LGBT techies find a growing network of support
A growing system of resources eases anxiety about coming out and provides networking opportunities
"Work in a place where we can be celebrated." – Will Perry, Microsoft
By Claire Swedberg
Options for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) technical employees are growing as the workplace moves toward increased acceptance and support of openness and diversity.
Businesses, nonprofit organizations and schools are providing networking options through expositions and seminars dedicated to the LGBT population. Both internal and external networks bring mentors together with those still forging their way in a technical or scientific field.
Two years ago, the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professions (NOGLSTP, noglstp.org) held its first "Out to Innovate" summit for LGBT students, faculty and professionals at the University of Southern California. It was so successful that the program has become a signature event across the country, most recently at Ohio State University this fall. Recruiters for companies from IBM to eBay attend, and seminars are held on subjects including gender expression, identity in the workplace, and careers in government or industry, says Rochelle Diamond, chair of the NOGLSTP board of directors.
NOGLSTP also works with MentorNet, an online mentoring program for diversity in engineering and science that supports outreach programs for the LGBT community.
Another organization, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates (outandequal.org), provides summits for companies to learn how to become an "out and equal" workplace. The group's LGBTCareerLink lists jobs at diversity-friendly companies. It also runs executive forums for LGBT business leaders to share best practices, and presents "Outie!" awards to individuals and organizations that lead in advancing equality for LGBT employees.
Growing corporate support
PPL's Gay & Lesbian Organization in the Workplace, (GLOW) is one of the energy company's most active groups, and received President Obama's 2010 Volunteer Service Award for helping the Sixth Street Shelter in Allentown, PA. GLOW was also recognized by the community with the 2011 PA Diversity Network Honor Award for its achievements, says Danielle Gruppo, workforce diversity manager at PPL Corporation.
"PPL seeks to create an environment where all employees feel included and valued. The group's goal is to spark a greater commitment and motivation of employees, making PPL a stronger company," Gruppo says.
"We are committed to recognizing the diverse skills and talents of our employees, and to building a culture where each individual can succeed without regard to differences."
Employees at consumer products giant Kimberly-Clark Corporation also come from increasingly diverse backgrounds and have unique perspectives, so "it's crucial that we cultivate fresh thinking by fostering a diverse and inclusive culture," says Sue Dodsworth, global diversity officer. "Diversity of talent brings bold, unexpected thinking. Better insights. Better debate. And better solutions."
The company's employee resource group for LGBT employees, People Respecting Individual Differences Everywhere (PRIDE), offers support as well as inclusion activities. Members are often tapped to participate in projects to bring a full range of experiences and viewpoints to the company and its employees.
"Our LGBT community and other diversity groups have been, and continue to be, essential to providing different perspectives and constructively disrupting the status quo with fresh ideas," notes Dodsworth. "Inclusion is key to unleashing every individual's potential and to creating more engaged teams. When people feel included and feel that they can be themselves, they are more fulfilled at work, which leads to better business results."
Many LGBT engineers and information technology experts are thriving in their company's inclusive environments. The experts featured here tell different stories with a common thread: openness helps them do better at work, and theirs are companies that deliver on commitments to diversity and inclusion.
Cisco product director Christopher Thompson: innovation and openness
Being open about his personal life is important to Christopher Thompson. "If you have a bunch of stuff at home that you can't bring to work, coworkers don't have the opportunity to support you," he says. "It also means that friends in other industries who are gay or lesbian won't be sources for insight."
Thompson is senior director of business operations at San Jose networking equipment company Cisco Systems, Inc. He has dual citizenship, in the U.S. and Canada, and earned his 1989 BS in microeconomics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and a 1991 MBA in management of innovation and new technology at the same school.
Initially, Thompson was interested in a degree in physics, but "I found the theoretical math of physics less interesting" than the practical math used in macroeconomics. He did four co-ops as part of his MBA program at Northern Telecom, Northern Business Info (NBI) and Forte Advanced Management Software, doing market research and product management.
In 1991 he moved to California to work for Forte. The move led him to other technology companies including Gartner Group/Dataquest, where he provided analyses for enterprise network applications and advised clients about product launches. "Although I liked the work, I was ready for a more independent opportunity." He worked for a series of startup companies that were doing the same kind of innovation he had counseled others on. In 2004 Thompson went to work as VP of product marketing at Network Associates, where he created a new product launch process. Next he went to Metopia, later acquired by Motorola, as VP of investor relations.
Many chances to accomplish
In 2007 Thompson took a position as senior director of products at Cisco, leading its security and government business group. He oversees a staff of six people from both technical and operational backgrounds. He's worked on a variety of product positioning, introduction and packaging projects. Recently his position expanded to include product marketing.
Although he has a technical background, Thompson finds his MBA useful for business. "Some engineers seek an MBA to be comfortable in the business world," he says.
Thompson has always been comfortable with, and open about, his sexuality. "There was never any coming out moment; I am simply open about who I am." However, he adds, "I've never defined myself as a gay male first," he says. And throughout his career, he reflects, "I have never asked people to see me as anything more than a good advocate for the company and its products in front of customers," he says.
"I think some people lead with the gay angle, but I always lead with my role here at work." At Cisco, he says, employees are valued for their differences, and that makes it easy to be who he is.
Mark Boire of Toyota: starting young in the automotive industry
Since the age of fourteen, Mark Boire has loved everything automotive, and even had a high school job working at a GM dealership.
Today he is the general manager in the production engineering planning and advanced engineering department at Toyota (Erlanger, KY).
Boire earned his BS in mechanical engineering at Clarkson University (Potsdam, NY) in 1984 and an MBA at the University of Cincinnati in 1999.
In 1985 Boire went to work at GM's Flint Truck and Bus plant. After a year he moved to Ford Vehicle Operations as an assembly engineering specialist, where he stayed for five years. In 1991, he joined Toyota as an assembly engineering specialist.
A decade later, as assistant chief production engineer, Boire oversaw the underbody production engineering of the Solara in Japan. A few years later he was named Camry chief production engineer representing North American production. Because almost 70 percent of Camrys are built in North America, this position held significant clout at Toyota.
"Since then I've led all the chief production engineers," he says. Last July, he was reassigned, and now oversees capital and operating budgets, plus staffing and regulation compliance for vehicles and power trains.
A long silent road leads to acceptance and advocacy
Boire came out as a gay man in his personal life in 1984, but came out at work much later, in 2005. Until then, "out in the workplace was 'don't ask/don't tell' or individual by individual," he says.
In 2011 Boire launched the LGBT business partnership group at Toyota to help others come out, and to provide a source of support and networking for LGBT staff. The company already had such a group in the sales department, Boire explains, but this was a first for manufacturing. "I started by talking to a few individuals who were out. I had about seven people interested," he says, and after the first meeting, twenty-two people signed up. Today there are more than fifty members.
When he started working in the 1980s, Boire says, "You had to fit the norms." Few people were out. In retrospect, he says he could have come out earlier than he did. "I found that the hangup was mostly in me. It was nothing the company did. I've been out to management for several years and nothing has changed. My career has kept moving," he notes.
Process development engineer Gregory Hawkins finds Chrysler the perfect fit
Like Boire, Gregory Hawkins turned his passion for everything automotive into a career. Hawkins is a process development engineer at Chrysler Group LLC (Auburn Hills, MI), a company where he has found he can be open and honest about himself. In fact, according to a report this year by the Human Rights Commission (HRC), Chrysler Group was one of 190 leading employers to achieve a perfect score of 100 percent on HRC's 2012 Corporate Equality Index (CEI). The HRC is the educational arm of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which is dedicated to achieving LGBT equality.
"As a kid," he remembers, "I had a passion for cars." He watched development of the Dodge Viper and was inspired by its design, but didn't want "to put my career in a box with automotive engineering." Instead, Hawkins earned his BS in mechanical engineering in 1997 at Rose Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, IN). He is working toward an MBA in global leadership development at Lawrence Technology University (Southfield, MI).
After graduating from college, Hawkins took a sales and marketing job at motor control and components maker Allan Bradley. He worked at American Sun Roof, and moved to Ford in 2001 in management for quality of convertible tops in the Ford Mustang Convertible.
In 2005 Hawkins went to Chrysler Group. His first job was quality engineer in the body exterior core group; he moved to the Street Racing Technology (SRT) group in 2010. "Those guys were the cowboys of the auto industry," he says. He helped launch the Six Sigma program within the SRT group.
Also in 2010, Hawkins joined the company's gay and lesbian networking group. He believes that recognizing the best time to come out is important. "When you make the jump, you need to be prepared," he explains, including first having a support system in place.
Hawkins has been open about being gay throughout the company. "In my experience, honesty about oneself is important and the key driver to happiness in the workforce," Hawkins says. "If coworkers don't truly know you, how can you have an honest relationship?"
Technical training specialist Todd Furler teaches and learns at PPL
The utility industry can be a conservative sector for diversity, but that has not been a detriment for Todd Furler, software technical training specialist at PPL Electric (Allentown, PA).
"Coming out wasn't worth the amount of anxiety I had at the time," reflects Furler, who felt that his colleagues learned from the experience. "The very act of coming out can make an environment more accepting. It forces coworkers to reevaluate what they believed," about the LGBT community.
Furler earned his BS in chemical engineering at Penn State University (State College, PA) in 1984 and took a position at PPL right after graduation. He started at the company's nuclear power plant in Berwick, PA, first in the chemistry department monitoring plant operations, and then in environmental regulatory compliance where he stayed from 1989 until 1998.
Furler was interested in moving into IT, so he took a position at the Allentown, PA office, where, he says, "it turned out that business suited my nature. It was more people-oriented" than engineering. He worked on the helpdesk as well as writing software instructions.
In 2008, PPL needed someone to teach repair crews about computer usage, so he took on the job. It turned out to be quite challenging. "When we started the program, the repair guys were near retirement, and many had little computer background," he explains. As the company hired a new generation of workers, the focus changed toward expanding their computer skills to applications used at PPL. Furler teaches classes and provides tutorials, and has helped create simulation software for activities like storm drills.
Today, he says, he doesn't discuss his sexuality unless it becomes relevant in conversation. But he is secretary of the company's Gay and Lesbian Organization in the Workplace (GLOW) which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.
Because different people respond differently, and sometimes surprisingly, he provides this advice to others who are coming out: "Be patient and as forgiving as you can be."
Engineer Will Perry brings "his whole self" to work at Microsoft
Microsoft engineer Will Perry appreciates the workplace at Microsoft, where he can be open about his sexuality. "Knowing I can bring all of myself to the workplace is very important," he says. "You should be able to do your best work," and it helps him "to be in a place where I can be open."
Perry works in the software realm, currently on the Windows Azure Service Bus. Born and raised in England, Perry earned his bachelors degree in computing at Imperial College in London in 2008. He interned at Microsoft (Redmond, WA) the year before he graduated. During the internship he spent three months doing engineering and testing at Microsoft headquarters. "It was great. It was my first time in the U.S. and it was incredible."
From old to new technology
After graduation, he went to work for Microsoft at its development center in Copenhagen, Denmark. There he worked on Dynamics NAV. Two years later, Perry moved back to Redmond to join a small team working on the new Windows Azure Service Bus. "It was brand new technology. No one had heard of it," he says, "It was the polar opposite of what I had been doing. I was now working on development of cloud-based service, and was able to build on my existing strengths in networking and communication to add functionality and interoperability."
Perry has taken advantage of the networking groups offered by the company. "One of the things I love about working at Microsoft is the groups," Perry says. He is a co-chair of the company's LGBT employee resource group known as GLEAM (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Employees at Microsoft).
When selecting employers, Perry explains, LGBT technical individuals should start by understanding the climate each company offers. "Educating yourself is important. For example, larger companies may have LGBT affinity groups.
"My number-one piece of advice is to bring your whole self to work. Find a place where you can be open and honest. Work in a place where we aren't just tolerated, but celebrated."
Innovation strategist Ronnie Phillips helps Kimberly-Clark support LGBT community
Ronnie Phillips at Kimberly-Clark Corporation (Irving, TX) is an innovation strategist, responsible for developing and managing a portfolio of product innovations and commercialization efforts in the company's consumer-facing businesses. He looks for products that meet needs in new markets or further penetrate current markets.
Phillips earned his BS in biochemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA) in 2004 and a PhD in chemistry, also at Georgia Tech, four years later. He went to Kimberly-Clark immediately after that.
He was attracted to Kimberly-Clark by its industrial lab, and by work on consumer-facing products like Kleenex and Huggies diapers. He started working in the lab developing technologies for global business. "Then I moved into our professional business because I knew it would give me a better understanding of the business and would provide me the opportunity to use my technical background to influence business innovation and strategy," he explains.
This April he took his current role as innovation strategist. He is also a faculty member in the chemistry department at Georgia Perimeter College.
Phillips officially came out to his employer and coworkers while pursuing his PhD. "This gave me the time to become comfortable in my own skin before beginning my professional career."
At Kimberly-Clark, Phillips started and currently leads the Pride @ Kimberly-Clark employee resource group at the Roswell, GA administrative site. "I've used my leadership position to partner with Kimberly-Clark in helping to find ways to support and protect our LGBT employees as well as the LGBT community."
One important stride, he says, is the launching of the company's first LGBT-targeted marketing campaign this year. "I think being open about my sexuality and being able to bring my entire self to work has helped me build a strong network within Kimberly-Clark and has been instrumental in my success here."
Coming out is essential to feeling entirely at home with a job, he says. "Once the stress of worrying about your sexuality has ceased, you're able to concentrate on your career."
And most importantly, says Phillips, "it's a great feeling knowing that you're appreciated for your abilities and simply for being you."
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