By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
There’s no question that LGBT individuals face additional challenges in the workplace – after all, in 29 states, it’s still legal to get fired for being gay. That’s one reason why a recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation, The Power of “Out” 2.0, revealed that 41 percent of LGBT employees remain in the closet at work.
But according to Karen Sumberg, Executive Vice President at the Center for Talent Innovation and an author of the report, one of the main issues that two in five LGBT employees remain in the closet is simply a culture of intolerance. “The hurdle is the subtle comments, jokes, and assumptions that create an environment where people don’t want to come out.”
For LGBT women, this issue is compounded by the factors that keep women from advancing to leadership levels at work. This is the essence of the “double jeopardy” factor, or as some have called it the “double glazed glass ceiling” – since LGBT women face additional hurdles than men and straight women, they are more likely to stay in the closet at work, rather than come out.
But those views may be changing. Many LGBT women are beginning to view being gay as a strategic differentiator and a tool to help them advance. Here’s why.
According to CTI’s report, 74 percent of lesbians say they encounter bias compared to 51 percent of gay men. “This is because not only gender but sexual orientation can be an issue for women,” Sumberg explained.
But, she said, CTI heard from a small but vocal group that it is possible to leverage the LGBT status for advancement. While gay men were twice as likely as lesbians to believe there are business advantages to being gay (17 percent compared to nine percent respectively), this view may be growing amongst women.
“We saw that people who definitely feel the double jeopardy issue are more likely to be in the closet,” Sumberg said.
She continued, “That said, we talked to a lot of lesbians who felt their gender or sexuality were very powerful, that they had senior management opportunities that a lot of heterosexual women didn’t have, and that they could rise above some of the perceptions and awful gossip that undermine women. So a lot of senior lesbians found that gender and their sexual orientation could be a benefit.”
Many LGBT women may find reframing the double jeopardy issue to be empowering, she explained. “For a number of women, this is still the double jeopardy challenge – realizing the power they have and how to capitalize on that.”
CTI’s report also noted that there are some divisions within the LGBT community. Sumberg said, “We also looked into the divides in the LGBT communities – there is a little bit of discussion in that it lumps together four distinct groups. The challenges for lesbians are different from men and there are biases within groups. There is also a feeling that bisexuals aren’t anything to consider – and bisexuals don’t feel strong ties to the group either.”
She continued, “For lesbians there is the issue of multiple identities – gender, orientation, and for many, being a parent.”
In The Glass Hammer’s own research, we have found many lesbians feel excluded from LGBT employee resource groups, which they perceive as male dominated. Sumberg said, “This is a tough one. They may not be being purposefully exclusive, but that is the perception. A lot of the talks that we do, we feel like, ‘Where are the lesbians?’”
But, she said, this perception can be changed as well. It needs to be made clear to LGBT group leaders that gender diversity is expected. Another way to reach out to lesbians may be by partnering with parent employee resource groups, Sumberg suggested. LGBT women are more likely to have children than LGBT men (25 percent are parents compared with 14 percent respectively). “For many, being a parent is a priority. By speaking more to things like health care, adoption, and in vitro benefits, women may be more interested in taking part in discussions.”
Supporting the LGBT Workforce
Companies do have a vested interest in creating more inclusive environments. “Coming out does tie to higher engagement at work,” Sumberg noted.
But what’s preventing many LGBT people from coming out is a pervasive culture of slights and snubs. The report explains:
“The most common offense our respondents described was having colleagues assume they were straight because they did not fit the “gay stereotype”—a phenomenon common to 30 percent of the women and 29 percent of the men we surveyed. Gay women more than gay men (28 percent vs. 22 percent) complain that colleagues routinely assume their significant other is a member of the opposite sex. Two out of every 10 LGB employees have heard colleagues tell jokes making fun of gays, and a similar number report receiving office communications that assume all employees are straight.”
“The slights and snubs – we need to realize what is really happening in companies,” Sumberg said. “We also need to work on arming allies and LGBT people with the language to address this: calling people on the carpet when they make a comment like, ‘That’s so gay.’”
She added, “This needs to be part of the conversation, and it can be a powerful tool for helping others come out and building an inclusive environment for everyone.”
CTI also explored the nature of allies in their report, and found that while 80 percent of straight women and 70 percent of straight men considered themselves allies, upon further examination, only 19 percent of women and 8 percent of men qualified as active allies, having done two or more (from a list of seven) activities like supporting a co-worker coming out of the closet, defending LGBTs to co-workers or managers, and attending an event in support of LGBTs.
“This is a huge responsibility. It’s not going to be the LGBT community alone that gets marriage equality, etc. Obviously, this is driven from the LGBT community and bolstered, pulled through, and supported by active allies. For allies it can be a galvanizing thing to recognize the potential they have to drive change,” she added.