Although gay men and lesbians constitute between 4 percent and 17 percent of the workforce, a larger proportion than many other minority groups, they remain an understudied population that is often “invisible” in the careers literature. It is important to understand the unique challenges faced by lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in the workplace and to appreciate how these challenges influence their career decisions, paths, and processes.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) workers face at least three unique challenges that influence their careers and workplace experiences. First, since sexual orientation is not visible, LGB workers face the ongoing and often stressful decision about whether or when to disclose their sexual identity in the workplace. Although many LGB employees fully disclose their sexual identity in the workplace, the majority of them conceal their sexual identity to some degree at work. Some may choose to avoid the topic, while others may “pass” as a heterosexual. In some extreme cases, LGB workers may counterfeit a heterosexual identity in order to avoid the negative repercussions they fear may occur if their true identity was revealed.
It is important to recognize that disclosure of a gay identity is not an all-or-none decision but occurs on a continuum ranging from full disclosure to nondisclosure. Individuals may disclose their sexual identity to various degrees in both work and nonwork settings and may selectively disclose their gay identity to coworkers, supervisors, friends, and family. In general, the decision to disclose, or “come out of the closet,” occurs with each new social interaction and is conducted on a careful case-by-case basis that weighs the risks and benefits associated with disclosure in that relationship.
The disclosure decision is complicated by a number of factors. One complication is that since sexual identity is not visible, LGB workers are often assumed to be heterosexual. Although some LGB workers may desire to keep their sexual identity private, coworkers’ assumptions about their sexuality often force the issue and make LGB workers choose between immediate disclosure of their identity or implicitly “passing” as a heterosexual by letting the assumption of a false identity continue. The expectation that LGB workers should not discuss their sexual orientation in the workplace fails to recognize the effects of this assumption of heterosexuality or the fact that heterosexual workers regularly reveal their heterosexual orientation through casual reference to a spouse, a family picture, or a wedding ring.
Another complication in the disclosure decision is that LGB workers may lose control over the disclosure process. For example, they may confide their sexual identity to a few trusted coworkers, but this information may be spread to others in the organization, including those who hold negative views toward homosexuality. As a consequence, LGB workers are often uncertain as to who knows and who doesn’t. In addition to this uncertainty, LGB workers face the ongoing threat of having their sexual identity intentionally or unintentionally disclosed by others (e.g., being outed). The decision to disclose a gay identity in the workplace is therefore a complex decision that is often a source of stress for many LGB workers.
The second challenge that affects the careers and workplace experiences of LGB workers is that discrimination against LGB employees who are gay, or simply appear to be gay, is legal in most workplaces in the United States and abroad. As a consequence, LGB employees are particularly vulnerable to
discrimination, and existing research indicates that between 25 percent to 66 percent of gay and lesbian employees face discrimination in the workplace. However, this estimate is generally recognized as conservative, as a sizable proportion of LGB employees do not reveal their sexual identity and are therefore unlikely to be the direct target for sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace. Because discrimination against LGB workers is widespread and fierce, the stakes involved with disclosure are steep. Disclosure of a gay identity has been found to result in social rejection, job termination, and even physical assault. LGB citizens are targeted for hate crimes in both work and nonwork settings, and the fears associated with disclosure of a gay identity in one setting can create a general state of stress that spills over into other settings.
The third challenge to LGB workers’ careers is that they encounter significant barriers to obtaining developmental relationships that provide career support, guidance, and assistance. Mentors, peers, and social networks provide important career resources for heterosexual employees, but these relationships may be limited or severely restricted for LGB workers. Many heterosexuals hold negative attitudes toward homosexuality, view homosexuality as morally wrong, are psychologically threatened by LGB workers, or are simply uncomfortable interacting with or engaging in social activities with LGB workers. These individuals may avoid developing relationships with openly gay workers or they may only develop relationships with gay workers who conceal their sexual identity. This severely limits the pool of individuals who can provide career assistance to LGB workers. This situation is worsened by the fact that LGB workers may avoid entering developmental relationships with heterosexuals, or may keep a social distance after entering these relationships, for fear of negative reactions or rejection if their sexual identity is disclosed or involuntarily revealed. Finally, even in relationships characterized by disclosure and acceptance, many heterosexuals simply cannot fathom the challenges faced by their LGB colleagues and may give them career advice that may be more effective for heterosexuals than for gay men and lesbians. One outcome of this situation is that the gay community becomes an important source of support for LGB workers, and LGB workers may look to other gay colleagues for mentoring, networking, and career support. However, the lack of openly gay and lesbian executives (e.g., the “lavender ceiling”) suggests that the power base associated with these developmental relationships may constitute a limitation in their effectiveness.
These three unique challenges—the decision to disclose a stigmatized identity, the intense vulnerability to workplace discrimination, and the restricted access to effective developmental relationships— combine to have a significant impact on the careers of LGB workers. These challenges have not been adequately addressed in the careers literature. Since most career theories were developed on heterosexual samples, they fail to explain some of the core career challenges and processes experienced by LGB workers. In particular, two processes central to the careers of LGB workers that have not been addressed include the role of discrimination in career choice and the role of sexual identity in career development processes.
Discrimination may play a central role in the careers of LGB workers. Traditional theories of career choice hold that workers chose careers or organizations based on the degree of fit between the requirements and attributes of the occupation or position and the individual’s skills, values, interests, and abilities. The role of discrimination in career and occupational choice is not addressed in traditional models of career choice. However, LGB workers’ vulnerability to discrimination, combined with the force, prevalence, and potency of this discrimination, makes sexual orientation discrimination a central factor in career decisions for many LGB workers. Their choice of careers, occupations, and workplaces may be driven not only by their perceived fit between their skills, values, and abilities and the environment but also by the fit between their group membership and the climate of the organization or occupation. LGB workers may seek safe haven environments that protect them from discrimination and, by allowing them to disclose their sexual identity at work, help them avoid the stress associated with hiding their sexual identity or maintaining different identities in work and nonwork settings.
Safe haven environments may enter into a cycle that supports “gay friendly” workplace climates and occupational climates. Safe havens attract new LGB workers, who may become a critical mass that becomes visible in the organization, occupation, or profession. As they become more visible, LGB workers may take an active role in institutionalizing inclusive climates and developing practices and policies that support the careers of LGB employees (e.g., domestic partner benefits, inviting gay partners to company social events, developing professional organizations for LGB workers within an occupation, including sexual orientation in diversity policies, practices, and training). These environments also offer greater opportunities for LGB workers to break through the lavender ceiling by reaching positions of power, which in turn places them in the position of being able to sustain and protect safe haven cultures.
Once an LGB worker finds a safe haven, he or she may be reluctant to leave the organization or occupation, even for a career opportunity that provides more opportunities, resources, or a better fit with their individual career interests and aptitudes. LGB workers may also be reluctant to leave safe havens because these environments are more likely to foster developmental relationships involving both gay and heterosexual mentors and peers. Heterosexuals who select to work in safe havens are often more comfortable working with LGB colleagues and may be more sensitive to the challenges faced by their gay colleagues. Safe haven environments also increase the pool of gay men and lesbians who are able to assume mentoring and career coaching roles with their younger and less experienced colleagues.
Safe havens may be particularly valued among LGB workers who have experienced sexual orientation discrimination in the past and among those who have disclosed their sexual identity in their current workplace and are simply unwilling to go back “into the closet” in a new position, even if the position offers greater career opportunities, benefits, or compensation. The relative scarcity of safe haven environments also means that once an LGB worker finds a safe haven, he or she may remain in that organization for a relatively long period of time. Future research is needed that examines the long-term effects of this process on career plateaus and career satisfaction among LGB workers.
Career choice of LGB workers is not only influenced by discrimination and the presence of safe havens but also by the development of their sexual identity. The development of a gay identity occurs in stages that unfold over time. While some LGB individuals recognize their sexual identity very early in life, others may not come to terms with their sexual identity until much later in their lives. This means that some LGB workers may choose careers that are not receptive to their sexual orientation (e.g., occupations associated with day care and primary school education, law enforcement, criminal justice, politics, the military, and some religions) before they self-identify as gay. Coming to terms with their sexual identity may therefore create a career crisis in which LGB workers may either hide their newly discovered sexual identity or change their occupation. This career crisis is simply not encountered among heterosexual workers.
In fact, most theories of career development are based on heterosexual models of adult identity and life development and may therefore have limited applicability to LGB workers. These theories assume that sexual identity is stable and consistent over the course of an individual’s adult life. They hold that identity issues are resolved by early adulthood, thus allowing individuals to focus on career-development issues in their early adulthood. While these assumptions hold for heterosexuals, they do not capture the experiences faced by LGB individuals, who may be in the middle of their lives, careers, and even heterosexual marriages before they recognize their true sexual identity. This recognition does not happen immediately; the development of a gay identity usually unfolds over stages involving denial, awareness, testing, acceptance, and finally integration as the individual gradually accepts and discloses his or her sexual identity across life domains. This identity transition may occur at any time in the life of LGB individuals and can create disrupted and nonlinear career paths and even derail the careers for many LGB workers.
In addition to disrupting careers, the recognition of a gay identity may result in the loss of established developmental relationships as well as other relationships that provide personal, social, and career support. Mentors, social networks, peers, friends, and even family may be lost before the LGB individual has developed other supportive relationships that take their place. Moreover, the loss of these developmental and supportive relationships often occurs at the precise time in which they are needed the most: a life transition involving changing perceptions of self, career needs, and career fit. This situation may lead to a turbulent career crisis, and increases the potential for disrupted or derailed careers.
These sexual identity processes require using a longitudinal lens when viewing the careers of LGB workers. Instead of the discrete linear career stages experienced by heterosexuals, LGB individuals may encounter recursive career stages that involve continual reevaluation based on their stage of sexual identity development and the availability of supportive developmental relationships and safe havens. In fact, there may be a complex interplay between stages of identity development, career satisfaction, and organizational or occupational choice. For example, LGB individuals who are in the early stages of identity development and have not self-identified as gay may select organizations and occupations based on criteria unrelated to their sexual identity and may experience career satisfaction even in organizations that do not support their identity and/or protect LGB workers from discrimination. However, LGB individuals who are at the integration stage of their sexual identity development may feel a strong internal need to disclose their identity in their workplace and may experience acute career dissatisfaction and identity stress if their organization fails to meet their developmental need for identity integration. This may lead to a recursive career state in which they reassess their career needs and goals, as well as their organization and occupational choices, in light of their emerging sexual identity. In essence, LGB workers who were satisfied in their careers and workplaces may face career and psychological conflict as their sexual identity unfolds and the lack of fit between their identity and their environment emerges.
In conclusion, LGB workers face unique career and workplace challenges not encountered by their heterosexual counterparts. The career decisions and processes of LGB workers need to be viewed within the broader context of the longitudinal development of their sexual identity, their decisions to disclose their identity, and the organizational and occupational environments that either support or stigmatize their identity. The impact of sexual orientation on the careers of LGB workers is not a function of a single event but is a result of multiple internal and external factors that unfold longitudinally over the course of a career. We have just begun to examine the careers of LGB workers and uncover the assumptions of heterosexuality that permeate existing theory and research on careers. Future investigations will help scholars, students, career counselors, and human resource management professionals in understanding the career and workplace challenges encountered by LGB workers.
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