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For corporate gay-rights activists, liberal CEOs don't matter as much as they used to, study finds

November 5, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, +1 (718) 398-7642 or +1 (917) 903-9287,

When Tim Cook recently became the first CEO of a Fortune-500 company to publicly identify himself as gay, his declaration was hailed a breakthrough for the cause of gay rights as well as a shining example of personal heroism.

Yet, it is a measure of the progress this cause has already made in the corporate world that the Apple chief's impact on activism there is likely to be fairly limited, new research suggests.

A new study probing the effect that CEO attitudes and ideologies have had on the formation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) employee groups over the course of two decades finds that, while the effect of CEO liberalism has been significant, it mattered most in the early days of the movement and in firms where employees were largely inhospitable to these groups..

To appear in the December issue of the Academy of Management Journal, the paper finds "strong evidence that CEO liberalism was more of a factor in LGBT group foundings when the movement was at an earlier stage of expansion, based on the number of prior groups founded."

The study further notes that "activists will be especially alert to cues about the receptiveness vs. hostility of corporate leaders in the initial phase of a movement's development, when risks and uncertainty abound. Later on, after the movement has momentum and widespread acceptance, employee activists can be somewhat more assured that their companies will accede to their organizing efforts, without reprisal, and hence the profiles of company leaders become less important."

As for the effect of an adverse response among fellow workers, the researchers "found an augmented role for CEO ideology in more conservative workplaces."

In such a milieu, they explain, activists "will tend to perceive more antagonism toward their identities and goals, heightening their concerns about experiencing hostility or reprisal from coworkers if they take the risk of going public with their agenda. Conversely, activists in liberal workplaces will tend to perceive less risk of reprisal, and be correspondingly less sensitive to executive values in their decisions about whether to publicly advocate for their cause."

Comments Forrest Briscoe of Pennsylvania State University, who carried out the study with M.K. Chin of Indiana University and Donald C. Hambrick of Penn State, "Considering that almost every month brings news of legalization of single-sex marriage in one or another state, we've obviously come a long way from the situation that prevailed in the early days of LGBT groups, when public attitudes toward the gay community were largely shaped by fear of AIDS. Today, with the level of acceptance of gay people far greater than it was in even the recent past, having a sympathetic CEO is not nearly as urgent a consideration for activists as it previously was."

Ironically, the most significant progress in workplace gay rights, the professor observes, may have come about through the adoption of domestic-partner benefits by companies that had reputations for resisting   activism. In an earlier study, Prof. Briscoe and Sean Safford of the University of Chicago found that the adoption of the benefit by those firms had a significantly greater effect on other companies than did adoption by activist-friendly firms or fence-sitters. The authors called this the "Nixon in China effect," drawing an analogy to the profound impact President Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to the People's Republic of China had on national and world politics precisely because of his reputation as an ardent anti-communist.

Recently, though, following rapid spread of the domestic-partner benefit in the 1990s and the early years of this century, its diffusion has slowed. "In 1992," Prof. Briscoe explains, "Levi Strauss became the first Fortune-500 firm to extend health-care benefits to same-sex domestic partners, and by 2008 more than half had done so, as the practice spread from electronics, entertainment and financial-services firms on the East and West Coasts to most industries and all regions of the country. Today about 60 percent of the Fortune-500 offer this benefit, so clearly the diffusion has slowed since 2008."

He adds: "In this new study, we find most Fortune-500 CEOs to be conservative in their politics, so, unless there are more Nixon-in-China reversals, diffusion may very well slow even further. Even in companies where employees are receptive to the LGBT cause, activism is minimal, we find, if the CEO is ideologically conservative."

The new research analyzes the relationship between CEO ideology and the formation of LGBT activist groups in Fortune-500 companies in the period 1985 through 2005. CEO ideological leanings were assessed by the chiefs'  campaign contributions to the Democratic and Republican parties and their candidates. "We are not arguing that activist employees track their CEO's donation records," the authors explain, "but rather that activists observe a host of other CEO behaviors and markers that correspond with executives' political-donation patterns. This particularly will be the case for CEOs with strong ideological leanings, either liberal or conservative, as they are relatively likely to reveal their beliefs in their daily behaviors."

The professors find the formation of LGBT groups to be positively correlated with the degree of CEO liberalism -- and all the more so in companies with strong chiefs, such as those who serve as board chairman as well as CEO or have long tenure or are founders or major shareholders or have appointed a lot of directors. Also affecting the strength of the relationship, as discussed above, is the degree of workplace conservatism, (as indicated by Federal Election Commission data identifying employers of political donors) and what phase the movement is in (as gauged from the number of corporate LGBT activist groups founded prior to the formation of a focal group).

In conclusion, the authors offer this advice to company activists of all stripes: "If the CEO has a sympathetic profile, the cause may be achieved at little cost to the activists. If, on the other hand, the CEO presents a contrary profile, the costs to the activists, coupled with slim chances of success, may be forbidding."

The study, "CEO Ideology as an Element of the Corporate Opportunity Structure for Social Activists," is in the December issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in 119 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are The Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education,   and Academy of Management Annals   .A sixth publication, Academy of Management Discoveries,  is currently accepting submissions and will begin publishing in March 2015.

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