What’s Really Over the Rainbow?
Thursday, June 22, 2023
June 2023
What’s Really Over the Rainbow?

Is corporate America's participation in Pride Month genuine allyship or virtue signaling?

By Sophie Griffith

On the surface, the increasing participation in Pride Month by corporations is encouraging. Ubiquitous American brands are offering Pride products, making large donations to Pride parades, and loudly proclaiming their support for the LGBTQ+ communities. Many brick-and- mortar stores and websites are awash in colorful rainbow products and peppy slogans about how the brand supports LGBTQ+ causes, and corporations from across industries have added the rainbow flag to their social media profiles. 

But how genuine is this outward display of allyship? Do those same corporations act in ways that support the LGBTQ+ communities in meaningful, substantial ways — not just in June but throughout the year?

Pride is More Than a Parade  

To be clear, since the Stonewall riots in 1969, the United States has made significant progress on LGBTQ+ rights. The simple fact that June is now recognized as a month to celebrate the LGBTQ+ communities is an achievement that those early advocates could probably not have imagined. And even in recent years, Pride has gone from a niche to a mainstream event. However, the existence and mainstreaming of Pride Month may give the erroneous impression that advocacy is no longer necessary or that discrimination no longer exists. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. 

This dichotomy is present not only in the larger context but also on an individual level. For example, more than one large brand came under fire from anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and pulled back on their public support for the LGBTQ+ communities and Pride this year while simultaneously donating large sums of money to Pride celebrations in major US cities. 

We also have to look at what Pride really means. Rather than celebrating Pride as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots and the serious work that needs to be done to ensure LGBTQ+ equality, some corporations are treating it as a marketing opportunity. For example, at the end of June 2022, one major retailer placed a line of gender-neutral clothing on sale as if it were holiday merchandise to be put on clearance. However, gender non-conforming people wear clothes all year round.

This could be a month to have hard conversations about the systemic issues that need to be addressed and policies that need to be changed — particularly this year when LGBTQ+ rights are under attack in the political arena. In 2023 so far, more than 491 anti-LBGTQ bills have been introduced in 46 state legislatures, and 75 bills have passed into law. Instead, we are at risk of dedicating this month solely to the (still important) external show of support while circumventing direly needed action. 

Simply put, support for the LGBTQ+ communities requires more than a little decoration here and there.

Washing in the Rainbow

It’s become common for corporate America to present a public stand through slick marketing campaigns that don’t necessarily align with their values or behavior. Think of polluting industries running advertisements about how they protect the environment (commonly known as Greenwashing) or companies talking about the importance of Black History Month while their corporate leadership lacks diversity (or their product disproportionately harms communities of color). The list goes on.

So what about Pride? Companies are engaging with and reaching out to the LGBTQ+ communities for good reason. One recent global survey found that US employees are four and a half times more likely to work for a company that “publicly supports and demonstrates a commitment to expanding and protecting LGBTQ+ rights,” and consumers are at least two times more likely to buy from brands that support LGBTQ+ rights.

Then there is the LGBTQ+ market itself, which is enormous. By one estimate, in the United States, there are 17 million LGBTQ+ consumers with $1 trillion in spending power

Looking beyond economics, eight in ten Americans support laws that would protect LGBTQ+ people in public accommodations, jobs, and housing (including 48 percent who are strongly supportive). And as we’ve noted, Pride has gone mainstream. So, companies are motivated to align themselves with Pride and the LGBTQ+ communities in general. But is that support genuine?

Has the CEO who publicly supports Pride used homophobic slurs or donated to politicians who sponsor anti-LGBTQ+ legislation? Does the company wrapping itself in a rainbow flag have policies that support its LGBTQ+ workers in substantial ways? Publicly celebrating the communities is an important step, but it doesn't change anything if systemic issues aren't being addressed.

Having Real Impact

At Ethic, we look at three populations of LGBTQ+ communities that companies can impact: their workers, their customers, and the public. 

Workers. Beginning with hiring, members of the LGBTQ+ communities need to have equal opportunities and should be provided comfortable environments in which to ask questions during the interview process. It’s important to note here that LGBTQ+ workers are more likely to work in jobs with lower wages and little or no benefits, such as health insurance and paid leave. Therefore, once hired, workers should have the protection of whistleblower policies, trans-inclusive health coverage (including gender-affirming care), and domestic partner benefits. Companies should encourage gender-inclusive language and the inclusion of preferred pronouns on email signatures and profiles and do away with gendered uniforms or dress codes. For example, several airlines recently announced the move to gender-neutral uniforms (and the option to wear name tags with their preferred pronouns) for staff.

Customers. There are a few ways that companies’ actions or products harm members of the LGBTQ+ communities. One issue that our model addresses is data security. For example, if a healthcare company or dating app for the LGBTQ+ communities has a data breach. Sensitive data can be exposed that can put people at risk of exposure or further discrimination. Then there are the harmful products  marketed directly to the communities, such as cigarettes. Tobacco companies have targeted the LGBTQ+ communities for decades through sponsorship of events (in some cases being among the first corporate sponsors) and advertising. The investment has paid off, with 25.1 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults using a tobacco product compared to just 18.8 percent of heterosexual adults. On the flip side, there is a need for greater choice and more access to products tailored to the LGBTQ+ communities. These could include certain types of medical care, pharmaceuticals, and nonbinary clothing (along with gender-neutral sections in retailers).

Public at Large. Firearms, which are obviously a threat to all communities, also need to be included in the discussion of the LGBTQ+ communities. Transgender people (16+) are four times more likely than their cisgender counterparts to be victims of violent crime, and 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year. Since six out of ten gun deaths are suicides, firearms can have a disproportionate affect on the LGBTQ+ communities. Meanwhile, 17 percent of LGBTQ+ adults are living in poverty, compared to an estimated 12 percent of the straight and cisgender population, according to one study, so any policies or actions that exacerbate poverty on a large scale may disproportionately affect the LGBTQ+ communities. Then there are the industries that prey on low-income individuals, such as subprime or payday lenders. 

We believe that companies should go beyond the external support of people in LGBTQ+ communities during Pride Month and start taking actions that can improve their material, measurable life outcomes year round.

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Sources and footnotes

Ethic Inc. is a Registered Investment Adviser located in New York, NY. Registration of an investment adviser does not imply any level of skill or training. Information pertaining to Ethic Inc’s registration or to obtain a copy of Ethic Inc.’s current written disclosure statement discussing Ethic Inc.’s business operations, services and fees is available on the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Information website – www.adviserinfo.sec.gov or from Ethic Inc. upon written request at support@ethicinvesting.com. Information provided herein is for informational purposes only and does not intend to make an offer or solicitation for the sale or purchase of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies. Any subsequent, direct communication by Ethic Inc. with a prospective client shall be conducted by a representative of Ethic Inc. that is either registered or qualifies for an exemption or exclusion from registration in the state where a prospective client resides. Information contained herein may be carefully compiled from third-party sources that Ethic Inc. believes to be reliable, but Ethic Inc. cannot guarantee the accuracy of any third-party information.

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Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Sophie comes to Ethic after a 10-year career in education with a focus on adult math education. Through her experiences as a teacher, she became passionate about education policy and the power of research to enact change. Sophie has an MS in Quantitative Methods for the Social Sciences from the CUNY Graduate Center, where she developed a particular interest in measurement issues in the social sciences. She also holds a BA in Writing and Psychology from Columbia University.

Jaimie Seaton is a journalist and marketing consultant with over 20 years of international experience. She’s written thought leadership for executives of global companies, which have appeared in Forbes, Fortune, and leading industry publications. Jaimie’s lived and reported from Johannesburg, Singapore and Bangkok and has written for numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Newsweek, CNN, and Business Insider.