BERLIN – Many people knew Apple chief executive Tim Cook was gay. Since 2011, he has topped Out magazine’s Power List, and he has made no effort to get off it. Still, his “proud to be gay” column in Bloomberg BusinessWeek is an important and courageous act — not least because it gives rise to new questions about Apple’s diversity issues.
Strange as it may seem in 2014, Cook is the first chief executive of a Fortune 500 company to come out in public. Members of this exclusive club are still unsure whether that’s wise, and just a few years ago, it wasn’t. In 2007, John Browne resigned as chief executive of BP after being outed by a British tabloid. He has since written a book about being a closeted gay in big business.
“To a headhunter I would have been seen as ‘controversial,’ too hot to handle,” Browne wrote. “Sadly, there were some people, mostly from the business world, who never again displayed any warmth to me.”
Browne regretted choosing to live a double life rather than setting himself up as a role model for other gay executives — something Cook has done now with his candid, touching essay. Still, he had strong motives for staying in the closet — stronger ones than an inclination toward privacy, which Cook, no publicity hound either, has successfully overcome.
As head of a large corporation, one has to deal with important people from cultures where homophobia is a way of life. Under Browne, BP had a major joint venture in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has approved laws against the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation.”
Then there’s the silent but potentially damaging homophobia of big business peers, older men who grew up when homosexuality was seen as a crime or a disease.
Apple’s status as the world’s most valuable tech company, and its cult following among consumers, may give Cook added resolve to fight all that. His coming out is a challenge to Silicon Valley’s frat boy culture, not just to his generation’s entrenched biases.
It is also a good start for a discussion of the strengths being gay provides to a manager. USC business school professor Kirk Snyder’s 2006 book “The G Quotient” could have used a case like Cook’s. Snyder’s book, based on an extensive study of gay managers, asserted that their employees displayed 35 to 60 percent higher job engagement, satisfaction and morale than those managed by straight males. Some 90 percent of the gay men — and only 25 percent of straight ones — surveyed told him that it’s always important for their employees to know they were all equally valued and respected.
Snyder wrote that gay executives are especially supportive of creativity and good at inclusion. Apple’s reputation for a creative atmosphere and the tactile perfection of its products bear out the former conclusion, and Cook’s essay echoes the latter one:
“Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It’s made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life.”
The advantages of being gay in management have not received their fair share of attention precisely because too few business leaders are willing to discuss it — and too few actually use them. Snyder noted in his book that the advantages only work for openly gay managers because the closeted ones expend too much energy suppressing their true identity.
Cook’s voice brings major authority to the discussion, but he should be ready for more scrutiny of the gender and race structure of Apple’s workforce. It is 70 percent male and 55 percent white, and Cook has already admitted that he is not happy about it. Still, it could be argued that, for a company run by a minority representative, the iPhone maker is not doing enough to attract more women.
If Cook is making an extra effort to stress his commitment to diversity, his firm should not have the same sad demographics as its tech industry peers. So far, it does.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Berlin-based Bloomberg View contributor, is the author of three novels and two nonfiction books.