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From Tokenism to True Colours: How to hone authentic support for the LGBTQIA+ Community in the Workplace

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Pride month 2023: From Tokenism to True Colours

Amidst the vibrant display of rainbow logos during Pride month, a disheartening reality surfaces: many companies fall into the problematic pitfalls of tokenism, perpetuating a common commercial facade that undermines authentic inclusivity. This act, commonly referred to as "rainbow/pride/pinkwashing," dilutes the significance of the LGBTQIA+ movement.  


It is imperative that businesses move beyond surface-level gestures and actively engage in meaningful actions to support and uplift the LGBTQIA+ community. In this article we will delve into the significance of rainbow washing, its potential harm, and best practices for businesses to truly celebrate and support LGBTQIA+ individuals in the workplace, highlighting the significant impact businesses can have on society. 


Performative Allyship

Understanding Rainbow Washing and How It Plays Into Performative Allyship:  

Rainbow washing is the practice whereby companies utilise rainbow-coloured branding, slogans, or promotional campaigns during Pride Month without truly supporting LGBTQIA+ rights or advocating for inclusivity. This typically entails companies maintaining a politically and socially neutral stance while showcasing vibrant campaigns and rainbow colours, without actively engaging or acknowledging the contributions of LGBTQIA+ individuals. Rainbow washing can occur throughout the year, but it becomes particularly noticeable during Pride Month (Diligent) and is often seen as a form of performative allyship.  

Performative allyship, in its core, embodies tokenism and lacks the enduring substance needed for genuine support. This approach not only falls short but also poses a threat to the progress made by the LGBTQIA+ community and their allies. While proactive allyship efforts are being made to address crucial matters like discriminatory legislations, performative allyship can undermine these endeavours. It is essential to move beyond mere gestures and embrace a sustained commitment to dismantling systemic barriers and fostering true inclusivity. 

 History of pride collage

The History and the Dangers of Rainbow Washing:  

The phenomenon of corporations engaging in rainbow washing can be traced back to the commercialisation of LGBTQIA+ rights and the emergence of Pride Month as a mainstream event during the 1990s and 1980s. According to Blaine Branchik, a former professor at Quinnipiac University, LGBTQ marketing used to occur on a local scale, such as advertising local gay-friendly establishments like bars, restaurants, or bookstores. However, in recent decades, as LGBTQIA+ activism gained traction and public support, companies began recognising the marketing potential of aligning themselves with the community. Unfortunately, many early attempts were criticised for their superficial and opportunistic nature, lacking a genuine commitment to LGBTQIA+ rights. Instead of providing year-round support, some corporations resorted to temporary displays of rainbow colours and slogans during Pride Month as mere marketing tactics. Dave Mulryan, co-founder of Mulryan/Nash advertising, commented that companies often marketed to LGBTQIA+ individuals to reap a return on investment rather than demonstrating true support (Marketplace 2021). 

Furthermore, rainbow washing trivialises the struggles experienced by LGBTQIA+ individuals. It diminishes the significance of Pride Month and overlooks the historical context and ongoing fight for equality and inclusion. Instead of genuinely engaging with the LGBTQIA+ community, companies that engage in rainbow washing may perpetuate stereotypes, marginalise individuals, or disregard the diverse experiences and needs of the community. 

Undeniably, rainbow washing can have detrimental consequences for both companies and the LGBTQIA+ community. As the market embraces a new generation, with approximately one in five young adults identifying as LGBTQIA+ (Gallup, 2022), there is an increasing focus on attracting this Generation Z consumer base. This generation, having grown up in an era of greater LGBTQIA+ acceptance, offers a unique opportunity for companies to connect with a diverse and inclusive audience. However, when companies engage in superficial displays of support solely to attract LGBTQIA+ consumers, they run the risk of tarnishing their credibility and reputation. These actions can be seen as opportunistic or insincere, resulting in a loss of trust from both customers and employees, especially within the LGBTQIA+ community.  


Cancel Culture

Navigating the Fear of speaking up and Understanding the Impact of Cancel Culture: 

It is worth noting that Generation Z places a strong emphasis on authenticity in their product and brand preferences (McKinsey, 2018) and is particularly adept at recognising disingenuous actions. In today's digital age, where social media serves as a powerful tool for expression and activism, Generation Z often utilises these platforms to create a "cancel culture" that holds companies and individuals accountable for their actions. Problematic behaviours are publicly called out, leading to significant backlash and potential damage to individuals and company's reputation.  

While cancel culture seeks to hold people accountable for their actions, it frequently creates a polarised environment in which people are quickly accused and condemned without the opportunity for redemption or personal growth. Instead of encouraging further dialogue and understanding, it amplifies outrage and reinforces social media as an echo chamber (GUAP, 2021). Social media platforms, driven by algorithms designed to maximise engagement, tend to show users content that aligns with their existing beliefs, creating echo chambers that promote ideological homogeneity (The Harvard Crimson, 2022) and further perpetuates confirmation bias which hinders healthy debate (ECPS, n.d). 

While it is crucial to address harmful actions and promote a culture of learning and transformation, the prevalence of cancel culture has created a climate of fear. This fear can hinder organisations from openly expressing support or engaging in meaningful DE&I efforts. However, it is essential for companies to overcome this fear and back their support with consistent actions and initiatives throughout the year. Superficial gestures alone are not enough. By demonstrating a genuine and ongoing commitment to DE&I, companies can build trust, foster inclusive relationships, and create a truly supportive environment for the LGBTQIA+ community. As many DE&I professionals understand, the pursuit of greater understanding and inclusivity is an ongoing journey. By consistently engaging in education, learning from mistakes, continuously seeking improvement, and maintaining active involvement we can drive meaningful and enduring change. 


Organisations and society

Organisations as a Microcosm of Wider Society:  

Companies serve as microcosms of wider society and offer one of the most important forms of community (Edelman, 2022). Therefore, they host the potential to drive societal change and challenge discriminatory practices. By creating inclusive environments, organisations can set an example for other people and inspire progress beyond their own walls. When companies embrace diversity and support LGBTQIA+ individuals, they foster a culture that encourages belonging. 

Disney serves as a recent exemplary case of an organisation using its influence to push back against discriminatory policies and actions. In response to Florida's right-wing Republican governor Ron DeSantis's suppression on LGBTQ+ rights, Disney has taken a stance by hosting ‘a major LGBTQ+ conference’ (Guardian, 2023). By providing a platform for LGBTQIA+ voices and initiatives, Disney actively opposes discrimination and champions inclusivity. This action sends a powerful message that companies can impact society positively by standing up for marginalised communities. 


 CSA’s Best Practices for Authentic Support: 

  1. Education and Training - Establish comprehensive DE&I training programmes that educate employees on LGBTQIA+ issues, terminology, and challenges: Promoting understanding among the workforce, fosters an inclusive environment where everyone feels respected and valued. By promoting understanding among the workforce, you can foster an inclusive environment where everyone feels respected and valued. It is crucial to offer training on effective allyship, as this plays a vital role in demonstrating positive practices and behaviours in supporting DE&I. Tailoring the learning experience to your organisation is essential, as it allows for addressing unique challenges and cultural contexts that can provide valuable learning opportunities.  Additionally, it is vital to consider global perspectives, as practices such as capturing sensitive data may be commonplace in one region but can be potentially harmful and incriminating to individuals who are not protected by the law in other regions. 
  2. Internal Policies: It is key to review and update internal policies regularly to ensure they align with LGBTQIA+ rights and inclusivity. According to a TUC poll in 2022 only 1 in 3 companies who have LGBT policies updated them in the last 12 months.  Also, less than half (47%) of organisations have a clearly defined reporting pathway for employees to raise concerns regarding discrimination, bullying, and harassment against LGBTQIA+ workers. The absence of transparent and prominently displayed policies can leave LGBTQIA+ employees feeling unsupported in the workplace. This lack of support creates an environment where discrimination can persist, as the organisation may not explicitly condemn such behaviours (read about LGBTQIA+ microaggressions in the workplace here). It is imperative for companies to establish clear reporting mechanisms and visibly communicate their commitment to a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination. By doing so, they can create a safe and inclusive workplace where LGBTQIA+ employees feel valued and protected.  
  3. Equitable benefits and protections: Equitable benefits and protections play a vital role in fostering support and acceptance for LGBTQIA+ employees and their partners within an organisation. It is important to not only provide these benefits but also to use gender-neutral language in communicating them. This ensures that all individuals, regardless of their gender identity, feel included and recognised. By offering equal access to healthcare coverage, parental leave, and retirement benefits, companies demonstrate their commitment to creating a fair and supportive environment for LGBTQIA+ employees. These measures address any existing disparities or discriminatory practices, guaranteeing that LGBTQIA+ employees have the same opportunities and protections as their colleagues. Ultimately, these efforts contribute to nurturing a workplace culture that values diversity and promotes inclusivity. 
  4. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Establish or support Employee Resource Groups dedicated to LGBTQIA+ employees. These groups provide a safe space for individuals to connect, share experiences, and advocate for change within the company within a psychologically safe space. To demonstrate further support, it is beneficial to encourage senior leadership involvement in these ERGs. When leaders actively participate and engage with the group, it sends a powerful message of inclusivity and support throughout the organisation. Senior leaders should actively listen to the suggestions and concerns raised by ERG members, valuing their insights and using them to drive positive changes within the organisational culture. By establishing or supporting LGBTQIA+ ERGs and involving senior leadership, companies demonstrate their commitment to fostering an inclusive workplace that values the voices and contributions of LGBTQIA+ employees. 
  5. Transparent External Support: When showing support during Pride Month, ensure actions align with long-term commitment. Transparently communicate the company's support for LGBTQIA+ rights and equality. Engage in partnerships with LGBTQIA+ organisations, participate in events, or sponsor initiatives that advance the community's well-being beyond Pride Month. 
  6. Amplify LGBTQIA+ Voices: Actively seek input from LGBTQIA+ employees and community members when shaping company policies, campaigns, or initiatives. Amplify their voices and provide platforms for sharing their stories, perspectives, and accomplishments. This approach will lead to more genuine and impactful support from those outside of the LGBTQIA+ community. 


As we commemorate Pride Month, it is essential for companies to transcend token gestures and embrace genuine inclusivity year-round. By avoiding the pitfalls of rainbow washing and implementing best practices, organisations can establish workplaces that authentically celebrate and support LGBTQIA+ individuals.  

Together, we can encourage learning, strive for true allyship and cultivate environments that prioritise equality, respect, and acceptance for all beyond Pride month. 




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