Rainbow Washing: Moving Beyond Performative Activism in Support of LGBTQ+ Community
Thought Leadership

How To Avoid Rainbow Washing And Build A LGBTQ+ Inclusive Workplace

Ever since the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, the month of June has been uniquely connected to the LGBTQ+ movement. What started off as a single day to commemorate the anniversary of the movement that brought about legal reforms and equality for the community spanned into a month-long celebration of gender diversity, equality, acceptance and harmony known as Pride month.


Now, more than half a century later, corporates from across the globe roll out brand new marketing and employer branding campaigns that showcase their love for their LGBTQ+ customers and employees. Videos depicting scripted stories of proud lesbians, happy gay couples, and transitioning trans people flood social media pages. Bright rainbow hues and LGBTQ+ branded products are stocked on numerous shelves at retail stores. While this tremendous display of love and support might seem like a positive and wholesome thing, is it genuine? In most cases, it is sadly nothing more than rainbow washing.


What is Rainbow Washing?

Rainbow washing is a type of performative activism where companies create and sell rainbow-themed products and merchandise for profit without actively making any efforts to support and empower the LGBTQ+ community. They disingenuously promote Pride for their own gain through an inauthentic showcase of allyship. More often than not, these efforts are made to increase sales and brand the company as a modern and inclusive workplace.


But what makes this different from celebrating any other festival? While some companies might have good intentions, simply slapping a rainbow on merch and changing the company logo to have rainbow colours isn’t enough. There are numerous ways that a company can avoid falling into the bracket of rainbow washing and actually showcase allyship and genuine support. Here are a few examples:


  • Inclusivity All Year Round

Launching a new product for Pride month, donating to LGBTQ+ charities and promoting it on social media only during the month of June falls under the umbrella of rainbow washing. According to a survey, 72% of LGBTQ+ respondents believe that the way they are portrayed in advertising is very tokenistic. They believe that they are only shown so that the company can check a box and avoid criticism.  To help stop this, P&G and GLAAD teamed up to create The Visibility Project which promotes accurate, authentic LGBTQ inclusion in ads with a focus on Fortune 100 advertisers. 


  • Better Internal LGBTQ+ Inclusion Policies 

Before rushing to promote the community on your social media, it is important to share that support internally as well. A survey conducted by the UCLA School of Law found that 38% of LGBTQ+ employees experience harassment at work and that 50% of the community is still in the closet at their workplace. This is often due to harassment and prejudice that they have witnessed.


The best way to ensure that your organisation is a safe workplace is by implementing better diversity and inclusion policies. Let’s take a cue from IBM, a company with a stellar record of uplifting LGBTQ+ rights. They added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy way back in 1984 and in 2001 they created a business development team to retain and support diverse talent and implement LGBTQ-inclusive benefits. IBM also has an LGBTQ+ Council that works towards ending HIV discrimination in the workplace. 


  • Mentor Programmes

To avoid being perceived as a company that hires LGBTQ+ folks to fill up a particular quota, it is necessary to foster a strong sense of community that encourages more people to apply, thereby promoting equal opportunities. Starting an LGBTQ+ mentoring programme uplifts and empowers through networking and inside knowledge of the industry. 


McKinsey & Company is one organisation that shows its support for the community the right way. Not only did they found GLAM, a vibrant worldwide network of LGBTQ+ colleagues, but they have also been actively recruiting LGBTQ+ MBA students over the past 20 years.


Globally, over 20% of the population is part of the LGBTQ+ community. As inclusion increases, more people feel comfortable accepting the true version of themselves. To be a part of the movement of acceptance and not just partake in rainbow washing, it is important to celebrate and back the community all year round and not just during a particular month. As Tim Cooke, proud and openly gay CEO of Apple, once said, “.. be the pebble in the pond that creates the ripple for change.”