February 7, 2008
Cool reception for Asia's gay workers
von Raphael Minder
Homosexual employees face discrimination across most of Asia, but global investment banks are at the forefront of change. The international dimension of investment banking is forcing employers to confront the issue of homosexual discrimination. Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank, recently held an unusual recruitment event at Hong Kong university. Lehman's invitation was specifically aimed at gay and lesbian students who aspire to be bankers.
Encouraged by the success of the presentation and buffet dinner for 50 students, Lehman is planning to extend its initiatives targeting the gay community this year. It will include the bank's first pro-gay activities in Singapore, the city-state that has become one of Asia's leading financial centres but where sex between men is illegal.
Lehman Brothers is not the only bank seeking to recruit from Asia's gay community. Such is the enthusiasm among investment banks that some have banded together to give their Asian events a higher profile, taking it in turn to organise lectures, dinners and other events around a gay or lesbian theme. In November, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Lehman, Merrill Lynch and UBS co-sponsored a cinema evening in Hong Kong which featured The Bubble, a 2006 film about the gay relationship between a Palestinian and an Israeli soldier.
Investment banks' efforts to recruit more gays and lesbians is partly an attempt to attract the most talented employees. At a time when Asia has become the world's biggest region for deals such as initial public offering, investment banks are struggling to fill the new positions on offer. And the intense hiring competition makes it crucial to ensure talented gay people are not deterred from applying because of a combination of Asian intolerance and western macho behaviour on trading floors.
Cheryl de Souza, Lehman's Asia director of diversity and inclusion, says: "Walking across some of the floors in Hong Kong, you will find that we now have people who feel comfortable about having a picture of their [same-sex] partner on their desk and that's huge in terms of progress."
Furthermore, banks are increasingly committed to corporate social responsibility and best practice, which also helps explain why some US executives argue that they are ahead of their peers in pushing for sexual diversity. Christopher Jackson, a senior vice-president for Lehman in Tokyo, says: "The way we're tackling this in Asia certainly emanates to some extent from the fact that we're a US firm based in New York."
In most of Asia, gay people still face discrimination
What Lehman and some other investment banks are trying to achieve in Singapore and other parts in Asia runs counter to the region's cultural and legal environment. Homosexual people are broadly accepted in some countries, notably Thailand, the Philippines and Hong Kong, where gay sex was only decriminalised in 1991. But in most of Asia, gay people still face discrimination and censure - both in and out of the workplace - amid a blend of religious intolerance, family conservatism and legal bans, often inherited directly from British colonial rule. For instance gay sex is a criminal offence across the Indian subcontinent.
In Malaysia, a Muslim country where sodomy is a crime, police in November broke up a gay sex party in a fitness club on Penang and arrested 37 men aged between 20 and 45. The evidence gathered against them included used condoms found on the floor as well as six boxes of new condoms - which in many countries would probably be construed as a sign of responsible sexual behaviour.
Richard Welford, a director of CSR Asia, a consultancy focused on corporate social responsibility, says: "In the vast majority of cases in Asia, gays and lesbians have to stay hidden. Sometimes they will even make up boyfriends or girlfriends . . . But it does seem that in some sectors such as investment banking, businesses are taking the lead [in improving the situation for gay people]. You could say that they are ahead of Asian society there."
Investment banks are in a better position to push for change
This has not been the case in Asian retail banking. Unlike retail banks that have countrywide branch networks, investment banks are also in a better position to push for change because they generally operate only in a country's biggest city, where the population is usually most diverse and conservative attitudes are less entrenched than in second-tier cities and more remote Asian manufacturing centres.
The international dimension of investment banking is also forcing employers to confront the issue of homosexual discrimination more regularly than their counterparts in retail banking and other more local institutions. A recurring problem is the difficulty of getting investment bankers to relocate to countries that do not offer dependent visas for same-sex partners.
Still, the jurisprudence governing homosexuality is not necessarily the best guide as to where gay people will find it easiest to work in the Asia-Pacific region, according to some executives who gathered at a recent evening party of Fruits in Suits, an association that holds monthly events in Hong Kong.
Some even contrast life in Sydney, where the Mardi Gras celebration is one of the world's biggest annual gay events, with the macho working environment within parts of the Australian financial services industry, which one banker says is "a lot behind the curve".
India offers another intriguing situation, according to Stephen Golden, a vice-president at Goldman Sachs, who helps co-ordinate the bank's global leadership and diversity programme. He says: "India is one of those places where the laws relating to homosexuality haven't changed but society has. We have had employees who are openly gay and have been asked to transfer to India and have gone there without any issues. They understand the cultural environment and have had very good experiences."
"The least diverse office we have in Asia"
On the flip side stands South Korea, where there is no legislation banning gay sex but where gay people say they cannot be open about their sexuality for fear of being treated as social pariahs. Kay McArdle, who heads Goldman's diversity programme in Asia excluding Japan, describes Seoul as "the least diverse office we have in Asia".
Still, she finds reason for optimism in the current staffing problems that Korean firms are confronting. Recognition that there is a dearth of women in the workplace should eventually translate into broader improvements for gay people and others who struggle to gain acceptance in the Korean workplace, she argues. "The Korean government has recently been doing a huge push on getting women back into the workforce as many employers face acute staff shortages." Ms McArdle says. "They are getting up the curve, slowly but surely. And that is good news for diversity in general."