By Melissa J. Anderson

According to research by Evolved Employer (and our sister site The Glass Hammer), support from the top is critical for creating an LGBT inclusive environment, where lesbian professionals feel they can thrive.

Our new report, “Being Out at Work: Cultural Implications for the ‘L’ in LGBT,” discusses the challenges and opportunities lesbian professionals face in the corporate environment. It also provides insight into how lesbians in the financial and professional services feel about the culture in which they work.

One of the top findings in the report is the importance of support from the top. According to the study, 53% of respondents said senior management at their company provides verbal or visible support for LGBT initiatives.

This idea was echoed by panelists at our Monday night event for lesbian professionals at Goldman Sachs. According to our research and our speakers, senior management support goes a long way in instilling inclusive values within corporate culture.

Senior Support for LGBT Individuals

Recently the Human Rights Council released a new television spot featuring Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein expressing his support for marriage equality. He says, “America’s corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and is the right thing to do.”

The New York Times’ Dealbook blog said the spot might be surprising for many outside the firm. But, in fact, the firm has been a big supporter of LGBT issues for quite some time.

“Still, the campaign is sure to turn heads on Wall Street, which despite having made progress on equality issues over the last decade, is still considered to be a male-dominated, testosterone-driven place.

“Behind the scenes, Mr. Blankfein has long been a supporter of same-sex marriage. Last year, he signed a letter urging state lawmakers to vote for a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and encouraged other chief executives to do the same. He also called lawmakers directly on the matter. The New York Legislature passed the law last summer.

“Under Mr. Blankfein’s guidance, Goldman has also pushed employment policies that promote equality. It reimburses employees for the extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits. In 2002, the company made headlines for offering gender reassignment operations to employees.”

Even within the conservative culture on Wall Street, leaders recognize the importance of diversity and visibly supporting it.

Wharton professor Jennifer Mueller also noted that the spot may provide positive visibility for the firm. She said, “I view this as a smart move for Goldman that may actually allow for a net reputational gain.”

Straight Allies

According to event panelist Jennifer Barbetta, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer of Alternative Investments & Manager Selection at the firm, the personal support on behalf of Blankfein means a lot to LGBT individuals within Goldman as well.

She said, “It’s fantastic that he’s doing that and putting himself out there on a personal level.”

She also mentioned the importance of straight allies for building a culture of inclusion. She explained:

“The Ally Program has had a huge impact. We started inviting straight allies to join the network, and now there are gay members and straight members and you don’t know who’s LGBT or who’s an Ally, which is the entire goal of this – that it shouldn’t matter – no one cares who’s straight or who’s gay.”

The majority of our survey respondents also spoke positively about the value of straight allies, with 21.7% of open-ended responses even indicating that they are “critical” or “important” for developing a culture of inclusion for LGBT individuals.

But, while the idea of straight allies might get a lot of notice within the corporate space, in practice, the prevalence of straight allies varies. The study says, “Over a quarter of respondents (26.5%) said someone on their team had referred to themselves as a straight ally. But, the majority (67.5%) said they had not, and 6% said they were not sure.”

And, the study showed, for some, the notion of straight allies is still new: “…almost one in five (19.3%) of our respondents had not heard of the term ‘straight allies.’”

As more business leaders come out in support of their LGBT workforce, hopefully more straight individuals in the company at large will be encouraged to visibly or verbally support their LGBT coworkers as well, creating a more comfortable, inclusive environment, where every employee feels he or she can be their authentic self at work.