How Gay Women Are Treated in the Modern Workplace
With same-sex marriage legalised in most western countries and many battles on discrimination against LGBT+ people won, we like to think we live in a world where being a gay woman will no longer have a negative impact on your professional life. More than 91 percent of Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, while 60 percent of those include domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. The Equality Act of 2010 makes it illegal for employers in the UK to discriminate against gay people and requires equal access to private and public services. Having policies and laws in place is one thing, how they play out in the real world is entirely different.
A recent study from New York University found that LGBT+ indicators on CVs made female applicants 30 percent less likely to get a phone call from interested employers. Emma Mishel, a researcher on the study, explained, “When you look at my work history, it’s a lot of LGBT organizations, so it’s pretty obvious that I’m queer.”
Even when lesbians do get hired they are far more likely to face workplace harassment and bullying. In America, a study from UCLA’s Williams Institute found up to 41 percent of LGBT+ employees had been “verbally or physically abused or had their workplace vandalized.” While 1 in 6 had reported that their sexual orientation stood in the way of career advancement, or lead to them being let go.
The Williams Institute also found 7.6 percent of lesbian couples live below the poverty line, as opposed to the 5.7 percent of heterosexual couples.
"Lesbian and gay women are still finding it hard to be themselves in the workplace and worse still, those who are out at work have had negative experiences including discrimination."
In the UK, the situation isn’t much better. A study commissioned by the British LGBT Awards of 1,200 lesbian and bisexual women across the UK found that 64 percent of them had experienced negative treatment at work in the form of sexual discrimination, inappropriate language, lack of opportunity or bullying. 73 percent said they were not completely out to colleagues, and 86 percent said there was a desperate need for more lesbian and bisexual women in senior roles to boost visibility and provide role models for other women.
Sarah Garret, founder of the British LGBT Awards, said: “The results are startling and clearly show that in 2016 lesbian and gay women are still finding it hard to be themselves in the workplace and worse still, those who are out at work have had negative experiences including discrimination, bullying and reduced opportunities to progress compared to male counterparts.
“The findings are worrying and show that a lot of work remains to be done to change attitudes and promote acceptance.”
With such high rates of harassment and discrimination, many gay women are developing their own coping strategies, others yet are becoming self-employed, or seeking gay-friendly companies. Damien O'Meara, of the Australian Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Business and Enterprise, said: "The vast majority of our members are comfortable being out at work ... but it can be industry-specific. I personally have gravitated towards workplaces which I know have inclusive policies.”
It’s not just obvious harassment that’s to blame either, thousands of little micro aggressions are thrown at gay women every day. "Informal discrimination are things that are outside institutional powers,” explains Barry Chung of Indiana University, “it could be a person feeling isolated because of sexual orientation, people making jokes, or the atmosphere. This can make a person decide not to mention their sexual orientation and act a certain way or make different decisions about where they work."
"Workspaces that don’t actively foster an inclusive environment, or allow their lesbian employees to feel uncomfortable, are ultimately missing out."
A lesbian in a long-term relationship with her girlfriend, and working in administration at a prominent university, told myGwork her experience with colleagues: “I don't tell people at work about my partner. She’s better about it and will always tell people, I just don't have that confidence. She will get people responding quite badly sometimes, for example telling her what choices she makes in her personal life is her business. I just think it's a stupid reason to dislike me so I don't say anything to work colleagues. But it leaves so many awkward and uncomfortable situations as people openly discuss their heterosexual relationships and I feel I have to stay quiet. Sometimes I stutter when asked about my weekend. I will only ever tell someone at work when I know they are 'gay friendly'.”
O'Meara argues that workspaces that don’t actively foster an inclusive environment, or allow their lesbian employees to feel uncomfortable, are ultimately missing out – especially when lesbian employees go elsewhere for work. "(They could) retain the best talent by making people feel a part of something,” he explains.
"Today’s workforce is still dominated by straight men and rewards the behaviour they see as important."
There is a lot of talk about the “gay pay gap”, and it’s worth mentioning. A 2010 study from Industrial Relations found gay women earned on average 6 percent more than straight women. Other studies have found the gap can be as high as 9 percent. However, they still earn far less than gay men, who in turn earn less than straight men. The gay pay gap is a contested one, however, and it has done nothing to prevent more lesbian couples from falling under the poverty line than straight couples.
The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker has theorised as to why the gap might exist: “The gay-straight wage gap is reflective of a larger trend that favours masculinity in the workplace. Gay men are still out-earning straight women, and lesbians, who may be... ‘perceived as less feminine and closer to the unencumbered male ideal.’”
While that analysis might lean on stereotyping, it highlights that today’s workforce is still dominated by straight men and rewards the behaviour they see as important. The answer, as it has always been, is to have more queer women in positions of power. How that is achieved is not easy to say. Pushing through uncomfortable situations at work and being open about your sexuality may be a good start, especially for gay women in senior positions. Another good start is to create LGBT+ networks in your company and foster a community that can provide professional help to its members, so gay women can pull each other up through the corporate ladder.
This battle is an uphill one, but it is not impossible. Whenever marginalised groups have faced adversity, coming together and working as a community has always achieved more than standing alone and pretending there isn’t a problem.
By Tim Gibson
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