

Here are the key takeaways from the conversation:

1. Introduction to Layla McCay

Layla McCay is a prominent figure in health policy, working as the Director of Policy at the NHS Confederation. She has a diverse background, including roles with the World Bank and the World Health Organisation, and she runs the National Health and Care LGBTQ+ Leaders Network. McCay’s new book, Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling, published in May 2024, addresses the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ professionals in the workplace. She described the inspiration for the book, stating:

“I was having lunch with somebody who was on an interview panel. He told me that they didn’t appoint me because I’m a lesbian.

When that happened, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started second guessing other decisions that had been made in my life.”

That made me think about how often LGBTQ+ people face discrimination, which then led to the idea of writing this book.”

2. Research Methodology and Findings

McCay’s research combined desk research with interviews of over 40 senior LGBTQ+ professionals from various sectors and countries. She found that while there is a substantial amount of qualitative data on LGBTQ+ workplace experiences, quantitative research is sparse. The interviews revealed several barriers to career advancement for LGBTQ+ individuals:

  • Childhood experiences: Growing up as LGBTQ+ often involves exposure to homophobia and transphobia, which can affect self-confidence and career aspirations. McCay noted:“Growing up queer can create a sense of isolation and affect one’s confidence and career trajectory.”
  • Coming out at work: The process of coming out can be fraught with challenges, including potential discrimination and the mental burden of maintaining a facade. McCay explained:“Coming out can be a double-edged sword; it can lead to greater job satisfaction but also exposes one to risks of discrimination.”
  • Subtle discrimination: Beyond overt discrimination, LGBTQ+ professionals may face subtle forms of bias, such as negative judgments from managers or being asked to modify their behaviour. McCay observed:“Even subtle forms of discrimination, like being advised to dress differently, essentially mean that we have to be less ‘gay’ to fit in. This can significantly impact career progression.”

3. Role models and representation

McCay emphasised the importance of visible LGBTQ+ role models in the workplace. She highlighted how seeing others succeed can inspire and validate one’s own career aspirations:

“Role models are crucial because seeing someone like you succeed helps you believe you can succeed too.”

“Seeing someone like you in a senior position helps you believe that you can achieve similar success. For instance, Tim Cook coming out as the CEO of Apple was a significant moment because it showed that it is possible to be openly LGBTQ+ and achieve high levels of success.”

She also discussed the limitations of current role models, pointing out that not all senior LGBTQ+ individuals are seen as ideal role models:

“Even though there are visible role models, they might not always represent the ideal version of success. It’s important to find role models who inspire you in a way that aligns with your own career goals.”

4. Sector differences and challenges

McCay addressed how different sectors vary in terms of their inclusivity for LGBTQ+ individuals. She found that public-facing sectors like media and consulting are often more accepting, while more traditional or less public sectors, like oil and gas, may pose greater challenges:

“Sectors that are more public-facing tend to be more inclusive. However, the experiences can vary widely depending on the sector and job role.”

5. Impact of historical legislation

The conversation touched upon the legacy of Section 28, a UK law that banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools from 1988 to 2003. McCay noted its lasting impact on LGBTQ+ individuals:

“Section 28 created an environment where we were denied visibility and role models. This historical context has had a lasting effect on how LGBTQ+ people view their career opportunities.”

“The impact of historical legislation like Section 28 has been profound, creating a legacy of invisibility and isolation for LGBTQ+ individuals.”

6. Mentorship and support

McCay explored the challenges LGBTQ+ professionals face in finding effective mentors. She noted that LGBTQ+ individuals are less likely to have mentors.

“If you end up with a mentor who’s not supportive, don’t let that ruin your opportunity for mentorship. Find a new one and keep moving forward.”

7. Future directions for LGBTQ+ professionals

Finally, McCay discussed the importance of building supportive networks and communities for LGBTQ+ professionals. She urged participants to engage with initiatives like the survey by Pride in Leadership, which seeks to collect data on career barriers for LGBTQ+ individuals:

“By participating in surveys and events, you help build a body of knowledge that can drive real change for LGBTQ+ professionals in the future.”


The event provided a comprehensive look at the systemic barriers LGBTQ+ individuals face in their careers and the strategies to overcome them. Layla McCay’s insights, supported by her book Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling, offer valuable guidance for both individuals and organisations seeking to promote equality and support LGBTQ+ professionals.

The event was a thoughtful exploration of the challenges and opportunities for LGBTQ+ professionals, with actionable insights for both individuals and organisations striving to foster more inclusive workplaces.