Lord Browne

Lord Browne: Coming out of the glass closet

When Lord Browne was 'pulled out' of the closet in 2007, the CEO of BP became the world's highest profile gay businessman. It was a revelation that was to cause him to fall on his sword and lose his job.

Lord Browne's sumptuous offices in Mayfair's rather swish Burlington Gardens overlook the rear façade of the Royal Academy, where austere statues of Cicero, Plato and a host of other classical thinkers peer across the road into his glass office. If you were to follow their gaze, you would be taken into a glass-walled conference room where we sit discussing his latest book, 'The Glass Closet'. It's a book that could help to change the way the corporate world thinks about sexual orientation in the workplace. Sir Richard Branson describes it as "a fascinating book that shows how businesses can lead the way in promoting gay rights".

John Browne is probably best known as the former CEO of one of the world's largest commercial organisations – BP – over two decades stretching from 1995 to 2007. While in the big chair at the energy company, he built a formidable reputation as a visionary leader and master of business efficiency. But in 2007 he was brought down by a scandal that effectively ousted him from BP. His position became untenable following the realisation that he was legally unable to prevent a national newspaper from revealing that he was gay.

He says that while many people have the option of controlling how they come out, he was, after decades of concealment and secrecy about his sexual orientation, "pulled out". He admits that one of the reasons that he has written 'The Glass Closet' is to help people to avoid "getting into the mess that I got into".

Although, as he points out, the terms 'gay' and 'LGBT' have different technical meanings, 66-year-old Browne uses them interchangeably "for no other reason that you can't keep saying LGBT in conversation. But, when I use the word gay, I have no intention of excluding lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. So, if there is any doubt regarding what I mean, please regard the two as being informally interchangeable".

The reason for defining the terms of reference early on is simply because in a conversation about inclusivity, the last thing Browne wants is to appear exclusive. On the other hand, as he succinctly puts it, "you can't keep contorting language" on the altar of political correctness.

When it comes to allowing its minorities to be themselves the corporate sector has an uninspiring record. In a world where gay musicians have been routinely celebrated for decades, there is not one CEO of any company listed in the Fortune 500 or the FTSE 100 who is openly gay. With inclusivity in the media, arts and politics widespread and in some sectors even taken for granted, the world of engineering management has an astonishingly slow rate of change. I ask Browne what is the braking mechanism that is so conspicuously holding up the progress for greater equality in sexual orientation issues in the boardrooms of technology.

"This is about a mindset, and it is about leadership. Having been a leader for so long, I am firmly of the mind that leadership, combined with role models and the telling of stories about how things can be done, have the potential to change many things." But, says Browne, in corporate life, this mindset is conservative in its attitude, "that sort of says that we should do things the way we have always done them. Things move slowly, even in the most advanced of high-tech business. It requires a really important change of emphasis by leaders to make a change".

There are currently around 150,000 members of the IET. I ask Browne how many, according to the metrics he employs in his book, of the readers currently holding this magazine in their hands are gay, and what proportion of those readers are out. Browne smiles knowingly, before telling me that he thinks it very important that people reading 'The Glass Closet' should pay attention to his statistical disclaimer, "because as an engineer I feel strongly that people abuse numbers without punishment".

He goes on to explain that much of the research he worked with to gauge the distribution of sexuality left "a lot to be desired. But, I would say that 5-7 per cent of the population – not necessarily members of the IET – are very likely to be LGBT. That 150,000 might well have a representative sample. If it does...". He tails off in a way that politely invites me to 'do the math'.

LGBT in corporate life

Whatever the number, Browne is not alone, and he has gone on record as saying that had he for a moment felt that he was unique he'd not have written the book. "No, I am not unique. What I want to do is make up for lost time and I want to be part of the role-modelling and I want to be a part of the process.

"This book is not just a book: it is the start of a movement to see if we can really improve things for LGBT people in corporate life." Browne pauses to draw my attention to his new website – www.glasscloset.org – which will allow people to share stories about issues and difficulties in coming out in corporate life. "My hope is that this will help create a reality in the heads of those who have fears that could be artificial."

Because Browne is first and foremost an "investor in energy" rather than a gay activist, he talks more of his book having an effect rather than spearheading a campaign. He says that it follows that he can't give an accurate prediction for how he will know when he has won or what form victory would take. "You never know. But, I think I will know that things are getting better when I see a higher percentage of people who are out in the leadership ranks of corporations."

He repeats the statistic that not one of the CEOs heading the companies listed on the Fortune 500 is out as LGBT. "That's 500 people, and the statistical probability of not one of those being gay is quite low... it's actually impossible."

This fact leads Browne to describe the three reasons he wrote 'The Glass Closet'. First is to "tell people not to get into the mess I got myself into. Second is to encourage people, by the use of role modelling, to see why it is not only important, but good to come out.

"Thirdly, it is a letter to all the straight people in the world: a letter to all the CEOs, to tell them that they've got to do something about this. It's not just a letter to the human resources people. This is not about what human resources people do. It is about what leaders do. Leaders set the tone from the top and they have to do it the whole time. They can't delegate that: they have to say that they want an inclusive organisation. That means gender, sexuality, race... all the things that people cannot change. These are not lifestyle choices: they are things which people inherently are. It is the mission of leaders to get this right. That's where I can help."

Browne thinks that the sexuality in the workplace agenda has come a long way in the past two decades in the UK since "Clause 28, which meant that people were basically not allowed to promulgate homosexual thinking, in the way that Mr Putin has just enacted. So we are probably 25 years ahead. But more has to happen. Senior people today – not at the top – are saying that they can succeed and be out. But, there are also a lot of people in various sectors who read the environment of their companies as being dangerous for them to come out".

Having spoken to "a lot" of engineers Browne has drawn the conclusion that one of the business reasons for the reluctance of LGBT people to come out is that "their clients wouldn't like it". Browne says that "an awful lot" of success in the world of engineering is directly related to the way in which we deal with the client base, and so the notion that you could jeopardise your potential to transact business simply by "admitting to being who you are is a well-entrenched idea".

Hidden costs to hidden lives

At first glance there appears to be a significant anomaly in the story Browne is telling. Which is that as one of the most successful British businessmen in history – the Internet is awash with claims that by the end of his tenure at BP he was collecting an annual salary of upwards of £5m – it is hard to see how being gay hampered his career. But for Browne that is to only see a part of the story.

"I was very skilled, I think, at keeping my two lives apart. But when it got to the point where my two lives could no longer be kept apart, of course, I got to the point where I had to resign from BP." Browne also says that there have been studies to show that when people work in a professional climate where "they can truly be themselves" their productivity rises by up to 30 per cent. "Now that is a lot. And it is because people don't have to expend energy on concealing their identity. There is a loss of work and a loss of output. One of the people I spoke to in writing this book showed me that there really is a hidden cost to hidden lives. Keeping everything secret has a very high toll."

At this point Browne explains why there are two levels on which coming out is the right thing to do. First, he simply declares his belief that it is the firm right of the individual "to be who they are, and to be respected and included for who they are, and not have to pretend to be something. This is a critical fundamental". Second, he predicts an enriched business environment where people "don't have to transform as they come through the door into something they are not".

I put to Browne that there exist here shades of responsibility. As a hypothetical manager of an international engineering company, I want to post my best engineers into Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran or any other of the 81 counties in the world where there is anti-homosexual legislation that, in many cases, can lead to extreme penalties if pursued to a conviction. Browne acknowledges an ethical fault-line, saying "nobody should condone bigoted or discriminatory behaviour because of the intrinsic self. But as a business, it would be really important that you know the sexuality of the people you are posting. Which means you need a climate where this can be part of your business. What you don't want is a situation where you tell Mary that she is to be posted, and she hasn't told you she is a lesbian. No employee should be exposed to risk".

Exposure to this sort of risk has created great losses in the world of engineering, no other more desperately sad or obviously discriminatory than the way in which the great pioneer of the Information Age, Alan Turing, was treated by the administration of the country he was serving to defend.

"He wasn't the only one. But he was the one who symbolises everything about wrong laws, wrong application, wrong thinking." Browne goes on to describe British laws relating to homosexuality prior to the 1960s as "like apartheid laws. They were laws against a class of people who had no choice because it was their intrinsic being. That was in itself a fundamentally despicable way of organising a nation. It took an enormous amount of time and energy to get those laws repealed. The proposals came in 1957, but it took a further ten years of debate".

Lessons from Turing

Browne describes the way in which Turing was treated as "an appalling, appalling history that was actually not all that long ago. We must remember that, when we become enamoured of our own perfection, we have learned by doing very bad things. The law was applied to Turing and others to say that they could be 'cured', which of course, drove him into the position of suicide".

In a move that some commentators described as state-sponsored historical revisionism, late in 2013 Turing received a Royal Pardon for his 1952 conviction for homosexuality. But Browne sees this differently. "It's appropriate that the state apologises. I have received correspondence from people who had been jailed for undertaking the mildest of homosexual acts," some of which were probably what we now think of as entrapments perpetrated by the police force. "There were a lot of lives badly altered because of their rejection by society."

We have come a long way since those early post-war days, says Browne, "but we haven't got it right, yet. We can't sit there and say that we've fixed it. Because we haven't. We need to keep pushing to make it better for people". 

'The Glass Closet' is published by Ebury Publishing, £16.99

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