Her smile is broad, her lips curling beyond her high cheekbones, giving the impression that her head is a little too large for her body. The effect isn’t comical. She’s not a bobblehead shaking unsteadily with every motion, but constantly poised, a porcelain doll reinforced with steel. She blinks infrequently and rarely re-arranges her hair, occasionally taking a bite out of her Gourmet Heaven sandwich, a number nine—an avocado and cucumber sub with turkey instead of the usual chicken. I make a lame joke about tryptophan and sleepiness.
She laughs indulgingly, but we both know I’m not that funny. (She prefers turkey because it dehydrates her less than chicken does—she’s sensitive to sodium.)
Alison Yang, a Yale senior who asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect her privacy, is the former co-executive director of Elmseed, a microloan program that supports aspiring entrepreneurs in the New Haven area. Last summer, she interned at J.P. Morgan; after graduation, she’ll work there as an analyst. It’s the career path she has wanted since freshman year, when her friends in the Chinese-American Students Association began to accept offers at investment banks. It seemed like the perfect career, a natural extension for a Yale graduate who decided to major in Economics and Mathematics because “regular econ is too easy” and because she wanted to be able to apply to economics graduate schools. (“Because my dad got his PhD when I was younger, I grew up thinking everyone gets a PhD.”)
But then she began to doubt herself.
“I realized that I wasn’t straight sophomore year,” she told me. “After I came out to myself, it made me question my goals. Investment banking already seemed like such an old boys’ club. I didn’t know if I would fit into the culture.”
In high school, Alison was a three-sport athlete, a background evident in the quiet focus she exudes with every step. But she’s slim, not butch. When we meet at G-Heav she’s wearing a herringbone jacket over a light blue button-down and jeans. Her dark hair is down and loose. (“I don’t do anything with my hair except up or down. It just scatters; it doesn’t stay.”) If you didn’t know it, as her coworkers this summer told her, you would never guess she dated women.
“I don’t really identify as anything. If anything, maybe bisexual. Or just not straight,” she said. “I think part of the reason I was uncomfortable with being bi is that I didn’t think it fit with my career plans at all.”
Many career-driven Yalies struggle with this same problem. Students often frame this issue as an inherent conflict, a tradeoff between success after graduation and openness about their sexuality. According to Maria Trumpler, GRD ’92, director of the Office of LGBTQ resources at Yale, students have historically had reason to worry. Trumpler frequently counsels students on issues such as how they should represent themselves on resumes and in interviews.
“There are some professions in which it is kind of obvious you wouldn’t have to be closeted,” Trumpler said. “But in some of the more traditional professions like business, law, and medicine, it may be a little more concerning, because it seems those professions require more conformity in a lot of ways, and so the anxiety might be whether these professions require conformity of sexual orientation. And the truth is, until recently, they did.”
Trumpler recalled a time when there was a glass ceiling in the business world for employees who were not white, heterosexual, married men.
“They would just tell you at a certain point that if you want to rise to the next level you must marry someone of the opposite sex,” Trumpler said of business promotion protocols in decades as recent as the ’80s and ’90s.
But investment banks and consulting firms have begun to work to counteract public perceptions of Wall Street and consulting, attempting to shake off the notion that their corporate cultures are racist, misogynistic, or, most recently, homophobic. Many top companies have diversity or outreach programs for LGBT candidates. Goldman Sachs holds a Pride Summit for LGBT college sophomores and juniors every year; Citibank releases yearly diversity reports to support its broader goal of global citizenship; and in 1999 consulting firm McKinsey & Co. was the sole corporate sponsor for the inaugural Reach Out MBA Conference, which attracts over 1,000 participants annually.
Banks, including Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan, and consulting firms, such as the Monitor Group and Bain & Co., also sponsor the Out for Undergraduate Business Conference (OUBC), which is held in New York City every October and provides merit-based scholarships for LGBT attendees from countries as far away as Australia and China.
Many of these programs focus on current students. Alison attended an event called Proud to Be for undergraduates and MBA candidates at J.P. Morgan’s New York headquarters where she heard speakers and spent time shadowing an analyst and Yale alum. For Alison, seeing people who are gay succeed in the office mitigated her fears.
“It was really great to hear that your managers won’t care about your orientation, that they only care about the product that you’ll put out and the work you can do,”Alison said.
One panel at Proud to Be focused on how current employees came out. One managing director on the panel, who started working at J.P. Morgan in the ’80s, was closeted for about 20 years. As Alison tells it, when the employee came out to his peers about eight years ago, his boss responded, “Oh, thank God, we all thought you were asexual.” That his sexuality was a non-issue won Alison over.
“Having that exposure and having my perceptions corrected was very important.”
Marco Chan’s LinkedIn profile bleeds friendliness. He’s managing spring tour for the Harvard Glee Club. He’s working as a greeter and tour guide at the Harvard Admissions Office. He’s grinning lopsidedly on a website that bills itself as a professional networking resource. When he speaks, the Harvard senior is enthusiastic and occasionally breathless, tripping over carefully selected words in his rush to express himself.
When I think of consultants, I usually don’t associate them with Romance Languages and Literatures, but Marco cheerfully informs me that he’s studying Portuguese, Spanish, and French literature.
Marco, however, had no idea he did not fit the stereotypical consultant mold. After growing up in Macau, China and Vancouver, Canada, he headed to Harvard intending to eventually enter a career in political advocacy and community organizing. He said he had never even heard of consulting before the fall of last year. I was—understandably, I think—a little incredulous.
Marco is the co-chair of Harvard College Queer Students and Allies (QSA), which, among its other responsibilities as the primary LGBT organization on campus, facilitates events for firms that contact them about LGBT recruitment.
“To be honest, I showed up to the first one of those LGBT dinners just because they said they wanted someone from the organization to be there. I thought, ‘Hey, free dinner at a nice restaurant, why not?’” Marco said. But as he learned more about consulting, he realized that he might have an interest in what he saw as a “dynamic, stimulating” industry.
“I was talking to one consultant, who used to work in politics, and I realized my long-term interests weren’t as misaligned with consulting as I might have thought,” Marco said. “A lot of the skill sets and experiences are very transferable to many different careers.”
Marco characterizes his introduction to consulting as atypical; it was through firms’ LGBT outreach that he first learned about consulting, and throughout the interviewing process, LGBT networks were “instrumental” in his decisions.
For example, a prominent member of the Bain Gay and Lesbian Association for Diversity (BGLAD) is a Harvard Business School graduate whom Marco had met briefly during his freshman year. When Marco attended the OUBC, which is a hive of networking activity among LGBT business professionals and potential employees, they met again.
“It was he who first approached me about Bain, and he was the one who really shepherded me throughout the process,” Marco said, who ended up working in Bain’s San Francisco office as an associate consultant intern last summer and has committed to working at that office after graduation.
Sometimes just one contact can make or break a student’s interview chances. Most of the data surrounding the utilization of stacks of business cards is apocryphal. One openly gay senior who wished to remain anonymous applied to an investment bank and was surprised that he didn’t receive an interview.
“It was really strange because I probably should have gotten an interview,” he told me. Because he had already established a contact at the bank, he called and asked if his contact had any advice in applying to other banks. The contact told the student that his application had been filed incorrectly, that he was completely qualified for the job, and offered to fly him from California to New York the next week.
“It was very surprising,” the student told me. “There’s a conception that decisions are final when it comes interviews because there’s no person you can contact who would be willing to listen to you.” Contacts can humanize recruitment, transforming the process from an impersonal black box into a manageable series of conversations.
The power of networking for students is its ability to transform a Rolodex’s faceless distillation of numbers and letters into a community that can support and guide. Given the exclusionary aura surrounding much of the business world, many minority students do not consider consulting or banking until later in their academic career, which tends to shorten the networking timeframe. Some gay candidates might find it difficult to make what Marco calls “cultural connections.” LGBT and other diversity recruitment programs can help bridge that divide.
“Often whenever some of the guys in the office got together they talked about sports,” Marco said. “It’s not that I don’t like sports; I just don’t follow football, so I couldn’t fully participate. But with other LGBT employees I could talk about things like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is something that I pay more attention to, and they do, too. So having that network creates connections that some people already have.
“It’s the same thing as when as an international student I don’t have the cultural background to understand a joke about American political history. But I’m compensated by the fact that there are other international employees, and we have other commonalities we share.”
Many of the students I spoke with emphasized the importance of consulting groups reaching out to LGBT students.
“These firms all have espoused that they’re extremely meritocratic environments,” said Matt Eldridge, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who worked at Bain last summer and will work at the firm after graduation. “In order to be completely meritocratic, they need to at least give information to people who wouldn’t have otherwise been presented with it or who thought they weren’t capable of working within these industries.
“If you were to ask an LGBT affinity group, they would say that they’re not providing you with any information that you couldn’t find yourself by reaching out to any employee at the firm.”
Alison agreed. “The recruitment process is just for information. They try to make it a blind-admissions process as much as possible,” she said. “It’s more about exposure than actively trying to get gay people to come, or trying to get minorities to come.”
According to Jacob Levine, TD ’11, who attended the OUBC this year and is now pursuing jobs in consulting, there’s a misconception that diversity programs constitute affirmative action.
“The networking opportunities provided by all recruiting events have the potential to help you get a first-round interview,” Jacob said. “But after that, your performance is the key factor in getting an offer.
Some argue, however, that increased networking opportunities through outreach programs and conferences such as the OUBC can still give LGBT students an unfair advantage.
Sam Schoenburg, SM ’12, attended the OUBC last year and has decided not to pursue a career in business because he considers himself to be more of an activist; last summer he interned at Freedom to Marry, a non-profit campaign to extend marriage to same-sex couples. He was driving when I called. “My GPS is telling me to go places I don’t want to go. Can I call you back when I get on the freeway?”
When we reconnected, we talked diversity.
“I think it’s good that these firms are so consciously trying to be diverse,” he said. “But I don’t think special privileges should be given to people who happen to belong to a particular minority group just because they are part of that minority.”
“In general minority groups shouldn’t be privileged?” I asked.
“I think diversity is very important. But among LGBT students where there’s not any difference from anyone else, I don’t really think that being gay should mean you have a better chance of getting a job at one of these places.”
“You definitely see these programs as a way to advantage LGBT students?”
“I don’t think people get jobs just because they’re gay. But they get special attention from the people who do the recruitment; they get to form personal relationships with people from these firms. It gives them a leg up. That’s the point. That’s why people go to these conferences.”
The University of Pennsylvania cradles within its campus the Wharton School, the first and arguably most respected business school in the country. It’s also where students are making perhaps unprecedented strides in pursuit of tolerance. Penn boasts three LGBT pre-professional groups aimed towards undergraduates: Nurses at Penn Understanding Sexuality in Healthcare; Queer Undergraduates in Engineering, Science, and Technology; and the Wharton Alliance.
Justin Warner is a junior at both the Wharton School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. He also happens to be gay, and currently serves as president of the Wharton Alliance, which organizes networking, industry-education, and community events for business-oriented LGBT students.
After attending the Goldman Sachs Pride Summit, Justin worked in the bank’s investment banking division last summer, an experience he described as “very quantitative.” During his internship, he was assigned a mentor—the same person with whom he had a mock interview during the Summit.
“I was kind of blown away by how much of a resource the LGBT network ended up being,” Justin said. He added that “LGBT-friendly” does not mean employees’ superiors care about their sexuality and that work always comes before employees’ personal life.
“You’re not going to see someone in drag walking around the office,” he joked. “The culture is still professional.” (Though Marco said he was once in full drag at work last summer.)
In both banking and consulting, associations do not only organize outreach during the recruiting process but also work throughout the year to foster corporate cultures that embrace all employees. When Marco was offered a summer position at Bain, he received at least 15 congratulatory emails from members of BGLAD in offices as diverse as Chicago and Singapore. The weekend before he was slated to start work, he was invited to, and attended, BGLAD’s annual summit in Chicago.
Employees and interns who do not participate in LGBT programs during recruitment can still access resources after hiring. Matt Eldridge, a Penn senior pursuing a BS in Economics from Wharton and a BA in History from the College of Arts and Sciences, worked at Coach the summer after his sophomore year and was courted by L’Oreal. Ultimately, he opted out, drawn more towards the analytical side of consulting and worried about being typecast in any industry in which LGBT people might be predominant.
“You don’t watch TV and see LGBT accountants or garbage men,” he said. “I want to be looked as an individual candidate and not as an LGBT candidate.”
Matt attended the OUBC last year, and when he studied abroad at Cambridge last semester, he happened to bump into a fellow OUBC attendee who was visiting his sister.
“I have great facial memory,” Matt joked.
Though OUBC provided him another opportunity to sharpen his face-perception skills, Matt did not connect with a diversity group at Bain until after he was hired. Nevertheless, BGLAD gave him the opportunity to make contacts that he will “be able to reach out to for professional development.”
Pat Hayden, TD ’08, the analyst whom Alison shadowed as part of J.P. Morgan’s Proud to Be event, never interacted with an LGBT outreach group during his own recruitment process. He’s not sure if Proud to Be even existed when he applied during his junior year.
“I was at that point personally coming out of the closet,” he told me. “It was still not really something that I would have wanted known broadly.”
But during his internship at J.P. Morgan in the summer of 2007, he decided to see what kind of support the firm had to offer. The support network materialized for Pat when the manager of human resources in the bank’s consumer retail group, the group for which Pat had initially wanted to work, asked him to coffee.
“He was able to tell me what I needed to do to establish myself during my internship in a way that it would make it easier for me to transfer,” Pat said of his then-informal mentor and current boss. “He’s now a great friend, and he’s writing my recommendations for graduate school.”
“At Yale there’s a perspective that if someone is acting in a self-interested way, then that’s inherently bad. But if everyone’s interests are aligned, and at the end of the day people are happier, then I think that’s a good solution.”
Gabriel Seidman, CC ’11, interned, and ultimately accepted a job, at the Boston Consulting Group, a firm with a reputation he described as “a bit nerdier, very analytics-driven.” While we talk, he intermittently twists a blue Silly Band around his fingers and wrist. At one point he lays the rubber jewelry on the table. “It’s Goofy,” he reveals. “One of my friends bought a Mickey Mouse pack.” I nod and sip my decaf; I thought it was a seahorse.
I’d expected Gabe to be goofy too. The WGSS and Psychology double major is a member of the Viola Question and was Yale’s co-head tour guide last year. When I asked about firms’ motivations behind diversity programs, however, he reasoned out a proof-like answer.
Firms derive value from the people who work for them, so they want them to stay and keep doing good work. People do their best work when they’re happy and safe, and unhappy people tend to leave. If companies treat people well by institutionalizing their employees’ interests by means of diversity networks, then people are happier, and the company benefits.
“It’s a win-win situation. No one’s losing anything.”
Justin agreed with the assessment that diversity programs are linked to company loyalty. “The entire well-being of the company comes from its ability to force its junior employees to work ridiculous hours.” He added that in some ways recruitment has become an arms race.
“The simple incentive is that there are tons of LGBT people out there and we have to have programs to recruit them so that we can have the best people. It’s a requirement to compete in the market of potential recruits.”
Matthew Meisel, a senior associate consultant at Bain who graduated from Harvard in 2007 and is a member of BGLAD, highlighted diversity in the workplace as an asset to the collaborative nature of consulting.
“If you get six identical people in a room together and ask them to solve a really difficult problem, you’re not going to get a very good answer,” he said. “But if you have people from diverse academic and personal backgrounds, you get more creative answers.”
According to Gabe, even if the creation and maintenance of these networks is the product of economics, it’s still a meaningful gesture.
“It’s really nice that collectively, a lot of firms have decided that they’re going to choose not to discriminate based on this parameter, even if that’s not legislated, and that they’re going to promote the welfare of their employees,” he said. “I know the company has my back.”
One openly gay student, who asked to remain anonymous because he is still pursuing employment options, had a different experience. He emailed a well-known bank inquiring if the bank had any LGBT support groups. He received a curt reply: “Our employees have groups as hobbies.” He was hurt, but mostly confused. “Being gay is not a hobby,” he said, clearly annoyed by the dismissive response. “It just says a lot about their company.”
It’s easy to forget from within our campus havens that the world at large does not always tolerate all forms of diversity, and that, even though the playing field is being leveled, Wall Street still slopes right. As our generation of students, especially those of the predominantly liberal Ivy League, enter an evolving workforce, we have to remember that discrimination is still in some ways invariable.
“The reality is that it’s still pretty difficult to be LGBT in these corporate institutions,” Pat said.
According to students, there are still imbalances across industries and departments. Alison is quick to point out that most executives are still heterosexual, white men, and also noted that LGBT recruitment tends to be a stronger presence in consulting than in banking. Justin said that investment banking in particular tends to have fewer openly gay employees, although this was not the case in strategies, the group within investment banking in which he worked.
“Divisions that do less work specifically with clients and more work internally for some reason tend to be more LGBT-friendly,” he said.
Justin suggested that candidates who want more information about specific companies should look to metrics such as the Corporate Equality Index published annually by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the U.S. According to Matthew Meisel, Bain was the first major consulting firm to receive a perfect score of 100 and has received that score for five years running.
“As LGBT students interested in business, my friends and I all kind of know where banks and firms fall in terms of gay-friendliness,” Matt Eldridge said. “We direct our interest accordingly.”
It is tempting to draw positive inferences from these programs, to believe that they indicate greater acceptance of LGBT people in society as a whole. All the students I spoke to were cautiously optimistic about the future of LGBT people in business and the broader social implications of diversity in business.
“The more LGBTQ people we can have in visible and influential positions, the more that builds a base of power and influence for our community to make change,” Marco said.
Though Sam mentioned the importance of domestic-partnership benefits and the innovation of gender-neutral bathrooms, he remained a little more skeptical of the top-down model.
“These large firms have the best practices among any employers anywhere,” he said. “They’re very inclusive and thoughtful. I just don’t know how much of that will trickle down to the average LGBT citizen since the vast majority of people don’t work at these companies.”
“What do you think lesbian sex is?” Alison’s friend asks me, tossing her wavy, dark hair and preparing her fingers to tap out notes on her iPhone. Clearly I’m not the only journalist at the table. We’re at a local bar enjoying a happy hour organized by Alison and two other Yale students.
With at least three sets of lesbian eyes tracking every bead of sweat on my temple, I hesitantly make a series of vaguely obscene hand-motions. Uncertain about my answer of tribadism, I try to shrug casually, petrified I might have offended, and delegate to Alison.
“Sex doesn’t have to be a specific physical act. Sex is when you feel that connection and think, ‘We just had sex.’”
“Or when you feel like you just got fucked,” the other reporter laughs, satisfied with my lack of Sapphic knowledge and Alison’s emotional sensitivity.
Though Alison dated men while in New York this past summer, she’s had a girlfriend on-and-off for a year and a half. Her girlfriend is also an Asian woman who identifies as bisexual, and they started dating after they both attended a Master’s Tea with Helen Zia, Princeton ’73, a lesbian Asian-American journalist. At the time though, Alison was “mostly closeted,” unwilling to engage with her sexuality.
“I told my parents I was bisexual, and they just said, ‘No you’re not.’”
But since her summer at J.P. Morgan, Alison feels she can have more extensive conversations about her sexuality. After she attended an LGBT event early in the academic year, her suitemates commented, “So you’re like really out this semester.”
“Yeah. I guess I am.”
She told me, “It’s strange. I never would have thought my internship would be a formative experience. I was so busy and sleep-deprived from the actual internship I never spent time thinking about it.
“But looking back I was so comfortable in that environment, and I knew I would be accepted, so I was able to do my job.”
Her experience over the summer has not only helped her come out to her classmates, but has made her more comfortable in her new on-campus role as the publisher of Q, a new queer magazine scheduled for launch this semester. During the summer, she questioned her role near the top of the masthead, worried that if Q expanded to an online edition she would be in an awkward position. She knew, however, that she didn’t want to be closeted forever.
“In some ways it’s ironic,” she confessed. “If you commit to two years in the analyst program, your personal life is going to be on hold anyways.”
Not every LGBT person who completes a summer internship in an accepting environment will experience a revelation. Regardless, everyone I spoke to stressed the importance of being honest and open in the recruitment process.
“My sexuality reflects who I am and how I’m connected on the Penn campus,” Matt said. “If a firm isn’t comfortable with me disclosing that on a job application, I’m not going to enjoy working there, and I’m not going to be successful in the long run or have an opportunity for growth in the company.”
For Alison, her internship seemed to affirm confidence, a willingness to be different. I see her before Safety Dance with an entourage of side-ponytails. Her hair falls in its default, modern style. I question her ’80s-dance spirit. “I don’t do ponytails.”
Cover and graphics by Jinjin Sun.