When my husband and I moved from Brooklyn to Israel in 2019, we spent our first few days here at my mother-in-law’s house in Ashdod. One day, as we stood in line at the supermarket, a woman approached and started asking questions. Are you two from Ashdod? You moved here from New York? Why? Are you a couple? Do you have kids? It was a good lesson to learn right off the bat in my first days of being an Israeli: Israelis will ask you about anything and everything, even while you buy your groceries.
This cultural attitude can be difficult for LGBTQ+ people who may be accustomed to thinking twice about sharing personal details that reveal their sexual orientation. Many of us have learned to be cautious about “coming out” in everyday conversation, deeply affected by negative interactions with people who are not accepting of LGBTQ+ identity and expression. The result is a voice in the back of our heads that asks “Should I tell this person that I am not straight? How will they react to me being gay? Is it safer to say nothing at all?”
At this point, it’s a cliche in the high-tech industry to say that we want employees to “bring their whole selves” to work. We accept as a fact that people work better in an environment of openness, respect, and mutual understanding. But, for many LGBTQ+ people, as well as members of other marginalized or underrepresented groups, this message can run up against learned habits of being less queer-presenting or keeping sexual orientation a private matter. This is especially true in a hiring or recruiting context where candidates may be hesitant to “come out” in interviews for fear of it negatively impacting their candidacy. How can we bring our whole selves to work if we’re not sure how people will respond?
Celebrating Pride Month in a corporate context is an important way to signal that LGBTQ+ team members can express their identities openly at work. But a Pride-themed happy hour once a year does not do enough to quiet those voices and build a wider permission structure for being proudly queer in the Israeli high-tech community in 2022.
This is why having open, proud LGBTQ+ representation (as well as representation of women, Arab citizens of Israel, and other minority groups) at the highest levels of tech leadership is critical to achieving full inclusivity. As a C-Level executive of a 100-person company and the highest-ranking LGBTQ+ member of the team at Datagen, I feel a particular responsibility to speak openly about my identity. This includes reminding people that gay folk can’t get married in Israel (my husband and I were married in New York), talking openly about the challenges of surrogacy (which only recently became available to same-sex couples here), and being willing to discuss LGBTQ+ related issues with any member of the team, especially those who may have questions or limited personal exposure to queer individuals.
I hope that, by being both gay and on the executive team, I am sending a few important messages. First, open representation in leadership demonstrates that LGBTQ+ identity is not a barrier to professional advancement. When that fear dissipates, employees can devote less energy to navigating the voices in their heads and more to doing their best work every day. Second, my position affords me the luxury of being able to educate and engage in conversation about LGBTQ+ issues from a position of power and security, which is rarely afforded to queer people in public discourse. There are still many people, both in high-tech and in broader Israeli society, who have a limited understanding of the nuances and richness of LGBTQ+ life. Where more junior members of a team may be more hesitant to engage on personal or controversial topics and reluctant to draw attention to themselves for non-professional reasons, my status as a senior executive provides me with the privilege (and obligation) of being able to actively engage in these conversations that broaden people’s understanding of difference and diversity.
Gay people know acutely what it feels like to feel different in ways that can be deeply isolating and alienating. While difficult, these formative experiences can gift us with a heightened sensitivity towards inclusion and unique points of view that can enrich decision-making. Rainbows and pride celebrations are valuable tools, but they are just one piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, the representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in leadership is key to empowering queer members of the high-tech community to come to work each day, unapologetically proud of who they are.
Written by Toby stein, COO and Head of People at Datagen