July 4, 2007

Nice Work (If You Can Get It)

Posted at 12:21 pm (Pacific Time)

“The only work that really brings enjoyment
Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.”

–George & Ira Gershwin (Nice Work If You Can Get It)

Opinion surveys consistently show that the American public opposes workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. In a 2007 Gallup poll, for example, 89% of US adults agreed that “Homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities.” This percentage represents an increase of more than 30 points since the question was first asked by Gallup in 1977, when 56% supported equal employment opportunity.

Despite this near-consensus that sexual minority individuals shouldn’t face job discrimination because of their orientation, federal law still doesn’t protect workers in this regard (although 20 states and the District of Columbia do, according to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.)

Is job-related bias a problem? A new study by economist Dr. Lee Badgett and her colleagues at UCLA indicates that it is. Their report, Bias in the Workplace: Consistent Evidence of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination, was released last week and is available from the Williams Institute’s web site.

Dr. Badgett and her coauthors reviewed findings from more than 50 studies that addressed employment discrimination among sexual and gender minorities. As would be expected in any such review, the methodologies and results varied considerably across the studies. The data clearly show, however, that workplace discrimination is disturbingly widespread.

Some of Dr. Badgett’s main findings:

  • Depending on the study, between 15% and 68% of the sexual minority respondents said they had experienced employment discrimination at some point in their lives because of their sexual orientation.
  • In studies that asked respondents more specific questions about the type of discrimination they experienced, 8%-17% said they were fired or denied employment, 10%-28% were denied a promotion or given negative performance evaluations, and 10%-19% reported receiving unequal pay or benefits.
  • Many heterosexuals reported witnessing sexual orientation discrimination against their coworkers.
  • In states that currently prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, sexual minorities file complaints of employment discrimination at roughly the same rates as women and racial minorities.
  • Gay men earn 10%-32% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men. Data for lesbians don’t reveal a consistent pattern of pay differences from heterosexual women but, like heterosexual women, lesbians earn less than men.
  • Six studies that surveyed transgender individuals separately found that 20% to 57% of transgender respondents reported having experienced employment discrimination at some point in their life. More specifically, 13%-56% said they were fired, 13%-47% were denied employment, 22%-31% were harassed, and 19% were denied a promotion based on their gender identity.

Three of the studies reviewed by Dr. Badgett were based on nationally representative samples of self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults. Because of the nature of their samples, they probably provide the best estimates of the extent of workplace discrimination experiences in the sexual minority population.

  • A 2000 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 405 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in 15 large metropolitan areas found that 18% of the respondents reported experiencing discrimination when applying for a job or keeping a job.
  • In a 2001 paper published in the American Journal of Public Health (vol. 91, pp. 1869-1876), Drs. Vicki Mays and Susan Cochran analyzed self-reports of discrimination in a large nationally representative sample of adults aged 25-74 years. They found that 8% of sexual minority respondents reported being fired, 13% were denied employment, and 11% were denied a promotion. (However, the survey did not ask whether these specific incidents were based on the respondent’s sexual orientation or another factor, such as race or gender.)
  • In my own study with a nationally representative sample of 662 lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults, 10% of the total sample reported having been fired from a job or denied a job or promotion since age 18 because of their sexual orientation. Broken down by sexual orientation groups, 16% of lesbians and gay men said they had experienced job discrimination, compared to 6% of bisexual women and 3% of bisexual men. (More information about this study is available in a previous blog post. The paper can be downloaded from my website.)

Dr. Badgett’s report highlights the need for workplace protections for sexual minorities. Congress is currently considering one potential source of such protection, The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2007 (HR 2015). ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The experiences of women and racial minorities teach us that ENDA and similar laws won’t eliminate workplace discrimination. By making such discrimination illegal and providing remedies for individuals who experience it, however, they are an important step toward addressing the problems documented by Dr. Badgett’s study.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.