For many years, women in business often spoke of the ''glass ceiling,'' that proverbial barrier that only allowed women to rise so far as business owners and executives before being barred from further advancement. But with the increasing power of the feminist movement since the 1970s, the ceiling is shattering as more women form their own companies. Women-owned businesses generated an estimated $1.9 trillion in sales as of 2008, according to the Center for Women's Business Research.
Yet, while women have paved pathways for new entrepreneurs, many have questioned whether lesbians who start their own companies face the double obstacle of a gay glass ceiling, which obstructs LGBT business starters as they move up the ladder.
Asked if she thought there was a lesbian glass ceiling, Mary Snider, owner of Mary Snider State Farm Insurance, answered, ''I think there's still a glass ceiling for women in general, as we saw [recently] with the National Journal survey on gender disparities in high-level congressional staffer salaries. That's definitely a reason women go into business for themselves. It certainly was for me.''
When Nancy Wigal, president of Search Engine Academy, a locally based firm that trains business owners and executives to maximize their search engine optimization (SEO), started her company in 2009, she found most of the resistance to her sexuality was regional. ''Yes, being openly gay can be a problem in some areas, especially in southern Maryland, which tends to be more socially conservative than other parts of the region,'' she said. This resistance has cost her some opportunities to partner with firms in Maryland, with the bulk of her work currently in D.C. and Northern Virginia.
On the other hand, Eleasa Du Bois, owner of the weight-loss practice Tight Body Makeover, says she never really experienced obstructionism based on her sexuality. ''I don't think there's a glass ceiling for lesbians. You make your own opportunities and put yourself in a position to win.''
When it comes to marketing to men versus women, most lesbian business owners say the difference is minimal if it exists at all. ''Personally, I don't see much of a gender difference in marketing between men and women,'' says Snider, who was a 2012 Women's History Month honoree, an award given by the Mayor's Office of GLBT Affairs for business and volunteer contributions to the community. ''Really, the focus for everyone should be on your customer, the target market and delivering the correct message and value to that specific audience.''
Chris Delucchi, president of Delucchi+, a full-service strategic marketing/communications firm, and Blue Bug Digital, a digital marketing company, believes that ''business is about relationships. Relationships help you connect with customers and leverage your connections into business.''
In some cases, there are differences in marketing to the LGBT community as opposed to straight customers. An example is the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which, according to Snider, ''ruins lives every day. Even married LGBT people are denied access to their spouse's federal pensions and Social Security survivor benefits when they pass away. I look to provide value with solutions to address these gaps.''
An important strategy to successful marketing to LGBT customers is a sense of empathy, says Du Bois, the weight-loss guru. As someone who had struggled with weight issues earlier in her life, she knows how much in denial overweight LGBT individuals can be and how difficult it can be to change habits. ''The secret is to look for ways to integrate a weight-loss program into your daily life, and not feel you're depriving yourself. My clients are usually overjoyed to find out that there's good chocolate out there as well.''
The Chamber means Business. For more information, visit caglcc.org.
John F. Stanton', a CAGLCC member, is the president of SRP & Associates Inc., a strategic marketing and public relations firm in Northern Virginia.