Everyone deserves a safe workplace where their rights are respected and they don’t feel the need to hide their identity. Unfortunately, new research shows that this isn’t the case for many LGBTQ2S+ workers. A new study shows that many individuals feel the need to hide their identity at work—more than half of those surveyed—or may opt to work in sectors they perceive to be more inclusive.
The report, authored by Dr. Basia Pakula, Kelsey Brennan, and Chloe Halpenny, was produced by the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC) with support from Pride at Work Canada, an organization that helps employers to foster inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ2S+ employees. It aims to document the experiences of LGBTQ2S+ individuals in the workforce and offer recommendations to create safer, more inclusive working environments. The report draws on qualitative data obtained through focus groups and interviews with 34 participants recruited through Pride at Work Canada’s partner networks. An effort was made to include participants with diverse LGBTQ2S+ identities, as well as participants of different social identities.
“The report confirmed a few things that we already understood very well through anecdotal evidence,” says Colin Druhan, executive director at Pride at Work Canada. “It’s just great to have a lot of data to back up some of the things that we’re hearing from people across Canada.”
Getting the job
Barriers to employment for LGBTQ2S+ folks are present even before they start working. LGBTQ2S+ folks will often opt to go into industries that they perceive as being safer or more accepting of queer or trans employees. Sexual minority men are more likely to work in sales, health or arts and culture, while sexual minority women work more in the trades/transport sector. They will also conduct extensive background research on a company to gauge whether the workplace will be accepting of their identity.
In some cases, participants felt the need to hide their identity during the hiring process if they were desperate for a job or believed they had previously been discriminated against. Unfortunately, identity-based discrimination is difficult to prove, leaving participants unsure if their identity was the reason they weren’t hired.
The research showed noticeable pay gaps between queer people and their heterosexual counterparts. According to median earnings, heterosexual men earned the most, followed by gay men, then lesbian women, who both earn more than heterosexual women. Bisexual men and bisexual women earned the least.
“The starkest gap was between straight men—who on average in Canada earn about $56,000 a year, and then bisexual women, who earn on average about $26,000 a year,” says Druhan. “So that really stark gap, which is, you know, significantly worse than the outcomes for gay men, for example, shows the very specific disadvantages that are dealt to people who are bi or pansexual.”
There wasn’t much data on salaries available for other LGBTQ2S+ identities such as trans, non-binary, Two-Spirit, asexual or pansexual folks. However, the pay gap especially impacted participants with multiple marginalized identities. Druhan adds, “It’s really important for [LGBTQ2S+ people] to understand the experiences of the broad diversity of people in the community because we don’t see the representation of this broad diversity represented in a lot of corporate environments.”
Participants sometimes had to choose between a higher-paying job or a safer working environment. One participant described switching industries and taking a significant pay cut to find a job that felt safe.
Many participants reported frequently experiencing microaggressions in their daily work lives. The report classifies these experiences into five categories: cisheteronormative interactions and encounters; prejudicial attitudes; stigmatized and sexualized lifestyles and relationships; the undermining and discounting of skills, experience and authority; and workplace social exclusion. Constantly experiencing these microaggressions took a toll on participants’ mental well-being and workplace performance.
Workers who are out at overwhelmingly cisheteronormative workplaces often risk being considered a “poor fit” by the organization, negatively impacting opportunities for networking and career development. If they approach management about these issues, they can often be labelled as a “complainer,” although Druhan believes learning to respond to complaints will be key as younger people join the workforce.
“They don’t want to hide their orientation or their gender when they go to work,” he says. “So when employees make suggestions about how to make the work environment more inclusive … they’re actually helping the employer ready themselves for the next generation of workers who expect a lot of these things to be implemented before they arrive.”
What needs to be done?
The report also looked at positive experiences and recommended solutions for organizations looking to foster a more inclusive workplace.
Governments and policymakers can put forth policies promoting system-level change and fund organizations advocating for LGBTQ2S+ people in the workforce. In addition, they should invest in solutions that help LGBTQ2S+ people to overcome external barriers to employment, such as housing, mental health support and education. Finally, it’s important to support continued research into LGBTQ2S+ experiences in the workplace and implement a more inclusive data collection system.
Employers or people in positions of leadership can advocate for inclusive policies that acknowledge the realities of LGBTQ2S+ employees. Some specific examples include the use of gender-neutral language, staff education and designated spaces to talk about LGBTQ2S+ issues in the workplace. The report argues that “all employees can benefit from a workplace that supports employee mental health and well-being, offers flexibility around scheduling and dress codes and adopts an equitable and transparent approach to pay.”
Finally, participants identified the attitudes of their coworkers as a major factor in determining whether they had a positive environment at work. Therefore, the report suggests that employees “actively commit to practising allyship in support of LGBTQ2S+ colleagues.” LGBTQ2S+ staff, especially those in positions of leadership, are “perceived to foster greater safety, belonging and mentorship for LGBTQ2S+ employees.”
However, participants expressed discontent with performative displays of allyship, and Druhan echoes these sentiments.
“What I think a lot of employers do, is that they look around at what other companies are doing … without thinking about what problem they’re trying to solve for queer and trans people or for people from any equity-deserving group,” he says. He wants employers to identify barriers specific to their workplace and take steps to bring them down.
“It’s great to put out the flag in June, but if your strategy is not a year-round strategy … it’s just not even going to be effective.”
Although the report outlined numerous challenges faced by LGBTQ2S+ workers, Druhan believes that it will help them to realize they are not alone and that their negative experiences in the workplace are part of a bigger picture. “This is a symptom of challenges that we see in the labour market for queer and trans people. It comes from homophobia, biphobia, transphobia; it’s not coming from them. They are not the problem, the workplace is the problem.”
Correction: August 29, 2022 1:10 pmAn earlier version of this article used an incorrect name for the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation.