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Gay CEOs urged to lead the way

Burberry's Christopher Bailey
Michele Tantussi | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Burberry's Christopher Bailey

When Angela Ahrendts announced she was stepping down from Burberry and Christopher Bailey was named CEO, there was one topic du jour: whether Bailey, the brains behind the designs, could master the intricacies of running a business?

The fact that there was very little discussion about Bailey, an openly gay man, taking the helm of a global company, highlighted some of the big steps made in workplace diversity.

However, activists point out there are still many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees who feel they can't be open about their sexual orientation at work.

(Read more: Angela Ahrendts leaves Burberry for Apple, Christopher Bailey to take over)

Out On The Street, an organization that brings together major Wall Street firms to create a network of LGBT business leaders, is hoping to reverse that trend. The organization held a summit in Hong Kong Thursday on workplace diversity in Asia. Todd Sears, the founder of Out On The Street, said the event generated a huge level of interest with 19 banks participating in the event.

According to Sears, there are currently no "out" CEOs among publicly-traded U.S. companies. "There are regional CEOs, and CEOs of smaller companies who are out. We're going to see more and more on that regional level, and I would be shocked if in five years we didn't have more openly gay global CEOs," Sears said.

While there are few "out" CEOs, there are still prominent LGBT business leaders. On October 22, the U.K.-based organization OUTstanding In Business launched its inaugural top 50 LGBT leaders, which placed HSBC's head of U.K. banking, Antonio Simoes, at the top of the list.

But Simon Feeke, head of workplace at LGBT charity Stonewall, argues that while companies stress their gay-friendly credentials, there is little evidence to back their claims up. "We hear anecdotally of job-seekers saying to their prospective organizations, 'If you're so diverse and inclusive, can you point to gay people in senior positions at your company?'," he told CNBC.

The problem may stem from the problems key figures have faced in the past when dealing with their sexuality in the business community.

(Read more: When businesses take a stand on gay marriage)

The former CEO of BP, Lord Browne
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg via Getty Images
The former CEO of BP, Lord Browne

Back in 2007, then chief executive of BP, Lord Browne, was forced to resign after details about his private life emerged and he admitted to lying in court about the circumstances in which he had met a former boyfriend.

Speaking at the launch of a LGBT network set up by the engineering and design consultants Arup in 2012, Browne said: "My sense is that the business world remains more intolerant of homosexuality than other worlds such as the legal profession, the media and the visual arts."

Sears said he disagreed with Browne's verdict on the business world's relationship with the LGBT community.

"I could counterpoint and ask how many openly gay Hollywood actors there are?" Sears said, adding that the financial community is always looking to improve its outreach and is ahead of its rivals. "There are lots of industries that are more intolerant of LGBT difference and diversity in general. I think Wall Street gets a bad reputation."

HSBC changed the colors of their headquarters to rainbow in honor of Out on the Street: Asia
Out On The Street
HSBC changed the colors of their headquarters to rainbow in honor of Out on the Street: Asia

Generational change

For Sears, there has been a generational change in social attitudes to the LGBT community, and that is being gradually reflected in the business world. "There's no other social issue where people of any generation have changed their minds like LGBT equality," he said.

(Read more: Is gay marriage good for business?)

However, Stonewall's Feeke argued against Sears' prophecy that future generations will bring more homosexual leaders into the business world. "We look at visibility of gay people within organizations and it's really seldom that you'll find an openly gay person at board level, but even the next generation of leaders, they tend to either not ever make the grade or they conceal their sexual orientation."

With Christopher Bailey set to become CEO of Burberry next year, Sears and Feeke both said it was an opportunity for Bailey to speak out on the issue.

"It would have a huge impact if Bailey was quite candid and open about his journey, and what it's like being an openly-gay chief executive in a FTSE 100 company," Feeke said. "He has an opportunity to set the tone now."

— By CNBC's Kiran Moodley. Follow him on Twitter @kirancmoodley