Corporate boardrooms are largely straight and cisgendered but that is changing. Openly LGBTQ+ chief executive officers (CEOs) are advancing equal protection and benefits for LGBTQ+ employees. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 91% of Fortune 500 companies "prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," and 83% "prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, compared to just three in 2000."
The leaders at the top, the CEOs, help establish corporate culture, including the extent to which a company practices inclusivity. LGBTQ+ CEOs have done much in this regard, but there is still much to do. A 2021 Ipsos report surveyed 27 countries to peg the global LGBTQ+ population at 9%. Despite this finding, just 25 out of 5,670 board seats at Fortune 500 companies (0.4%) are occupied by openly LGBTQ+ people. To date, only four Fortune 500 CEOs are openly LGBTQ+. The numbers, however, are growing, much to the credit of the CEOs of these four companies.
- According to Ipsos, 9% of the world's population identifies as LGBTQ+.
- To date, four Fortune 500 CEOs are openly LGBTQ+.
- CEOs at Apple, Dow, Macy's, and Land O'Lakes are trailblazers as openly LGBTQ+ leaders.
- The list includes the first openly LGBTQ+ Fortune 500 CEO, Tim Cook, and the first openly LGBTQ+ female Fortune 500 CEO, Beth Ford.
Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
The famously private Cook came out in an essay published by Bloomberg in 2014, making him the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Cook did it, he said, after reading letters from kids struggling with their sexual orientation. In the essay, he wrote: “If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the tradeoff with my own privacy.”
Cook is not just a tireless advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, he's also the CEO of the No.3 company on the Fortune 500 list (Apple). Before being named CEO of Apple in August 2011, he was the company's chief operating officer (COO) and responsible for Apple's worldwide sales and operations. Named one of the most inspirational CEOs on the Fortune 500, Cook set the tone when he was tasked with filling the shoes of Apple founder Steve Jobs in 2011. Since then, Apple's market cap rose to $2.38 trillion, and in January 2022, the company's market valuation reached $3 trillion.
Jim Fitterling, CEO, Dow Chemical Company
Tim Cook’s Bloomberg essay inspired Jim Fitterling to make one of his own. Fitterling, who began his career at Dow Chemical in 1984 two weeks after graduating from college, came out to his whole company on Coming Out Day, 2014, when he held the position of COO. He became CEO at Dow in 2018, after which he appointed the company's first chief inclusion officer, who reports directly to him.
Fitterling, who is a passionate advocate for inclusion and diversity, leads Dow’s drive to diversify its workforce. He is widely recognized for his work supporting LGBT non-discrimination and LGBT+ workplace equality. He joined the Out Leadership Global Advisory Board in 2019 and in 2021, he was inducted into the OUTstanding Hall of Fame. As Dow CEO, Fitterling oversees the No.64 ranked company on the Fortune 500 with $55 billion in revenue in 2021 and a market valuation of $46.8 billion.
Jeffrey Gennette, CEO, Macy’s
Like Fitterling at Dow, Jeffrey Gennette is a "lifer" at Macy's. A graduate of Stanford, Gennette began his career as a retail associate at Macy's West in San Francisco in 1983. In 2003, he became the executive vice president and director of Macy’s Central in Atlanta, moving up to CEO of Macy's Inc. in 2017 after a short term as president of the company. As No.144 on the Fortune 500 list, Macy's reported revenue of more than $25 billion in 2021 and has a market valuation of more than $7 billion.
Gennette is both CEO and chairman of the board at Macy's. He has served in a number of roles including merchandising, store operations, and numerous other leadership positions. In addition to instilling an LGBTQ+-friendly company culture, Gennette included a give-back program to raise funds and awareness for the Trevor Project—the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people. Regarding the future of C-suite inclusion, in a 2021 interview with Fortune, Gennette said, "The amount of change that this country has gone through in regard to rights for LGBTQ people has been dramatic. It’s going to be a very different experience in the future compared to the last 30 years, and you’re going to see a lot more LGBTQ CEOs."
Beth Ford, CEO, Land O’Lakes
Beth Ford serves as president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc., a Fortune 500 company, a Fortune 200 food production and agribusiness company, and a 100-year-old farmer-owned cooperative. Ford joined Land O'Lakes in 2011 and was named CEO in 2018, making her the first openly LGBTQ+ woman to helm a Fortune 500 company.
Ford has been recognized by Fortune as one of the World's 50 Greatest Leaders and Most Powerful Women. She is both a passionate advocate on behalf of farmers and rural America as well as a fierce supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. Ford leads the No.232 Fortune 500 company with a revenue of $16 billion in 2021. Ford has been openly gay her whole professional career, telling CNN, “I made a decision long ago to live an authentic life, and if my being named CEO helps others do the same, that’s a wonderful moment.”
Next in Line
Though they don't yet lead Fortune 500 companies, the LGBTQ+ leaders listed below could well make the list above in short order based on their skill as corporate heads and reputations as trendsetters in LGBTQ+ inclusion.
Anne Richards, CEO, Fidelity International
Anne Richards became the CEO of Fidelity International in 2018, and before that, she served at Aberdeen Asset Management as a CIO and M&G Investments as CEO. She has also been a part of the Socioeconomic Inclusion Working Group in the U.K. Anne is a big supporter of women in finance, believing that a great of progress has been made over the past decade thanks to a very "concentrated push on gender" in the industry.
Alan Joyce, CEO, Qantas
Alan Joyce became the CEO of Qantas in 2008. He is also a member of the Safety, Health, Environment, and Security Committee. Apart from working at Qantas, he is also serving as a director of the Business Council of Australia. He is responsible for network planning, network strategy functions, and schedule planning at Qantas. He was a strong advocate of legalizing same-sex marriage in Australia and also donated $1 million to the LGBT campaign for it. He is also the patron of Pinnacle Foundation, an organization that sheds light on how LGBT people are marginalized in Australia.
Martine Rothblatt, CEO, United Therapeutics
Martin Rothblatt, who is also an author and lawyer, is co-founder and CEO of United Therapeutics, an American biotechnology company that aims to develop life-extending technologies. She has also been recognized as one of the most powerful LGBT+ executives in the tech industry as well as a strong supporter of LGBT+ rights.
Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO, GLAAD
GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is a media monitoring organization that is famous for taking a strong stance against biased and derogatory LGBT representation. Sarah Kate became the CEO of GLAAD in 2014 and previously served as a media executive. She has played a vital role in repositioning GLAAD’s attention on creating acceptance of the LGBT community in society.
How Many Openly LGBTQ+ Fortune 500 CEOs Are There?
Currently, four Fortune 500 CEOs have come out as LGBTQ+. They include Tim Cook, CEO of Apple; Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow; Jeffrey Gennette, CEO of Macy's; and Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes.
What Percent of Fortune 500 Board Seats Are Filled by Openly LGBTQ+ People."?
Of the approximately 5,670 board seats available in Fortune 500 companies, just 25 are filled by openly LGBTQ+ people. That works out to 0.4%.
Who Was the First Openly LGBTQ+ Female CEO of a Fortune 500 company?
Beth Ford, who became CEO of Land O'Lakes in 2018 was the first openly LGBTQ+ woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
The Bottom Line
It has only been in recent years that openly LGBTQ+ CEOs have begun to populate the C-suites of major corporations, including those of Fortune 500 companies. Leaders like those featured here are not only trailblazers within the LGBTQ+ community but proven and experienced chief executives of some of the largest and most successful corporations in the world.
As more and more companies embrace policies of inclusion, more corporate boards will be open to and welcoming of the notion of seating LGBTQ+ board members, which by definition, will expand the number of openly LGBTQ+ CEOs at the helm of those companies.