Making room for women under the LGBT+ umbrella

By Dr. Anna Einarsdóttir and Professor Sharon Mavin 

Diversity in the workplace has been an important topic for some time, and many organisations of all sizes and sectors now recognize the importance of the agenda. Whilst this open debate and action in the name of diversity and inclusion is positive, there is a very real risk the diversity and inclusion agenda leaves behind or even harms the very groups it’s trying to help. No more so is this apparent than when looking at intersectionality between gender and sexual orientation, and specifically the experiences of women at work.

The term LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) is widely used as a catch-all when referring to gender and sexual minorities in the workplace. Whilst we celebrate the fact that LGBT+ matters have become a part of organizational conversations, it may be argued that the term itself has faded the identities that fall within it, and in turn, discounted the vastly different experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Of particular concern is how gender, other than in trans[1], non-cisgender[2] or non-binary[3] terms, has been erased from this conversation. Current gender discussion has put some important issues on the agenda, including trans, but has had the effect of removing others e.g. how gender and sexual identity intersect and difference this makes for women and men.

A nationwide survey into bullying harassment and discrimination in the British workplace offers some insight into this. The study showed that as a group, lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are more than twice as likely to be exposed to bullying, harassment and discrimination at work than heterosexuals. Yet when dissecting the experience of non-heterosexual women and men, the difference was striking with lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual women, all reporting higher levels of bullying than men (this also applied to gay men). A gendered pattern is also evident in how complaints about discrimination are addressed with men’s cases of discrimination being far more likely to be investigated that complaints from women (62% of men compared to 19% of women) (Hoel, Lewis and Einarsdottir, 2014).

Yet large studies such as the one above into sexual orientation are rare. For the most part results on sexuality are presented in gender “neutral” terms, lumping L, G and B, sometimes T experiences together. A similar problem is noted in research into workplace experiences of women where sexual orientation is generally muted.

Results, whether gender “neutral” or muted, are easily subsumed under the LGB and T umbrella term, or simply cast aside as not relevant. We know that gender identities play a major role in shaping the experiences of lesbian and bisexual women at work, yet organisations continue to ignore this in the same way that some researchers do.

Making room for women under the LGBT+ umbrella term is neither easy nor problem free. As we have seen, women have not been able to capitalise on the perceived ‘gay friendly turn’ in the same way that men have, a point often overlooked in and outside of the LGBT+ community. We recognize the need to address issues that may be shared between lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees including experiences of marginalisation, but would like to make a few suggestions that might help to create the much-needed space for women to make this alliance work:

  • Popularization of all-inclusive equality and diversity policies are unlikely to address intersectionality, in particular, how workplace experiences are simultaneously shaped by gender and sexual identities. A gender sensitive approach to sexuality is needed which includes cis[4], non-cis and trans individuals.
  • Senior role models can be difficult to find for women. For non-heterosexual women disclosure issues further compound this problem, particularly for bisexuals whose sexuality is often invisible. This problem can somewhat be overcome by raising awareness on bisexuality and to challenge the assumption that opposite sex relationships are necessarily heterosexual and that same sex relationships are necessarily lesbian.
  • Challenge persistent stereotypes about lesbians.
  • Addressing gender bias in dealing with complaints about discrimination.
  • Ensuring adequate representation of women in LGBT employee networks.
  • Confront sexualised jokes and banter aimed at women. It is not up to non-heterosexual women to stop the jokes.

With the proliferation of identities and collapse of the heteronormative/cisgender binary, it is equally important for individuals and organisations to remember how intersections impact and what ultimately marginalises one person from the other. As the data on harassment and bullying illustrates women’s experiences, no matter what intersectionalities are claimed, are more frequently subordinated to men’s. We must therefore focus on the discrimination and harassment that individual women experience and commit to addressing the causes in the workplace and throughout society.

 

References:                                                                

Hoel, H., Lewis, D. and Einarsdóttir, A. (2014). The ups and downs of LGBs workplace experiences: Discrimination, bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees in Britain. Manchester: Manchester Business School.


[1] Trans people have a gender identity or gender expression that differs from their assigned sex.

 

[2] Non-cisgender individuals do not have the same sex and gender but do not identify as transgender

 

[3] Non-binary refers to individuals of any gender that is not exclusively male or female.

 

[4] A term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

 

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