Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling

We will be speaking to Layla McCay online on 2 July. This is her blog for Pride in Leadership - explaining why she decided to write this crucial book.

By Claire Ebrey · May 13, 2024

Join us as we speak to Layla on 2 July 

“Oh, they didn’t want to select you because you’re a lesbian.”

These words, spoken by an acquaintance over a convivial lunch, referred to an interview panel on which he had sat a few years ago. I’d been a candidate. And apparently, the fact of my sexual orientation had been raised by the panel as a reason not to appoint me.

My lunch companion told me this as a funny story and promptly moved on. But I was frozen. I have always known that theoretically LGBTQ+ people experience prejudice and discrimination when it comes to hiring and promotion. But somehow, I didn’t think this could have happened to me. After all, I’ve been lucky to be appointed to some really great roles over the years. I’ve worked as a psychiatrist in the NHS, and in health policy leadership roles with the British Government, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, Georgetown University, international NGOs, and now at the NHS Confederation… But on the other hand, there were plenty of jobs where I applied and was unsuccessful. Looking back, I started to second guess these rejection letters. I’d assumed a more qualified (or connected) candidate had got those jobs. But what if my sexual orientation had played a role? I found it disconcerting that I’ll never know.

When I shared this story with LGBTQ+ friends, I unleashed a torrent of their own discrimination experiences at the hiring stage, and also before and after: colleagues who made jibes; networking that excluded them; managers who encouraged them to dress or act “less gay” and expected them to perform better than their peers to be deemed equivalent. They also spoke of experiences long before they entered the workplace still impacting them today. All of this was surely having an effect on our ability to thrive at work and to reach the top jobs. As I spoke to more people I found that as we rise in seniority, the impact gets bigger.

I realised that in the entire Fortune 500, only four out of the five hundred CEOs who run America’s biggest companies were LGBTQ+ (and one of them has just retired). Last year, just 0.8% of the thousands of Fortune 500 board members were LGBTQ+ people. I really had underestimated the impact of being LGBTQ+ at work.

But there is also cause for optimism. As a young, closeted person I looked up and saw no visible LGBTQ+ people leading a company, or in a respected position; only as part of scandalous or tragic news stories. This had a huge impact on my own aspirations. In fact, Apple CEO Tim Cook is on record as saying that this was a big part of why he publicly came out in 2014. He was the first ever Fortune 500 CEO to take that step. Having such a prominent role model had huge positive ramifications for LGBTQ+ people around the world. Surely this would herald far more LGBTQ+ people in leadership roles. But a decade later, it’s a mixed picture.

The data show we experience more bullying and discrimination than our peers at work, and we remain underrepresented in the top jobs. But on the other hand, there are more publicly out LGBTQ+ people in prominent senior roles around the world than there has ever been before. So I started interviewing some of them, across different sectors and countries. CEOs, Vice Presidents, Ambassadors, even celebrity chefs. What I found was a wealth of insight about what had helped these people break through the rainbow ceiling, that system of prejudice, discrimination and other barriers that hold LGBTQ+ people back as we climb the career ladder. And being LGBTQ+ does not inevitably hold us back: I heard about many ways in which these leaders have been able to leverage it as a ‘superpower’ in the workplace, from taking innovative approaches to having particular empathy for the experiences of diverse staff members.

I wrote Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling because it’s the book I wanted to read as an LGBTQ+ person with career ambitions. And because it’s the book I want my employers to have read. I hope it’s the book you want to read too.

Breaking the Rainbow Ceiling: How LGBTQ+ people can thrive and succeed at work by Layla McCay is published on May 23rd by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Join us as we speak to Layla on 2 July – and have your questions ready.