More Less
More Less
December 18, 2014

Sexuality and the workplace: coming out and losing out?

Opinion image

Globally, fewer than 20% of countries have adopted sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws in employment, and 2.7 billion people live in countries where being gay or lesbian is a crime. In most of Africa and Asia, same-sex unions are illegal, which precludes gay and lesbian studies by default. Australia, Canada, the US, and the EU have the strongest protection of sexual-orientation rights, including workplace anti-discrimination laws.

Despite this, gays and lesbians still experience more obstacles to getting a job, lower job satisfaction, earning bias (especially gay men), and more bullying and harassment than their heterosexual counterparts. These findings imply that legislative protection constitutes only a small step toward improving the employment circumstances and general well-being of people who are gay or lesbian and highlights the need for other policy interventions.

To be specific, studies from countries with laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation suggest that people who are identified as gay or lesbian during the initial stage of the hiring process are discriminated against in favor of heterosexual applicants with comparable skills and experience. This pattern is observed in studies carried out in Austria, Cyprus, Greece, Sweden, the US, the UK, and Canada.

Moreover, gay men receive lower earnings than their male heterosexual counterparts in all countries studied. In the UK average earnings are 5% lower, rising to 9% in Germany and 16% lower in the US. Also, gay and lesbian employees have lower job satisfaction than their heterosexual counterparts and are more likely to be harassed by work colleagues. Meanwhile, bullying of gay men and lesbians even before they enter the labor market can affect their labor prospects. Studies suggest that bullying of gay and lesbian students can reduce their eventual employment rates and earnings.

On the other hand, gays and lesbians who are open about their sexual orientation within the workplace are more likely to report higher job satisfaction than those who are not. In addition, perhaps surprisingly, on average, lesbians earn more than heterosexual women in a number of countries. In the UK, lesbians earned 8% more than heterosexual women, with the gap increasing to 11% in Germany and 20% in the US. Whether biased treatment of lesbians at the hiring stage can lead to salary premiums later in their careers is an open question. The idea that lesbian employees possess characteristics that enhance their attributes for job advancement and earnings is a plausible explanation.

Because most studies suggest that negative attitudes toward gay and lesbian employees are the source of labor-market bias against them, governments should try to influence public opinion and people’s attitudes toward sexual-orientation minority groups. In addition to anti-discrimination legislation, improving the situation for sexual-orientation minorities will require policy actions, including formal equality of treatment in employment policies, anti-discrimination and anti-bullying campaigns, and affirmative action.

Governments should have the courage to support the normality of any LGBT relationship, and laws should defend human rights regardless of sexual orientation. Also, firms should be encouraged to foster work environments in which gay and lesbian workers feel comfortable enough to be open about their sexual orientation, and employers should collaborate with gay and lesbian workers to make the workplace an inclusive environment for people of all sexual orientations, and to provide equal career development opportunities for people of a minority sexual orientation.  

Nick Drydakis is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Anglia Ruskin University, UK.

Related article:
Sexual orientation and labor market outcomes, by Nick Drydakis

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.