Blogs / 01 Jun 2023 9 min

The Three Barriers to LGBTQ+ career progression

By Sharon Peake, Shape Talent Founder & CEO

We recently expanded our Three Barriers research to understand how the LGBTQ+ community experiences the barriers. With Shape Talent’s purpose of accelerating gender equality, we recognise just how important it is to ensure that all genders are represented in our research. We had the privilege of working with the brilliant Dr Ciarán McFadden who is a Senior Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the University of Stirling, who authored our latest white paper, from which this blog has been derived. Ciarán’s current research explores the workplace experiences of trans workers in the UK, hiring discrimination against trans job applicants, diversity resistance, and neurodiversity in the workplace.

Around the world, LGBTQ+ people face prejudice for who they are and who they love. In many countries, being openly gay, lesbian or bisexual is met with hostility or aggression, and in some countries by imprisonment and the death penalty. Trans people in particular face violence, poverty, and societal exclusion.

Even in countries where discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual identity is legally prohibited, LGBTQ+ people are routinely subjected to discrimination in the workplace and throughout their careers – in recruitment, pay, evaluations, and interpersonal relationships with colleagues and managers.

Legislation and company policies have been introduced in many countries to offer protection from such discrimination. However, the amount of research on LGBTQ+ experiences, particularly within the workplace, is small compared to that of other demographic groups. This lack of research, and associated awareness, means that legislators and policy-makers are limited in their ability to dismantle systemic LGBTQ+ inequalities. In many countries, the number of openly-LGBTQ+ people is higher within younger cohorts, highlighting the growing impetus for policies and practices that protect, encourage, and inspire new generations entering the workforce.

To date, our focus at Shape Talent has been on understanding the career barriers faced by (predominantly) cis women at various intersections, as detailed in our comprehensive Shape Talent Three Barriers Model™. Through our research and the work we do day- to-day with blue chip organisations, it became apparent to us that a number of these barriers also applied to the LGBTQ+ community with different gender identities. We wanted to understand more comprehensively the extent that these barriers overlap, and what organisations and allies can do to help dismantle these barriers.

Shape Talent’s Three Barriers to women’s career progression research report details the societal, organisational and personal barriers that women face throughout their careers. Our latest findings reveal how some of these barriers are similar for cis women and the LGBTQ+ community, and others are significantly different.

Societal Barriers

In the context of LGBTQ+ identities, the social barriers faced primarily stem from the cultural and socio-political system known as cisheteropatriarchy, which comprises:

  • Patriarchy, which privileges men and masculinity over women and femininity,
  • Heteronormativity, which privileges heterosexual identities and systems while othering and devaluing LGBTQ+ identities, and
  • Cissexism, which privileges cisgender identities – particularly male – while othering and devaluing trans identities.

The lingering impact of colonisation which imposed Victorian-era and Christian heteronormative values has created a hostile climate for LGBTQ+ people. This is reinforced by anti-LGBTQ+ laws, still in place in many countries around the globe.

Organisational Barriers

There are strong similarities in the ways that organisational barriers present for the LGBTQ+ community and for women. However, the intersectionality of sexuality provides a cumulative impact for LGBTQ+ people.

There is a distinct concern about expressing one’s sexual identity in the workplace. 75% of LGBTQ+ people have hidden their identity at least once in the workplace and 1 in 4 trans people in the UK are not out to anyone in the workplace. The graduate closet phenomenon sees 4 in 10 18-25 year olds go ‘back into the closet’ when they start their first job.

Pay differences further compound the discrimination.

  • The gay penalty sees gay men earn 7% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men.1
  • The bisexual penalty impacts women, earning 5% less and men 9% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men.2
  • The lesbian premium benefits women, earning on average 7% more than similarly qualified heterosexual women.3
  • The trans women penalty delivers a sharp drop of 20% in annual earnings for trans women after transitioning.4
  • The trans man benefit is where trans men experience an increase in annual earnings of 8% after transitioning.5

Compounding this inequality, the LGBTQ+ community experience greater bullying and harassment than their cisgender peers. 1 in 2 trans men and women, and 1 in 3 lesbian, gay and bisexuals have experienced bullying and harassment at work.

Just getting a foot in the door, LGBTQ+ people can be at a disadvantage. Recruitment discrimination exists across geography and industry. A meta-analysis6 shows that openly gay job applicants in OECD countries face similar levels of discrimination as ethnic minority job applicants. Studies of hiring discrimination suggest that gay men and lesbian women both face comparatively worse outcomes than their heterosexual counterparts. Role tenure is, on average, shorter for gay men and lesbian women than their heterosexual counterparts.7 And unemployment is higher for gay, lesbian and trans people.

When it comes to career identity, development and sponsorship, LGBTQ+ people can have fewer role models, and access to fewer resources and opportunities.

Heteronormative standards in the workplace create a constant uphill climb for LGBTQ+ people to feel like they fit in. Microaggressions and homophobic discrimination are experienced regularly with trans people facing a significantly larger amount of discrimination, harassment and violence than other colleagues.

The LGBTQ+ glass ceiling limits career progression for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans individuals, albeit in different ways. For example, lesbian women are less likely to hold a managerial role than a heterosexual woman but a study in the UK found that gay men are more likely than their heterosexual peers to hold managerial and supervisory roles, but not at the most senior levels8.

Personal barriers

A marginalised sexual identity presents unique and complex challenges as compared to those challenges we identify in our Three Barriers model for women. And, the way in which these distinct subgroups of the LGBTQ+ are treated socially and legally can differ widely.

Coming out and transitioning are two significant life events that LGBTQ+ people face, particularly noting the vulnerability of sharing personal information in a workplace context. This can lead to increased harassment, marginalisation and exclusion. In fact, many trans people reported that they believe they have been dismissed from their jobs after transitioning,9 although their workplaces used economic reasons like budget cuts or downsizing. Non-white transgender respondents report experiencing firing discrimination at a higher rate.10

Recommendations for organisations

Our white paper provides a comprehensive range of recommendations for organisations who are looking to support their LGBTQ+ employees. Here are a selection of the recommendations detailed in the report:

  • Address heteronormativity – how might this manifest in childcare and parental leave policies, for example?
  • Don’t treat LGBTQ+ employees as a homogenous group – this is particularly important in multi-national organisations to avoid blanket policies or practices which don’t take into account local cultures, laws and customs.
  • Eradicate discrimination – having clear policies, and paying particular attention to areas where bias shows up (for example, performance evaluations) is critical.
  • Understand the law – a sound knowledge of the laws surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity is critical to ensuring organisations can meet and surpass legislative requirements.
  • Educate all employees – a fear of causing offence, and subsequent punishment, may stop employees from engaging with their LGBTQ+ colleagues, potentially leading to isolation and exclusion for the latter. Training to demystify common concepts and concerns can help.
  • Adopt a collaborative policy design – policies should ideally have input from those it seeks to promote or protect – if available, always involve your LGBTQ+ employee resource group in policy design.
  • Communicate and share your policies – having great inclusion and anti-discrimination policies is one thing, but people need to be aware of them – make sure these are known and accessible.
  • Adopt year-round and worldwide pride – Pride shouldn’t be a once a year event. Ensure there is genuine, year-round work to improve the lives and careers of those in the LGBTQ+ community.

To discover more, you can download the full published white paper here.

If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can support your organisation, get in touch.

Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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1 Drydakis, N. (2019). School Age Bullying, Workplace Bullying and Job Satisfaction: Experiences of LGB People in Britain. Manchester School, 87(4): 455-488.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Geijtenbeek, L. & Plug, E. (2018). Is there a penalty for registered women? Is there a premium for registered men? Evidence from a sample of transsexual workers. European Economic Review, 109(2018), 334-347.

5 Ibid.

6 Flage, A. (2020). Discrimination against gays and lesbians in hiring decisions: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Manpower, 41(6), 671-691.

7 Frick, K. (2021). Do gays and lesbians experience more frequent and longer unemployment? Economics and Sociology, 14(3), 105-126

8 Aksoy, C. G., Carpenter, C. S., & Frank, J. (2018). Sexual Orientation and Earnings: New Evidence from the United Kingdom. ILR Review, 71(1), 242-272.

9 Sangganjanavanich, V. F. (2009). Career development practitioners as advocates for transgender individuals: understanding gender transition. Journal of Employment Counseling, 46(3), 128-135.

10 Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J. L., & Keisling, M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.