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Will Tim Cook Pave the Way for Other Gay CEOs?

As one of the most powerful tech executives in the world, Cook holds a unique position from which he can show the way for other gay corporate leaders.
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Tim Cook came out as the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company in a Bloomberg Businessweek essay on Thursday –- but will other chief executives follow suit?

Cook’s sexuality has been considered an open secret in the tech world for years, a point the Apple boss addressed in his essay, saying that he has been forthcoming about being gay with friends and colleagues.

As one of the most powerful tech executives in the world, Cook holds a unique position from which he can show the way for other gay corporate leaders to be more open about their sexual identity, experts and gay-rights advocates say.

Former BP chief John Browne, who was outed by the tabloids in 2007, tweeted his support for Cook on Thursday: “Significant moment for @tim_cook, Apple & #LGBT people everywhere." Earlier this year he wrote a book titled The Glass Closet: Why Coming Out is Good Business.

“CEOs of major companies have a unique platform to effect real change beyond their professional accomplishments," Marcia Horowitz, senior executive vice president at public relations firm Rubenstein & Associates, said in an email.

Cook was first, but will there be others? And if so, when?

“On the one hand, the doors are now opened and I do think… there will be more,” said Richard Zweigenhaft, psychology professor at Guilford college and co-author of the book Diversity in the Power Elite.

But with no other openly gay CEOs at major companies, Zweigenhaft suggested that coming out could still carry risks.

“My sense is that there probably is still a stigma and it's revealing that Tim Cook came out from within the position,” he said. As an established CEO, Cook is somewhat insulated from some of the consequences that a young, out professional may face. “Are there companies that will appoint CEOs that they know are gay men or lesbians?" he said.

Corporate leaders also might be hesitant to shift the spotlight from their companies to themselves, something Cook touched on in his essay, writing, "Apple is already one of the most closely watched companies in the world, and I like keeping the focus on our products."

The time to be more public had come, Cook wrote in his essay, acknowledging that gay people at other companies and in other industries still face discrimination. Cook’s position gives him a platform to do something about it, he wrote.

Gay advocacy groups praised Cook’s announcement. “Tim Cook's story reaches from church pews to the C-Suite,” GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement. “Apple has a long history of inclusion, and today the company continues its role as a leader in the fight for full equality.”

“Apple has consistently fought for the LGBT community and we’re incredibly grateful that today’s announcement will bring even more to their work for equality,” Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said in a statement.

Apple already had a reputation for being pro-LGBT, and in the tech world as well as on Wall Street, the cause has gained prominent supporters. Two years ago, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein participated in a Human Rights Campaign’s marriage equality push, and financiers Daniel Loeb and Paul Singer spoke out for gay rights at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year.

“I think it will be positive for Apple in that it reflects the leadership skills of a CEO who is willing to take a bold step,” Horowitz said.

The tech giant is among a number of Silicon Valley companies that have faced scrutiny for the demographics of its workforce, and of management in particular. In August, Apple released numbers showing that its U.S. leadership is 64 percent white and 72 percent male. Overall, the gender of company employees worldwide breaks down to 70 percent male and 30 percent female.

Whether or not other Fortune 500 CEOs will follow in Cook’s footsteps is still an open question.

Deven Desai, an associate professor of law and ethics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said Cook’s announcement is unlikely to sway people toward or away from Apple products, but it could give the company an edge in recruitment and retention.

“It might give them a competitive advantage in terms of hiring,” Desai said.

Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, told CNBC on Friday the news is likely to benefit Apple. “LGBT diversity matters to the bottom line. Inclusion matters to the bottom line,” he said. “You can’t underestimate that impact.”