Jason Collins article is the first active professional male athlete to come out. Collins wrote a first person account of his life before coming out, and how he feels now. He stayed in the closet for fear of consequences to his professional life, and as a result “endured years of misery.” Now, Collins is looking forward to living an authentic life. The feared backlash is no where near what it might have been, and the majority of the feedback, at least in public, has been positive.
As I read Collin’s article, I was reminded of how hard it can be to tell the truth in the corporate world. And I don’t mean telling the truth to your boss or to customers about a work issue. I mean telling the truth about yourself.
Where I live, in Silicon Valley, it is common to have openly gay coworkers. But there are many people who are living in the closet, hiding their authentic selves at work for fear that it will impact there career. What closet are they in? The parenting closet.
For example, for many years, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg secretly left at 5:30 to pick up her kids because she was concerned about the impact of being perceived as a “working mom” on her career. In the words of Collins, “It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret.” Granted, Sandberg’s secret was not as big as Collins, but it must have been a drain on her.
Corporate executive Karin Hurt wrote on her blog, Let’s Grow Leaders, about the difficulty of keeping her divorce secret. She had just been promoted to a major leadership position in a fluid post merger environment. Plus, her new position required frequent travel to another city.
Hurt wrote “I had been very deliberate about keeping that hidden. Even my new boss did not know what I was going through. I had heard enough discussion about the concept of “single moms” needing extra care and support so they could come to work on time and not call in sick when their kids were sick. I thought, I’m not like that. I’m a different kind of single mom… I’m an executive. I’d better just keep all this to myself.”
“By its nature, my double life has kept me from getting close to any of my teammates. Early in my career I worked hard at acting straight, but as I got more comfortable in my straight mask it required less effort.”
Hurt wrote that when she was discovered as a single mom, there was a backlash.
“You lead all these meetings where we work on programs to make it easier for single moms… and NOT ONE TIME… do you mention that you are one. What else aren’t you sharing?” Another teammate of Karin’s told her “we are starting to wonder about you. You know all about us, but we know nothing about you.”
Collins wrote “A good teammate supports you no matter what. In professional sports, it really is all about teamwork.”
We talk about teamwork in the corporate world. In a thriving workplace, people have a shared sense of mission, and e support each other. There is one little drawback – in my experience, you will be supported as long as you act a certain way. A corporation can breed a sameness, an unwritten code of conduct about how to act and even how to dress. Try showing up at Google wearing a suit and tie. You wouldn’t feel comfortable, and you wouldn’t fit in.
So it was a logical act for self-preservation for Collins, Sandberg and Hurt to keep part of their lives hidden. Attitudes have changed dramatically over the last few years about being gay, and it is wonderful that Collins has enough support to feel he can be successful as a gay athlete.
And with leaders like Sandberg and Hurt, now is the time for women not only to Lean In, but to come out as their authentic selves.