Rainbow wash

The rainbow profits: Pride, performative allyship and women in CX


Women in CX’s Meg Coates explains why businesses need to tread carefully when promoting their association with the Pride movement, and why customer experience professionals are perfectly positioned to be a voice of authenticity. 

18th Jun 2021

Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic in CX, but the conversations (in fact, most CX conversations) seem to happen between white, middle-aged, heterosexual, cisgender people.

22 and queer, I work at Women in CX (WiCX), a global online community platform uniting women around the world through an interest in customer experience.

Here we’ve seen women using their voices on a range of topics, instigating discussions, and providing support for one another. This Pride month, WiCX inspired me and my *LGBTQ+ CX sisters to use our voices to speak up about the disingenuous, tokenistic nature of many corporate initiatives around this time of year known as ‘performative allyship’.

What’s the issue?

When it comes to conversations about sexual orientation, organisations (and individuals) don’t always know which way to look. It’s simple, really: all human beings deserve the right to choose who to love. All we need is to be afforded the same rights as everyone else, to be treated equally, and whether as a customer or employee, to feel safe to show up as our true authentic selves 24/7, 365 days a year.

However, we are not always afforded these rights. In the workplace, we have all experienced inappropriate questions and comments from colleagues – “Who wears the trousers?”, “You don’t look gay”, or “I could tell you were gay” –  or have been met with sexualised stereotypes. As customers, we’ve felt excluded by heteronormative assumptions. It’s no wonder many of us don’t feel safe enough to be open about who we are.

When I first came out, it didn’t feel okay to share my identity with the company I was working for.” – Adriana, Spain

For 30 days in June, however, companies ‘come out’ in force to voice their ‘support’. It was as early as May when I received emails from companies announcing their new Pride rainbow ranges – filled with everything from suits, questionable slogan T-shirts, makeup pallets, facewipes, and even cat treats – signalling for this month, at least, they know there’s a market of lesbian cat mums out there.

But whilst they continue to commercialise the occasion, we should be asking what exactly they are doing to support gay rights and issues affecting LGBTQ+ customers and employees.

How can brands support Pride without understanding the history of LGBTQ+ or acknowledging privilege and the realities of discrimination?” – Louisa, UK

What is Pride?

Pride was first and foremost a protest, marking the Stonewall Riots of June, 1969, where police raided the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village NYC, and sparked an uprising that led to a legal system challenge and the start of the Gay Rights movement. It serves as a visceral reminder that LGBTQ+ people exist in a world that doesn’t always want them.

Still today, there are 71 countries where being gay is illegal. Even in countires such as the UK and America, trans and non-binary people’s rights are in contention. But just like the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day and Christmas, this annual event seems to have forgotten its roots, with many companies more focused on the marketing opportunity than the meaning of Pride.

Pride is not just a celebration, but a reminder of how far LGBTQ+ rights have come... and how far we still have to go.” – Stine, Denmark

What’s this got to do with CX?

Actually, more than you’d think. Customers and employees alike perceive value as a combination of product, service, brand, awareness, and experience. Companies who talk about Pride (and diversity and inclusion more broadly), who sell Pride-branded products, and who use social media to align themselves with annual events may think they are offering evidence of their brand promise. But without proof-points of inclusion in the experience of customers and/or employees, these performative actions are at best incongruous and at worst divisive.

With social media participation nowadays, [companies] can be easily called out for not being authentic. Performative allyship has a higher cost than genuine allyship.” – Adriana, Spain

What is performative allyship?

Performative allyship refers to activism, either by a person or company, that is done to increase their personal or social standing or avoid being negatively highlighted, rather than authentic devotion to the cause they’re supporting. Prime examples of performativity include:

  • Selling rainbow-themed products during Pride month but not offering inclusive ranges the rest of the year
  • Changing the colour of logos for a month but continuing to fund anti-LGBTQ+ politicians
  • Profiting from Pride without actually donating money towards LGBTQ+ causes
  • Rainbow-washing their social media feeds while not having a robust diversity and inclusion agenda to support LGBTQ+ employees
  • Talking about D&I policies on websites but having little to no LGBTQ+ representation at senior leadership level

According to activist Lisa Bell, performative allyship ultimately has a disturbing influence that stifles progress and has the detrimental effect of suppressing attempts to foster genuinely inclusive workplace environments for minority groups.

There are some questions to ask including: Is there a visible, clear, and enforced inclusion and diversity policy? Are profits from Pride month given back to the LGBTQ+ community? How does a company support LGBTQ+ rights and issues outside of Pride?” – Stine, Denmark

What is genuine allyship?

According to D&I strategist Carmen Morris, “Allyship is an authentic support system, in which someone from outside a marginalized group advocates for those who are victims of discriminatory behaviour, whether that is at an individual level, or systemically and process driven. With authentic allyship there is an obvious, and genuine attempt, to transfer the benefits of privilege to those who lack it, in order to advocate on the marginalized groups behalf, and support them to achieve change.”

I believe, however, that brands, companies and influencers can go beyond speaking on our behalf and start empowering LGBTQ+ people to speak for ourselves!

An example of a brand using their platform to lift and amplify voices of those less heard is Savage x Fenty (a brand founded by Rihanna in 2018), which in 2021 is giving the stage to LGBTQ+ people including non-binary Drag Race star Gigi Goode, transgender influencer Jaslene Whiterose, and lesbian artist Aya Brown (to name a few), featuring their take on what Pride means to them.

As discussed, actions speak louder than words and Rihanna’s personal brand goes beyond this campaign, having been recognised at the forefront of diversity and inclusion in the music, make-up, and lingerie sectors.

What’s the risk of being performative?

Brands who say one thing through media and advertising and behave differently are at risk of ‘being called out’ on social media by their own customers and employees. The damage that can be done to the brand can result in lost customers and even stock market impacts.

You only need to look at a company’s social media page to spot if they talk about issues around ‘celebration months or days’ or times of national protest but stay silent the rest of the year.” – Clare, UK

Social media enables customers and employees to directly call out brands who are not authentic. Think of L’Oréal – who infamously sacked trans model Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out against racism only to rehire her last year in the wake of BLM media coverage – or the more recent example of the open letter written by former and current BrewDog employees blowing the whistle on a toxic, misogynistic culture when the brand evangelised inclusion.

How can companies support Pride and LGBTQ+ authentically?

Being present for Pride is a great way to begin showing support for LGBTQ+.” – Stine, Denmark

The best way to show your support during Pride month isn’t by selling products but by empowering your LGBTQ+ employees to lead Pride and inclusion projects.

Genuine affiliation with Pride can be a great entry point for companies who are looking to get involved with supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Projects led by LGBTQ+ people can help a company be actively involved in LGBTQ+ causes and become more aware of LGBTQ+ issues inside and outside of the workplace.

Here’s how you can support Pride authentically

  1. Listen to your employees. 
    Gender and sexual orientation isn’t just a box to check during onboarding. Think about setting up a group for LGBTQ+ and allies and communicating to employees that you want their input into steering customer and employee Pride initiatives.
  2. Start small… start locally.
    If you want to get involved with supporting LGBTQ+, go to your local LGBTQ+ association to find out more about how you can help within your local community and the important agenda points with which to join and show support.
  3. Actively use your platform to empower people with lived experiences to speak up and represent minority issues.
    Don’t speak on our behalf. Instead, amplify the voices of your LGBTQ+ employees and customers to enable us to speak for ourselves in D&I groups, on social platforms, and in any Pride campaigns.
  4. Look at other tried and tested ally initiatives already in place in other companies that have experienced tangible, measurable success in driving inclusion.
  5. Recognise bias!
  6. It is important to awknowledge that LGBTQ+ discrimination still takes place today.
    Make sure that employees have diversity and inclusion training so they can learn about their own unconscious biases and understand how these might affect their role in the workplace, including how they interact with LGBTQ+ employees and customers.
  7. Think about creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ employees to discuss issues they don’t feel safe discussing in wider environments.
    Consider ways to have their voices heard through articles and reports without feeling ‘outed’.

Recognising your own bias is key to management courses.” – Stine, Denmark

What can CX-ers who are trying to promote inclusivity and diversity do?

  1. If you are LGBTQ+, just be yourself.
    If you feel comfortable talking about your personal life, sharing your experiences can be a great way to connect and educate people on LGBTQ+ issues.
  2. Actively challenge any homophobic behaviour or comments that come your way and champion reporting of such incidents.
  3. Be confident that inclusion work is important!
    Not only for you and members of the LGBTQ+ community but for future generations of employees, customers, and collaborators. Even one small step forward can make a big difference in creating a safer workplace, a better community to be part of, and a better world to live in.
  4. Speak up and challenge the lack of diversity we see in conversations happening around D&I in CX and offer to represent our community.

Leading by example

Companies with ‘two-dimensional’ diversity are 45% more likely to report that they had captured a larger portion of the market and 70% more likely to have entered into a new market in the past year. (Harvard Business Review)

If you want to attract a diverse talent and customer base, consider how your brand demonstrates your values through your customer and employee experience.

At Women in CX, we started our community on solid foundations with the mission to empower women in CX globally to collaborate and shape the future of CX and the goal of promoting diversity and inclusion within the CX industry, leading the way by example and raising awareness of intersectional inequality.

We consciously designed proof-points of our values (Inclusive, Authentic, Courageous, and Collaborative) into our member experience, intentionally recruited members based on diversity, and removed barriers to entry, for example by offering 70% lower membership prices for women in developing countries and offering safe spaces such as our Pride Circle.

As a result, we have already attracted the most diverse global community (and team of employees) in CX. At WiCX, we celebrate our differences. Out of building a culture where everyone’s voice is equally valued, we are experiencing incredible conversations with the kind of diversity of opinion that creates value for everyone and a new perspective for our industry.

In conclusion

When it comes to diversity and inclusion conversations in CX (and business more broadly), we need to hear from voices who represent the lived experience of the matters being discussed.

Allyship is a critical part of working together to ensure the voices of the excluded are included, but performativity during Pride season isn’t the way to go. Companies with a genuine agenda for inclusion work 24/7, 365 days a year ensure customers and employees feel (and are) safe to be themselves all year round and take part in activism that makes a difference. Importantly, such companies let their actions speak more loudly than their words by delivering proof-points of diversity and inclusion through the customer and employee experience.

Pride can be a great way to empower LGBTQ+ employees to start projects that contribute to raising awareness and fostering inclusion.

So, please don’t be the brand or individual who turns their social media images rainbow-bright this month and forgets the meaning of Pride the rest of the year.

For more information about the Women in CX community, visit www.womenincx.community.

*LGBTQ+ means all the communities included in the ‘LGBTTTQQIAA’: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, 2/Two-Spirit, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and Ally.

Replies (2)

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By Ali Archer
18th Jun 2021 15:57

Thanks for sharing this Meg.

Some important issues that need to be raised regardless of what job/ profession you're in.

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By barbieffink
18th Jun 2021 19:54

@Meg Coates
Thank you for sharing your article and your thoughts here! Anything that helps to open honest and authentic dialog about diversity, equity, and inclusion and expands the thinking of readers is an important discussion to be had!

As a proud and out lesbian currently serving as Chair for the Board of Directors for the CXPA (cxpa.org), I am excited when I see companies and brands that genuinely affiliate with and celebrate Pride month, not in the way that creates disingenuous company profit, but in the ways that open awareness to the change that is needed in the world around us. Affiliation with Pride can be a great entry point for companies to get involved with supporting the LGBTQ+ community, deepening the understanding and awareness of the shared history of that community, working to not allow historical injustices to repeat themselves in the LGBTQ+ community or any other community, and standing tall to speak out about how injustice towards any individual or group with a diverse background or any other difference that shows up in visible and invisible ways is not acceptable.

I appreciate the ways you have identified that companies can support Pride authentically. As we look at the discipline of Customer Experience and the need to collaborate across all departments in an organization, another opportunity to celebrate Pride in a positive, meaningful way is to amplify the intersection between CX and DE&I; to recognize and celebrate that all of us, regardless of whether we are customers, employees, or leaders within an organization are full human beings, much larger and deeper and richer than anything ever appears on the surface.

Barbie Fink, CCXP

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