When Wharton junior Mark Pino came out of the closet six years ago, it hardly occurred to him that, a short few years later, he might have to do it all over again in the workplace as an intern.
Upon reflecting: “It’s thinking about, ‘OK, this is my professional environment, being LGBTQ is very personal and I don’t necessarily know if it’s appropriate to come out at work,’” says Pino, former president of The Wharton Alliance, a pre-professional LGBTQ student club. “And I think especially, for a lot of undergraduates, over the summer—I didn’t feel pressure [during my internship] to not come out, but I also didn’t feel pressure to come out, so it’s one of those things that never came up.”
Count this as one of many hot topics surrounding workplace diversity that comes up in the student-run club, founded in 2003 as the Ivy League’s first pre-professional LGBTQ group. Pino is one of 24 board members who applied and interviewed for the club and benefit from its membership, which also has 130 general body members.
The club has two primary functions.
In one lane, the group’s board works to build happy hours, brunches, career fairs, host talks from recruiting companies, and, each spring, organize a case study competition with cash prizes—their biggest event of the year. The competition is a draw because it attracts representatives from high-profile business sponsors like Capital One, Deloitte, and others. Those sponsors are often interested in meeting Wharton students and understanding their perspective on diversity in the workplace; the case study competition held in February, for example, challenged groups to organize a public relations plan around a diversity-in-the-workplace crisis.
In the other lane, the club brings in guest speakers to discuss LGBTQ representation in the workplace and other topics of interest. Guest speakers in the past have included ACT UP activist Peter Staley and representatives from companies that sponsor the club, sometimes tackling the hot-topic dialogues that circle back to experiences like Pino’s.
Pino eventually did come out during that internship, he says—in a natural way, while out with coworkers. But, he says, that process hadn’t really sprung to his attention in a big way until presented with data that showed a surprising number of LGBTQ employees go back into the closet once they enter the workforce. According to 2018 survey data from the Human Rights Campaign, 46 percent of LGBTQ workers stay closeted at work, down just 5 percent since a similar survey in 2008.
The larger realization: “There’s still a stigma” in some workplaces, Pino says.
Engaging with open discussions about being LGBTQ in the workplace—or how to get a job as an LGBT person—was a motivating factor for why he joined The Wharton Alliance as a freshman, he says, and the club itself is “one of the main reasons I came to Penn.”
The decision, for him, also had a lot to do with building business networks as someone who came from a non-business background. But, coming out in the workplace is an increasingly talked-about subject, he adds, and seemingly a dialogue he sees gaining traction lately.
“I think [conversations] have shifted even more to focus on topics of why you should come out in the workplace once you graduate,” he says, noting the many backgrounds come through The Wharton Alliance, including international ones from countries less receptive to LGBT workers. “Now that you have the job, how do you stand out in the workplace as someone being truly and openly authentic at work?”
The concept of the “authentic self,” says Wharton Assistant Professor of Management Stephanie Creary, who studies identity and diversity, is not new: It’s become more prominent in the workplace over the last 10 years to appeal to new generations of workers interested in presenting themselves in a way they’re comfortable with, but also as a way to challenge prototypes of what the person in a particular role should look like.
“The prototypical worker is not somebody everyone can be,” she says. “[That prototype might ask] people different from a majority group to sacrifice or hide aspects of themselves, which can come at too great a cost. As we have begun having more conversations about our differences in the workplace, the conversation around presenting oneself authentically has emerged as well.”
In a practical sense, hiding aspects of oneself to fit in is referred to as “covering”—think, in a simpler example, someone dyeing their gray hair to appear younger, to better fit the image of a role, or in the case of LGBTQ people, vaguely referencing partners and being careful to not dress according to LGBTQ stereotypes.
Creary advises that LGBT students—or those from any marginalized group—seeking new jobs or internships simply know to ask questions of employers when interviewing. Those questions range from asking how managers can relate to their identity, to what programs exist in the workplace. And, of course, to make sure an employer is making the hire because they value the work and the experience and not only the identity.
Looking ahead, The Wharton Alliance is—in addition to hosting events like “Capital One Coffee Chats” where students can ask questions of these workplaces—looking to diversify its own makeup.
Maria Escudero, president of The Wharton Alliance, says that, although the club’s executive board is made up entirely of LGBTQ people of color, she aims to cultivate a more diverse board, especially by having more women participate.
“Right now, I’m the only woman on our board, and that’s the biggest issue in terms of diversifying—having more women,” she says. “That’s something we’re working on for next semester once we have fall recruitment.”
She also plans to open up applications to more people in the fall semester, offering the inherent pre-professional benefits to a wider group.
“It can be challenging to be in a club that’s very business-oriented—or in any type of club, honestly—and maybe feel like you’re the odd one out,” she says. “I like that we have a club where everyone can be themselves and not have the additional burden of having to come out to everyone else in the club.
“I want our club to be more inclusive,” she adds. “I think it should be an opportunity for everyone that’s LGBT to have the opportunity to join this pre-professional space because it’s Penn. Pre-professional is in the air.”