For many gay men and lesbians, last month’s decision by the Big 3 automakers – General Motors, Ford Motor and DaimlerChrysler – and the United Auto Workers to offer domestic partner benefits is both welcome and overdue.

The move, predict some observers, will soon become the industry standard and as such can be considered an indication of dramatic change in the economic climate toward gay employees. But lost amid the celebration of this shift in policy, add gay rights activists, is the fact that benefits for gay employees are still not easily attainable.

Take, for instance, the decision in June by shareholders at Exxon Mobil to deny benefits to their gay and lesbian workers, reinforcing a policy that went into effect when Exxon took over Mobil in December 1999. At that time, the new company revoked Mobil policies that explicitly banned anti-gay discrimination and provided domestic partner benefits to gay employees. While a proposal to offer the benefits received a higher vote among shareholders than before (8.2% in favor, as opposed to 5.9% a year ago at the Exxon shareholders meeting), the decision is another indication of the uphill battle that gays and lesbians face on gender-related workplace issues.

Nevertheless, the mood was upbeat among participants at Working Out 2000, a lesbian and gay MBA conference on workplace issues that was sponsored this spring by Wharton and the Columbia University Business School. Those attending – both gays and non-gays – spoke about a number of positive developments that affect gay employees.

One of the primary motives for change in the workplace is economic, according to Brian Sorge, director of North American recruiting at Marakon Associates and moderator of one of the Working Out 2000 panels. "When people have the talent to go elsewhere, the economy drives the decision to [make these changes]," he says, noting that the strong economy also encourages businesses to feel more secure about instituting new policies. Adds Seth Radwell, president and chief executive officer of in New York and a conference panelist, "There is a dearth of good talent in many industries, forcing employers to recruit from a more diversified pool."

Megan Giles, a spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler, also acknowledges the effect of the prosperous economy. "It’s a tight labor market, and you have no idea if prospective employees [didn’t] return a headhunter’s phone call [because] they wanted [to work for] a company that has a public stance on embracing diversity," she told the Detroit Free Press after the automakers announced the new policy, scheduled to take effect Aug. 1.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights lobby based in Washington, D.C., as of June 8, 256 of the Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation; 1,623 employers nationwide offer such policies. Additionally, 97 Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits while nationwide, 3,424 employers offer them.

Matt Coles, director of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, says only 11 states have laws protecting gay workers while the federal government has no job protection for gay workers. Despite that, Coles says there are surprisingly few discrimination cases involving gay and lesbian workers’ rights, mainly because of what he calls a civilian version of "don’t ask, don’t tell" in the workplace. "You’re basically taking the two things most important in a person’s life – work and family – and forcing them to remain completely separated," he notes. "Ultimately, the way you change that is to change the way people think … Laws are good, but you need to engage the public."

That change, slow as it is, is happening. Sorge says the fact that gay people – including more senior-level executives – are more candid about their sexuality has helped foster a more open climate. Change, he adds, frequently does not come without the involvement of senior management. "It usually starts at some senior-level organizing body, which opens up the dialogue for many others. I think it is essential that management committee members are the drivers. Issues are then more likely to be heard." Radwell agrees. "It starts with edicts and policies (from senior management), and over time, it takes other forms as well." Martin Atkin, managing director for investment banking at J.P. Morgan in New York, says his company provides mentors to new employees to help them become acclimated to the work environment. "If part of that is talking with someone else who is gay, we try to achieve that," he says.

Beyond offering such benefits as health insurance for same-sex couples, say gay activists, companies should also provide sensitivity training for workers so that their gay colleagues feel more comfortable in workplace settings, whether that means bringing partners to company functions or displaying family pictures at their work stations. "Sensitivity training is of tremendous importance and significance," says Lowell Selvin, CEO of Online Partners and the Network. "Removing the glass ceiling would empower both out and closeted gays and lesbians to fully exercise their true career potential." Selvin notes that during his 18 years in the business world, he often worked "under the toughest of circumstances" as a gay man in a long-term relationship while having to hide his sexuality. "The greatest reward is the freedom of being able to be truthful to fellow co-workers," he says. "The greatest frustration is that America and the world has a long, long way to go."

Advocates for gay employees note the disparity between companies that are truly progressive in this area, and companies that just think they are. "Some organizations are fine," notes Marakon’s Sorge. "Others think they are but they [ignore] the subtle and unconscious behavior of some employees."

Wall Street financial firms, including the traditionally conservative investment banks, are becoming more aggressive in recruiting gay and lesbian workers, observers note. Academic settings, high-tech companies and the larger media outlets have typically been at the forefront on gay issues. "There are real opportunities for young people of all persuasions, especially in media and Internet companies, because there are not a lot of folks who have experience," says’s Radwell. " In that sense, "I think we are ahead of the curve."

The Working Out 2000 conference was coordinated with the help of Peter Allen, a health-care management major who will begin work in September at McKinsey & Co. Allen is the author of a new book entitled, The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present. The conference, he says met its primary goal of "letting business know about gay issues … and helping others understand the issues that (gay people) face."