Out at the Top

Apple’s boss has left the closet, but being gay at work is still a struggle.

WHEN American politicians, television presenters and even clergy come out of the closet these days, it barely makes the headlines. But the corporate world is different: until Apple’s boss, Tim Cook, said on October 30th that he is gay, there had never been an openly homosexual CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

The crossing of this symbolic threshold demonstrates both how much conditions have improved for gay executives and how far boardrooms lag the rest of society. Optimists see Mr Cook as the tip of an iceberg: since the average CEO is over 50 years old, others who are gay have already spent decades in the closet and are unlikely to come out now. Their successors, coming from a generation that has found it ever easier to be “out” at work, will be more visible.

Employers used to avoid hiring gay people for fear of alienating prejudiced customers—John Browne, who ran BP until he was outed in 2007, says Walmart, based in conservative Arkansas, withdrew an invitation to join its board in deference to the “religious right”. Such concerns now look unfounded: recent campaigns to boycott Starbucks and Target shops over gay-friendly policies had little impact. The number of big American firms scoring a maximum 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index—which requires a “public commitment” to gay rights—has risen to 304, from just 13 in 2002.

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