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Gay rights takes center stage at Davos

Sander van 't Noordende, Beth Brooke-Marciniak and Antonio Simoes sit on an informal panel at Davos on the LGBT workforce.Sander van 't Noordende, Beth Brooke-Marciniak and Antonio Simoes sit on an informal panel at Davos on the LGBT workforce.
Sander van 't Noordende, Beth Brooke-Marciniak and Antonio Simoes sit on an informal panel at Davos on the LGBT workforce.Courtesy of EY

In 2011, when Beth Brooke-Marciniak came out to her coworkers at Ernst & Young, she says she initially became withdrawn at work. After years of hiding her private life in the office, the global vice chair at EY said she struggled to figure out how to be gay and a business leader at the same time.

What a difference four years can make. This Saturday, for the first time in the history of the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, gay rights in the workplace is on the official agenda. And Brooke-Marciniak — who has written about being a gay executive for Fortune — is one of speakers on the panel on diversity and gay rights.

In the discussion entitled “The Diversity Dividend,” Brooke-Marciniak and other global diversity experts like Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president and CEO of New America Foundation, are slated to discuss ways to ensure that employers help the LGBT community and other minorities feel valued and respected in the workplace.

Past Davos meetings have included small discussions about gay rights have been organized, including a much talked about breakfast last year organized by Paul Singer, the founder of hedge fund Elliott Management, and Daniel Loeb, the founder of Third Point. But organizers declined to put the LGBT rights on the formal agenda – until this year. And interviews with a few other prominent and openly gay executives attending Davos suggests it has had an energizing effect on them. The fact that the word LGBT is [now] in the official Davos program is not insignificant,” Sander van ‘t Noordende, who is openly gay and the Group CEO of Products at Accenture, told Fortune. “It is time to elevate the subject and get some more visibility to LGBT issues in the workplace and there is no better place to do that than Davos.”

On Thursday, Noordende, alongside Brooke-Marciniak and Antonio Simoes, the openly gay CEO for the United Kingdom at HSBC Bank, participated in an unofficial panel discussion (organized by Accenture) about how leaders can improve the lives of the LGBT workforce. At Davos, there is a robust informal agenda of discussions like this one that conference participants are aware of, but are not on the official program.

Last year, the Financial Times ranked Simoes and Brooke-Marciniak No. 2 and 3, respectively, on its list of the highest-ranking “out” senior executives in the world. Both leaders said they felt compelled to use that status at Davos by making the business case for championing diversity before an audience of world leaders.

The executives centered their Thursday discussion on the importance of being a “proactive” ally and how it can lower turnover. If you have a senior executive within your organization that is openly gay, employees lower down the pipeline are 85% more likely to come out of the closet, said Brooke-Marciniak, citing previous studies on the topic. What’s more striking is that research shows workers who are closeted are 70% more likely to leave their employer and look for a job where they feel more comfortable, Brooke-Marciniak said.

While many people working for Fortune 500 companies may profess support for gay rights, Brooke-Marciniak argues that becoming a true ally for gay workers requires a far deeper level of inclusion.

“Some people are more than willing to put the rainbow mug on their desk,” she said in an interview ahead of the panel. “But if someone says something in a meeting [that is anti-gay], are they willing to speak up and be proactive and take action? That’s what is needed to make the environment safe for the people around them.”

Both Brooke-Marciniak and Noordende acknowledged that Apple CEO Tim Cook announcing that he was gay last year had a powerful effect, encouraging more conversation about LGBT-workplace issues. Yet Simoes contended that it is almost more important for leaders who succeeded in business while out of the closet to share their stories as well. There are very few leaders who are out of the closet in business, said Simoes, making it critical for leaders like himself to be “visible.”

“We need leaders who are inclusive at all levels of the organization,” said Brooke-Marciniak. “More senior execs coming out in business are waking up to the fact that this is an important piece of difference that we need to highlight.”

Speaking specifically of gay rights progress in the United States, Brooke-Marciniak said she is encouraged at the rate of change she is seeing both inside and outside of the office. The EY global vice chair cited political efforts furthering the legalization of gay marriage and private sector efforts to make the workplace more inclusive.

How this gay rights discussion will be received Saturday remains to be seen. Many dignitaries who come to Davos come from countries like Russia and Uganda, which are hostile to gay rights. Brooke-Marciniak told Fortune that she hopes that by bringing the issue of LGBT workplace rights to the main stage at Davos on Saturday, fewer members of the community will feel as apprehensive as she did when she mustered the courage to come out at work. Now, she says she is a much more effective leader because she doesn’t have to check her private life at the office door.

“Every organization wants to get the best out of their people. You can only get the best if your people if they feel comfortable in their skin at work and if the environment at work is an inclusive one,” said Noordende.

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Watch more of the discussion on what’s next for the LGBT community from Fortune’s video team: