Israeli LGBTQs Aren't Putting Up With Discrimination in the Startup Nation

The LGBTech organization was established in order to increase awareness in the business sector in Israel of the needs and feelings of employees from the LGBT community.

Revellers take part in a gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, Israel June 9, 2017.
Ilan Asayag

When Raffi Margaliot, senior vice president of Hewlett Packard Enterprise in Israel (which will soon be called Micro Focus), was preparing for his first talk with 200 employees of the firm, to which he was returning as VP after six years in San Francisco, all the phones in his home began to ring. Just then his former partner, a participant in the Israeli reality show “Master Chef,” was on television, and in that episode he was preparing an apology cake and describing how he had cheated on Margaliot in the past. “It was clear to me that in the talk to be held the next day, I would have to discuss that issue too,” he said.

The next day Margaliot really did open the meeting with the words: “I’m 37 years old, I have a partner [in Hebrew it was clear that he was referring to a male partner], and three children.” The nonchalant message went over easily. “It was a great success,” says Margaliot, one of the few CEOs in Israel who heads a large firm and has been out of the closet for a long time. “I turned the story into a ‘non-issue’ instead of a gossip-column item,” he says.

Last Friday 200,000 people participated in the Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv. Among the marchers were families with children, high school students and retirees, and gay pride flags could be seen in every corner of the city. But Margaliot admits that this demonstration of strength doesn’t necessarily represent the feeling of workers who belong to the community. He said that there was a long period in his professional life when he didn’t feel entirely comfortable announcing his lifestyle in the workplace.

“I can easily remember the years when I couldn’t find a way to tell people at work that I’m a homo,” he says, using the Hebrew term, which is not pejorative. “Today, part of my job is to serve as a role model. I assume that it will be easier for my employees to come out of the closet. For an entire year I occasionally passed by the desk of one of the employees who displayed a gay pride flag – and I thought how great it is for him that he has no problem with displaying it. It took me a long time to hang a flag of my own in my office,” he adds. Today Margaliot is considered one of the role models in the Israeli LGBT community, which is still not used to senior executives in the business world who proclaim their sexual proclivity.

Jeremy Seeff (left) and Shachar Grembek of LGBTECH.

When asked why it’s important, Margaliot replies simply: “In the workplace, all over the world and in Israel in particular, people also talk about their private lives. As opposed to other populations such as women, the ultra-Orthodox or Arabs, it’s not always easy to tell who’s LGBT. People around you automatically assume that you’re straight. If an employee is asked what he did over the weekend and begins to think how not to tell that he was in a guest house with his male partner, he finds himself hiding and lying. I also had many years when I found ways to lie in order to bypass the subject – like talking about the children without mentioning my partner. As an employer, I don’t want the employees to waste resources on lies and inventions, and want them to feel comfortable being who they are in the workplace.”

Margaliot represents the dream of startup entrepreneur Shachar Grembek and attorney Jeremy Seeff, members of LGBTech, an organization established six years ago to increase awareness in the business sector of the needs and feelings of employees from the LGBT community. Grembek’s organization already has 1,500 registered members, and he conducts various networking events that have already given rise to several startups.

In the past two years the organization has been focusing on promoting a considerate work environment for employees from the community. According to Grembek: “Employers don’t want to hurt people’s feelings deliberately. They simply aren’t always aware of the issue. We’re in 2017, and people say to us, ‘There’s no problem with LGBTs, why is there a need for your organization?’ That’s not quite true. It’s true that the situation is better than in the past, but people still come from different places and often there’s a problem.”

Raffi Margaliot
HPE

According to Seeff: “Today there is ostensibly a little more liberalism, and still – if there’s no policy, in one workplace there will be an executive who reacts one way and another executive who will react differently. It’s important to stress that transgender people have a more difficult problem – but quite a number of people report that even when they work in Tel Aviv in a high-tech company, for example, they’re not sure whether they can say that they have a [same-sex] partner without paying a price for that.”

‘Have to think twice’

Grembek: “We’re here because it’s important to us to explain something a straight person will never understand – an LGBT person constantly has to come out of the closet. The moment you arrive in new surroundings that aren’t familiar with your background, you have to think again whether or not to inform the people around you.”

And not everyone does?

“I know quite a few examples of people who returned to the closet in their new workplace, as well as people who preferred to leave a workplace because they felt that they could no longer lie, and preferred to reinvent themselves in another place.”

A survey conducted by the Economy Ministry in 2014 indicated that members of the LGBT community have reason to fear exposure in the workplace: 60-70 percent of transgender people reported discrimination in the process of hiring and in promotions; 18-20 percent of other members of the community reported a feeling of discrimination. Grembek and Seeff claim that often these are not deliberate processes, but rather old-fashioned views that the employers have difficulty leaving behind.

“Two different companies turned to us and asked us what to do when employees say they’re undergoing a surrogacy process abroad,” says Seeff. “They wanted to help, but didn’t know what the law says in this case, what rights the employee has, what one can and cannot ask of the employee, what can be done for him, etc. Another example regards the forms that the employees submit to the human resources department, in which it still says ‘mother’s name’ instead of ‘parent’s name.’ When there’s no mother’s name, it becomes embarrassing.”

Grembek: “If an LGBT employee who has a leased car wants to write his partner’s name on the contract, it’s not always comfortable for him to explain that to the vehicle officer. That’s also true of pensions – when the forms are standard there’s a problem.”

The first step suggested by Grembek aad Seeff to the companies to create a work environment that is comfortable for an LGBT person, is having the company’s board of directors sign an agreement promising to respect all its employees. So far the convention has been signed by firms such as Gong, the Epstein Rosenblum Maoz law firm, WeWork, IBM, HP and others.

The agreement is a one-page symbolic commitment. It opens with the words: “As part of our desire to promote an equal, safe and accepting work environment, we aspire to help the organization to have a supportive environment for the LGBT community, by harnessing employees on every level of the organization to incorporate the following principles: eliminating discrimination while promoting diversity and open-mindedness, by providing a sense of respect, belonging and comfort in the organization to the LGBT community in particular and the company employees in general, giving equal treatment to all the members of the LGBT community, nurturing a work environment that promotes respect and encourages diversity.”

At the same time, representatives of the organization distribute a short guidance manual containing various suggestions for consciousness raising and for creating a more pleasant atmosphere. “We suggest, for example, examining the recruitment policy – from the work interview to the filling in of forms,” says Seeff, “or appointing an adviser for LGBT affairs, like the chief of staff’s adviser for gender issues. One person to whom you can turn with various questions or requests, or to establish an LGBT forum in the company, in which people talk about everything.”

There can also be small gestures – taking advantage of Gay Pride Week for an announcement about support for the community, or giving a two-minute speech and saying that the management is happy to have employees from all the communities,” says Grembek. “This simple message is transmitted very quickly when the management promises to do so, and awareness of the subject filters down to all parts of the company.”

Another example of success is the Israeli firm Natural Intelligence, which decided to give a total of 50,000 shekels ($14,000) to every LGBT employee who starts a surrogacy process abroad. At the moment there are already two employees in the process.

Grembek and Seeff don’t deceive themselves into thinking the change will come easily. According to them, “Until now we have reached mainly high-tech firms in the center of the country. Some of them are international firms. It’s clear to us that this agreement also has to be signed by the managements of companies such as SuperSol, or bank managements - organizations that operate on the periphery of the country too.”

Do you think it will happen?

“Definitely. We’re not coming from a feeling of victimhood but from a desire to help. It’s clear to every employer that a workplace that’s comfortable for all its employees is good for business results too.”

You spoke earlier about a shortage of role models.

“We would like more executives like Raffi Margaliot who talk about the subject publicly. That really helps to raise consciousness in other companies too, which are not headed by an LGBT person.”