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Series Five, Episode Five: The power of intersectionality, LGBTQ+ advocacy and the influence of corporate activism

Against a backdrop of significant worldwide political and legislative changes, Erin Uritus, CEO of Out and Equal discusses the power of corporate advocacy and responsibility for protection of the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace. Erin talks about the commercial case for diversity and the benefits of campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights shared from her organisation’s work with global corporations. Through networking, training and examining areas of commonality, firms can make room for intersectionality, and by working with allies can create a safe space for staff to work through challenges relating to the workforce as a whole, and therefore embrace full inclusivity. This episode was recorded at the offices of BNP Paribas in London.

Erin Uritus

Erin Uritus is the CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates- the world’s largest LGBT professional organization dedicated to achieving global LGBT workplace equality.

Throughout her entire career, Erin has worked to help mission-driven organisations and their staff partner with and energise stakeholders to achieve extraordinary impact, navigate through historical challenges and opportunities, and become healthier and happier along the way.

As a leader on the Strategic Communications Team at Booz Allen, she helped government agencies around the world navigate change and drive transformation. Her work with the Department of Homeland Security lead to agency-wide efforts for Citizenship and Immigration Services to include employees in the strategic planning and re-branding of their organisation.

From 2007-2011, Erin worked for a major Middle East government in support of its efforts to modernize and restructure, which was happening during the 2007 economic crash, subsequent “Arab Spring” revolutions, and major Nationalisation programs. She was only one of two Western Expat women working as a Director in the government, facilitated the first-ever executive leadership retreat for its highest governing body, and co-authored a book about Change Management in government -published in both Arabic and English.

Erin became involved with Out & Equal as an ERG Leader at Booz Allen, which sponsored her to attend her first Out & Equal Summit in Orlando. She went on to join the Out and Equal Board of Directors, co-founded the Out & Equal DC Chapter Affiliate, and eventually served as Co-Chair for the Out & Equal DC Summit in 2007 before becoming Out & Equal’s CEO in 2018.

You can follow Erin on Twitter @ErinUritus.

Series Five, Episode Five Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to Divercity Podcast, talking about equality, inclusion, and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and often lots of ideas to help drive change. Today I’m joined by Erin Uritus, who’s the CEO of Out and Equal Workplace Advocates. This episode is recorded at the offices of BNP Paribas.

We were due to be joined by their Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Caroline Courtin. However, as every international executive will testify, sometimes transport does not always work in our favour. We look forward to welcoming Caroline to a future episode, but we do, on the other hand, gain more time with Erin who travels the world and I’ve been really looking forward to this episode because Out and Equal, is dedicated to achieving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer workplace equality around the world.

Out and Equal partners with Fortune 1000 companies and government agencies to provide leadership development, training, consultation, and networking opportunities.

Erin describes her career as having helped organisations and their employees partner with and energise stakeholders to achieve extraordinary impact, navigate through historical challenges and opportunities, and to become healthier and happier along the way. Her achievements of academic accomplishments are too many to list and include 10 years at Booz Allen helping government organisations, including the Department of Homeland Security, navigate the massive challenges brought on by modernisation programmes.

In 2011 Erin worked for a major Middle East government to support efforts to modernise and restructure – a Change Management practitioner’s dream assignment and it seems that no challenge is too huge.  Erin a very warm welcome to the show.

Erin: Lovely to be with you. Fantastic introduction. Thank you so much.

Julia: It’s a pleasure.

Erin: I listen to your podcast from afar. Delighted with being able to learn more about what’s going on over here. It’s really an honour. Thanks for having me.

Julia: Tell me a bit more about Out and Equal Advocates.

Erin: Out and Equal Workplace Advocates has been around for about 22 years, based out of San Francisco, but we are a global organisation now. We were started at a time when only about 4% of Fortune 500 companies protected the LGBTQ community, glad to say now more than two decades later and a lot of hard work by many organisations, it’s only about 4% who don’t. We’ve been around doing training, as you said, networking. We convened the largest workplace summit for our community, the LGBTQ community and allies in the world, and we’ve been doing that since our inception. Most recently, we convened in Seattle and welcomed about 6,000 people.

Julia: In that event are there some major voices that tend to come to the fore or are there other voices that you’re not hearing in terms of driving change. Really interested in hearing your thoughts on how far have we come and where do we really need to focus.

Erin: It’s such a great question because I think that when Out and Equal started, the community looked a certain way and we were a lot smaller. It’s been such a pleasure being with the organisation and attending this event for a very long time because I used to also be on the Board of Directors and watching the community change and then watching Out and Equal, and now presiding over Out and Equal in making sure that we are even more inclusive.

In our most recent summit, we’ve actually grown to offer 13 different tracks. So across industry for each part of our community we’ve expanded a lot of content to include and focus more on the bisexual community, on queer identified non-binary people, certainly on transgender. We’ve also expanded to give special space and consideration to groups within our community like LGBTQ people of colour so that they have a safe space to talk about their issues and also for allies to join and to have very important conversations.

Julia: It’s really fascinating to watch you have a dynamic shift because we’re always looking for where are the sticking points? Where are the accelerating factors?  Across those 13 streams, are there some common accelerating factors that those streams that arguably are ahead of others can learn from. I’m really interested in how do you accelerate change?

Erin: It is a really great question because I think we’re living in times that require us to learn from each other in rapid fashion. I don’t think we have time to lose in reinventing the wheel. It really is a great question and what we’ve tried to do at Out and Equal is to provide the space, again, where people have the time to support each other within their communities so that they’re understanding what challenges they’re facing, and bonding, and feeling protected. And at the same time, to provide open spaces for allies to join and people from other groups so that they can understand and learn from each other.

I think that one of the things that really binds us together now is this focus on intersectionality, at least in the US. I think what you’re seeing in, not just the financial services, but across corporations in general, is that where they’ve spent money in diversity and inclusion efforts, they’re now looking to gain more benefit from bringing their ERGs together. That feels really exciting. I think when you bring people from women’s forums together and the LGBTQ Forum, we have forums like the parents forum and veterans forums, people can come together and look at their commonalities and it opens up all sorts of doors to then have very specific technical conversations about how to do diversity and inclusion work better.

Julia: Absolutely chimes with what other people have been saying to us as well, which is, thinking about the power of intersectionality which is very nuanced and specific in some regards and also addresses common challenges that certain groups feel as well. There’s a big thing which we were thinking about, the corporate responsibility of organisations to look for and look after groups in parts of the world that aren’t quite so accepting. I’d love your thoughts on, for example, in the Middle East or in certain parts of Africa where there’s a great deal of stigma and concern, some of it is driven by faith, some of it’s driven by society and many other reasons as well, is the views of your members and your organisation in reaching out to those communities.

Erin: It’s really fascinating, because the timing of me starting this job happened to coincide within only weeks of a school shooting that you all may have heard about in a school called Parkland. What was really interesting was that although it had been happening a little bit, that incident in the United States really sparked a lot of activism with these students but then you had a lot of corporations and their executives come out and start speaking out on issues that traditionally have not been seen to affect their bottom line. And so it was a really interesting trend. 

Harvard Business Review started taking a look at corporate activism and noticing what was happening. It was certainly an exciting trend for us to see, especially with the groups that we work with because when governments are not doing necessarily the right thing, and when the laws may not be in place, or in some cases, are going backwards, and discrimination in some cases in the US is being enshrined at every level of government now, the community of people that we work with in corporations, I believe have wanted to ensure that we do not go backwards.

I think companies for more than a decade, or even in some cases two now, have made tremendous investments in diversity and inclusion work and have evolved from it perhaps being window dressing to really understanding the business case and they do not want to go backwards. It’s exciting to us to see that there’s huge momentum and people working on the inside that will not let their companies go back. 

As you said, Julia, what we’ve seen with what multinationals have done in establishing basis outside of perhaps where they started in the West is really exciting. Out and Equal has made a commitment to three regions of the world in particular, we have done global events in Brazil, in China and in India just for the last three years. But even in those three years we’ve exponentially grown.

You’ve had more people come out in those countries, in some cases being out at work is their safe space because they cannot come out in their Mosques or in their Temples, certainly not in their families. And so, it’s been really exciting to see these companies almost be embassy’s of equality where people can come together. Now that certain laws like equality is legal, LGBTQ identity is legal in India, for example, I think you’ve seen just a groundswell and a lot of momentum of more and more people coming out, but not just LGBTQ people, but their allies as well. This is indeed exciting. I think companies have tremendous power. It’s really worth shining a light on these stories of what companies are doing. They may not always get credit for it, the stories might not be public, but I think what they’re doing is really extraordinary and it’s helping us maintain momentum in equality.

Julia:  You talked about the commercial imperative or the commercial benefits of diversity inclusion, which we talk about relentlessly on the podcast about, this isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ and a socially driven thing, this is actually about a commercial ambition and how organisations don’t want to go backwards, but then also serving the sense of purpose that employees feel. I wonder whether historically, activism was always one of those conversations that should be left at the door before you walk into the organisation. It’s great to hear that companies are saying, “well actually we encourage you to be on this journey with us around the energy and harnessing the energy and activism as well”. Does that go as far as lobbying as well? You mentioned about the work behind the scenes, are they actually talking to governments as well and driving change?

Erin: They are. We’re seeing more and more corporate leaders, whether it’s through their own groups within the company or even as individuals show up at their State Houses and say, “I’m an executive at this company and I’m gay, and this is why this is important to me.” I think that more and more, whether you want to call it activism or advocacy, people standing up and speaking out to their governments and to their customers, certainly showing their support to their employees is just really important. It’s a part of change we cannot forget. There are other things related to corporate culture that’s really important, but certainly I think, making your voice known in whatever political capacity is really important.

Julia: In terms of thinking ahead, the remainder of this year and perhaps into 2020 as well, is there anything we should be particularly focused on? Are there any areas in your opinion that are slow to change? What can organisations be doing to keep that momentum going?

Erin: As we talked a little bit before, there is definitely a growing trend and momentum in really looking at how intersectionality shows up in the workplace. I think the trend that we spoke a little bit within companies, these employee network groups doing more work together so that you economise in your resources, but also leverage how people are showing up in the workplace differently. I think that there’s a growing understanding and acceptance that no matter how you present to the world, we all carry multiple identities with us that sometimes help us and sometimes don’t help us.

I think that when companies are bringing groups together and giving them a chance to talk about what intersectionality really means, it gives us all a chance to learn from each other.

Julia: Something else we’ve been thinking about on the podcast is waves and focus on different management layers. At the moment you’ve got the hiring management layer. Some people call it the sticky middle, the permafrost layer, I think you refer to it as the frozen layer. These are executives who have been trained in a certain way, coached in a certain way, paid in a certain way, so therefore behave in a certain way. There’s quite a lot of focus on how do you help that dynamic shift.

The other thing that we think about is the next level of leadership and what that looks like. Some of these young employees who are naturally, arguably, and I’m happy to be wrong on this, are much more driven by purpose and are much more activists and advocates for change, is how they’re going to lead as the future leaders of tomorrow. Should there be a new model for leadership?

Erin: I think we should always be looking at new models of leadership that help get us where we need to be more efficiently and really leveraging the benefit of each other’s experiences and knowledge. It is a great question and as a change management person, it’s one I ask myself a lot, I think in the US what we’ve really narrowed in on this year is that as an organisation who is supposed to help LGBTQ people, we’ve often used those letters but not necessarily understood the rapidly changing dynamics of our constituents.

Julia: Can you give us an example around that, some of those rapidly changing dynamics?

Erin: For us there’s been some studies that have come out within, I would say the last year. One, for example, a Glad Harris poll that talked about 20% of millennials identifying as LGBTQ. There was another one that mentioned possibly even as high as 52% of what we call Gen Z, so those are kids in high school from the ages of 14 – 17/ 18 for example, 52% possibly identifying as not exclusively heterosexual.

It raises a lot of issues around, not only identity, but around labels and about either wanting or not wanting. I think that even the wanting and the not wanting to discuss labels is fluid. It just means that it’s a rapidly changing atmosphere but that the important I think, is not to lose sight of is that, instead of being paralysed by not understanding everything perfectly, we can’t stop asking each other the questions. There’s a very basic question that I think people don’t ask each other enough, which is, “what is it like to be you?”

I think that if we just go back to the basics in some of this and share our own stories, listen when people tell us their stories, and then take it from there. I think we build on these moments of belonging. Belonging is something we have talked a lot about this year, that is this idea that we started with the idea of diversity, which is just getting diverse people in the room and working. Inclusion took it a bit further where it manifests itself in HR policies, and in the resources that companies spend towards their networks, and Pride, and things like that.

Belonging is about what people in a workplace do within these levels for each other when the company is not looking, and even if they haven’t had the perfect achievement of understanding diversity through  training. I think that this focus and the shift from policy to culture is the key. It is the way forward because it’s going to leverage allies, it’s going to really make intersectionality, not just a buzzword, but it’s going to help us leverage what we all hold in common.

If we’re all talking about these things that we hold in common because we’re human, and we’re professionals in a workforce that, no matter who you are, sometimes all of us want to leave certain things about our personal lives at home and then we realise that in doing so, we’re not as effective at work. I think starting from those points of commonality, I think in this divisive world that both you and I live in, with some really crazy political stuff happening, I think it’s time we go back to basics.

Julia: That’s a great moment to turn to Cynthia and Robert for some research to support today’s discussion.

Cynthia: On this episode, Erin talks about the concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality is defined as the complex and cumulative way different forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and disability discrimination overlap and affect people.

Robert: The term intersectionality was coined almost 30 years ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Professor of Law at Columbia University and the University of California. Today this term has more prominence and resonance than ever before.

Cynthia: When exploring the question of evoking leadership, we found some research about Pan Asian leadership and wanted to explore this further. The Illusion of Asian Success, A report by The Ascend Foundation looked at Silicon Valley between 2007 and 2015, it found that although Asians were the largest racial cohort in the workforce, they were the least likely among all races to be promoted to managers and executives, and Asian women trailed Asian men.

Robert: Erin also talked about the importance of belonging. This was highlighted in another study we came across that investigated the invisible weights that BAME employees can experience at work. Catalysts and nonprofit consulting and research organisation called this an emotional tax. Defining it as the combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race and/or ethnicity and the associated effects on health, wellbeing and the ability to thrive at work.

Robert: This is not only a mental experience but can exact a physical toll as well. Stressful work conditions can exacerbate hypertension and insomnia. The survey of almost 1,600 participants across a variety of corporate and non corporate settings included those who identified as Asian, African American, Latino or a combination of those backgrounds. Almost 58% said they were highly on guard at work and women of colour were slightly more worried about racial bias than sexism in the workplace.

Julia: Thanks, Cynthia and Robert. The links to the research can be found on our website, That’s where you can find all our episodes and sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Please do follow us on Twitter @divercitypod, and DiverCity Podcast is available on BrightTALK and all good podcast channels. We’d love a rating because it all helps to promote the show. 

Erin, tell me, what brings you to London?

Erin: I have the honour and privilege of speaking at parliament and participating in a series of events that are actually a wonderful continuation of a connection we made with the LBQ women network with some wonderful leaders and my personal host, Pepper Dale from BNP Paribas, where we are today, who have reached out across the ocean and across the industries to convene this wonderful event in New York where we were able to talk about how we’re doing diversity and inclusion differently and also create these wonderful connections amongst women.

It was a start of a wonderful partnership, I have to say, because we were then able to host this wonderful group of women who came over and attended our summit in Seattle. I think that, again, it’s really the spirit of these events and this connection that really make a difference. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in London. I think we already have the honour of hearing how D&I work is being done now when in the context of some of the challenges that you all are facing here, we’re certainly dealing with an incredibly difficult administration and so just these moments to connect have been really helpful.

Julia: You mentioned about different organisations, different sectors in different areas. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what financial services can learn from other sectors and also what other sectors could learn from us.

Erin: Historically the financial services industry has been considered to be conservative. What we’ve noticed is that with the banks that we work with, have been some of the most forward thinking and innovative around diversity and inclusion. I think that could stem from a natural understanding of the business case and also some competitive nature that has really pushed people to do things in bold and innovative ways. Certainly for us it’s been a pleasure and we’ve learned a lot from financial services.

I think no matter what industry you come from, there are of course special nuances in the culture and how people may show up at work. But there’s a lot more that we hold in common and I think that one of the things I’m most proud that Out and Equal has done in the past year is look at new and innovative ways that we can accelerate this connection in learning across industry.

JP Morgan Chase, for example, has begun to work with us to build a Global Digital Portal. For a small organisation like Out and Equal we only have 20 people. We’re not nearly on the scale of Stonewall, for example, but we are looking at smart and innovative ways that instead of from a top down perspective where we’re training people on how to do things specifically. We have shifted to now be at the centre of a learning community, where having a digital platform where people can share D&I resources and then get on message boards and talk about the implementation of that, whether it’s in financial services or other industries, it just means that we accelerate through mistakes, we learn from each other, and we help people adapt those best practises, whether it’s industry specific or even in different cultural context overseas.

We’re really excited about this. We’ve just started building this now through the JP Morgan Chase Force For Good programme, and we’re really honoured to have been selected as an NGO to do this with them and it really is emblematic of a new direction for Out and Equal. We are, as I said, really making sure our fingers are on the pulse of how the LGBTQ community is changing. We need to leverage technology in new and better ways.

We want to help “extend the magic”, is what I’ve been saying a lot this year, so that when you have a group of 6,000 people coming together at a conference, and where Brits are coming over, and we’ve got 32 other countries additionally represented besides the United States, that people continue these conversations past these times when we’re together. We are always going to hold events but we believe that leveraging social media, leveraging technology is going to help us all.

Julia: Specific to your next event, when is that?

Erin: We’re holding our next summit October 14th – 17th 2019 in Washington DC. We would love for everybody to visit there’ll be a lot more information on there. We also have our own webinars that are free to the public, to anybody, and certainly would welcome any participation from the UK. We would love to host you.

Julia: Well, thank you very much. How amazing to do it right on the doorstep of an administration that arguably, might see the world slightly differently. But also what I do think about is we were talking about the next wave of leadership and we talk a lot about emerging leaders, not only looking for your internal networks, but look to your external networks, who would help you navigate the often subtle complexities as well as the common challenges outside your organisation as well.

Erin it has been wonderful to catch you while you’re in London. I know you’re incredibly busy and you travel relentlessly. Welcome to London. I hope you enjoy your stay and it’s been great to talk to you today.

Erin: Lovely to talk to you Julia, and keep up the great work with the podcast. I’m a huge fan and look forward to learning a lot more in being a fan of your show.

Julia: Thanks very much.

Kieron: This episode of the DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya and Robert Pinto-Fernandes for their insights. You can find out more about the guests on this week’s show on our website, Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates.

To be sure of catching all our future podcasts, subscribe to our feed on iTunes, or your favourite podcast app. And, if you’ve enjoyed this episode DiverCity Podcast, remember to give us a rating or review. This all helps promote the show to a wider audience. Finally, our Twitter handle is @divercitypod. Thanks for listening.