Come Out at Work: As a Woman [video]

We love Iceland. Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir is the first openly lesbian head of government in Europe, if not the world. Icelandair’s beautifully photographed ads on the subway transport us from the pushing crowds at rush hour. And we’ve liked Bjork since her days with The Sugarcubes. Now there’s a new heroine in the media, by the name of Halla Tomasdottir.

In the TED talk above, the founder of Audur Capital makes a number of keen observations about gender and leadership. In relating her own story:

Why would two women who were enjoying successful careers in investment banking in the corporate sector leave to found a financial services firm? Well let it suffice to say that we felt a bit overwhelmed with testosterone… in my country, much like on Wall Street and the city of London and elsewhere, men were at the helm of the game of the financial sector. And that kind of lack of diversity and sameness leads to disastrous problems.

She’s referring to the financial collapse of Iceland in 2008, the biggest of any country in economic history. Tomasdottir goes on:

So it was almost like coming out of the closet to actually talk about the fact that we were women and that we believed that we had a set of values and a way of doing business that would be more sustainable than what we had experienced until then.

It’s rarely easy to talk openly about how your gender impacts business, and the former corporate investment banker’s experience enlightens us about some of the challenges. She further explains:

The whole thing about the female trend is not about women being better than men, it is actually about women being different from men, bringing different values and different ways to the table. So what do you get? You get better decision-making. And you get less herd behavior. And both of those things hit your bottom line with very positive results.

Love her! Businesses benefit from the multiplicity of values and perspectives that a diverse group of people bring when they freely exercise their whole selves at work.

The title sounds like it may be about the plight of transitioning gender from male to female, yet we’ll explore that in a future post. We’re struck by the poignance of coming out at work with a part of one’s self that’s so readily visible, and obvious.

It’s poignant because Tomasdottir (pictured at right, on left) reveals to us the meaning of her gender relative to her work. And for being in tune with this part of her self, she’s handsomely rewarded.

Video via TED, image via

How to Display Your Sexuality at Work

We often hear statements like “what you do in your bedroom should stay out of the boardroom” — patent wishes to disregard how sexuality influences our work. Sex does play into our work, often subtly. We have pictures to prove it.

Raynard Kington was recently elected as Grinnell College’s 13th president, and soon thereafter the University of Southern California (USC) celebrated the inauguration of Max Nikias, its 11th president. The corresponding photos, or lack thereof, tell a poignant story about displays of sexuality in the workplace.

Dr. Kington’s history of professional accomplishments is substantial; the former acting director of the National Institutes of Health was responsible for spending $10.4 billion as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus package, and his educational background is a triple-threat–MD, PhD and MBA–all from the most prestigious universities. He has a partner and two children, and they live together in the president’s home at the college.

As a husband and parent, he certainly conforms to the traditional image of the college president as family man.  He’s also different from the norm because he’s gay.

Now here’s the kicker: the photograph of Dr. Kington above is posted on his blog and originates from the NIH. The image of Kington with his family on the left is embedded from an unfamiliar source. Because as far as we can tell, Grinnell College has no official portrait of President Kington with his family.

Why not?

To seek an answer, let’s look at Max Nikias, USC’s president, who has a whole page devoted to glossy images of him and his family (below right). We strongly believe that presenting a polished picture of the Grinell “first family” is not a matter of limited resources, because Grinnell’s endowment stood at $1.26 billion in January 2011.

Rather, it looks like an issue of displaying sexuality at work. As a straight-identified man, Dr. Nikias openly puts his heterosexuality on display simply by standing next to his wife. Whenever you’re with your spouse or significant other, it’s hard to hide that you’re a sexual being. And it’s common for prominent leaders to showcase their spouses and offspring in their work life. Politicians and college presidents come to mind, for example.

On an unconscious level, this is a question of coming out for Grinnell’s president, even though he’s already out at work. He even has it somewhat easier than others, with a spouse and children. On one hand, he comes out any time he references his partner, and on the other, should someone see him with his child and refer to his “wife,” he’s likely compelled to correct them with an automatic “my husband.” Rarely would he need to speak the words, “I’m gay.” Still, being out at work is a multi-faceted experience, and in this case we’re examining the visual publicity aspect.

Thus, we encourage Dr. Kington to present–online and off-line–a more formal image of his family, which would be helpful for Grinnell College, and for society at large.

We have a dream that one day we’ll all value the influence of our sexuality on who we are and on the work we do, so that someone like Zach Wahls will know better when speaking in favor of marriage equalityand against House Joint Resolution 6 in the Iowa House of Representatives. Raised by his biological mother and her same-sex partner, he concludes his remarks with, “the sexual orientation of my parents has had zero effect on the content of my character,” and the audience erupts in applause

In the workplace, and in the cases of Raynard Kington’s sons and Max Nikias’ daughters, this rings false.

So what’s a good way to display your sexuality at work?

With pride. Pride in your family, and pride in your self.

Exploring Ethnicity + Motherhood = Brisk Business

Today is Chinese New Year. Coincidentally, the Internet is ablaze with commentary about Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – 7,728 comments (and counting) on the Wall Street Journal piece alone. In this new memoir about raising two children, Chua reflects on her Chinese-American ethnicity coupled with her identity as a mother, to outrageous effect. There have been rebuttals, a public letter of support by her daugher, numerous appearances on television, countless book reviews, and ultimately:  brisk sales.

Currently #2 on the New York Times’ “Best Sellers List,” the polarizing book has become a phenomenon stemming largely from Chua’s candid discussion of how she’s raised her daughters. The examples already feel legendary. From the New Yorker review:

Chua’s rules for the girls include: no sleepovers, no playdates, no grade lower than an A on report cards, no choosing your own extracurricular activities, and no ranking lower than No. 1 in any subject. (An exception to this last directive is made for gym and drama.)

Publishing a memoir typically requires plumbing the depths of your existence in order to identify and share the aspects you find most meaningful. It takes sharp writing skills, and having a friend at a literary agency or publishing house helps too. Good timing is a final bonus. In looking into her self, Chua taps into the zeitgeist around China’s upward mobility in the world; timing like hers often translates into good business.

Chua brings her sense of humor to the prose, yet it seems some readers aren’t easily getting it.  That’s OK, having revealed intimate details about who she is, she’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Image by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License via

The Time We Came Out at Work: In an Armenian Village

We traveled to Armenia in the summer of 2003 and worked in Ayroum, a small northern village, and helped construct a solar fruit dryer to assist the local economy. In the course of our work we came out, and not without incident. We were interviewed at the time in an Armenian-American ‘zine, and have reprinted the interview below.

Note that we remain friends with “Vartan” today. More on that at the end of the story:


1. I know this is your first time joining a campaign with the Land and Culture Organization (LCO), how did you get involved with this organization?

I grew up in Los Angeles, where my parents sent me to Armenian Mesrobian School until I was 12 years old.  At Mesrobian, I learned that one day there would be an “angakh ou azad Hayastan [liberated and free Armenia]” and that all Armenians in the Diaspora would move there and live together happily ever after.  I wasn’t so sure about moving to Armenia, but the prospect of one day placing my feet on Armenian soil felt like part of my destiny. Read more