Opportunities  and  Challenges     for  Lesbians  at  Work*    


Lin  McDevitt-­‐Pugh  MBA,  4  June  2011  


*  Reading  material  for  the  “Promoting  Equality:     Lesbian  Women  in  the  Workplace”  workshop     at  the  2011  CPP  International  LGBT  Business     Conference.    

                   Workplace  Pride,  Postbus  59238,  1040  KE  Amsterdam,  www.workplacepride.org            1  


Opportunities  and  Challenges  Lesbians  at  Work  
From  Individual  Experience  to  Shared  Knowledge  
Lesbians  face  challenges  at  work  that  affect  their  productivity  and  their  career   advancement.  A  group  of  20  lesbian  employees  of  Dutch  corporations  met  in  2011  to  look   at  why  we  still  need  to  organize  separate  lesbian  discussion  spaces  for  lesbian  women  in   the  corporate  world.  We  wanted  to  define  what  makes  us  special  and  what  needs  to   change  so  that  Dutch  employers  can  benefit  more  from  their  lesbian  employees  and  their   lesbian  employees  can  be  fully  themselves  at  work.     We  are  just  beginning  to  understand  diversity  and  lesbians  at  work.  The  Dutch  law   reinforces  parity,  yet  we  all  experience  the  often  subtle  ways  in  which  lesbian  women  are   kept  from  being  a  full  contribution  at  work.  According  to  the  White  Paper  from  the   Minister  of  Education,  Culture  and  Science  on  its  Gay  Emancipation  Policy  (April  2011),   four  in  every  10  lesbians  and  bisexual  women  reported  experiencing  negative  reactions  to   their  sexuality.  Most  negative  reactions  are  experienced  with  strangers,  both  on  the  street   and  in  public  spaces;  the  second  most  negative  environment  is  the  workplace1.     The  fundamental  idea  of  strategic  Human  Resource  Management  is  that  attracting  and   managing  appropriate  human  resources  is  strategic  to  the  organizations’  success.   Increasingly,  private  and  public  organizations  recognize  that  public  values,  like  diversity,   are  integral  to  strategic  HRM.  Corporate  social  responsibility  is  being  measured  as  a   business  value.  The  Dow  Jones  index  and  ranking  institutions  base  their  rating  figures  in   part  on  how  commercial  organizations  incorporate  social  values.    In  other  words,  the  need   for  companies  to  be  inclusive  is  now  affecting  their  shareholder  value.  Other  public  values   that  contribute  to  strategic  HRM  relate  to  recruitment  and  selection,  public  service   motivation,  work  life  policies,  leadership.  Other  staples  of  HRM  relating  to  diversity  are   retention,  development  of  talent,  bonding,  motivating,  engaging,  and  utilizing  the  people   who  work  in  your  company  or  whom  the  company  has  contracted  to  work  for  them.   The  lesbians  in  this  discussion  group  experience  resistance  to  changing  the  way  things  are  at   work.  The  following  document  is  intended  to  help  all  levels  of  management  understand  the   value  of  changing  practices  at  work  relating  to  lesbian  women.     Further  reading:     Stonewall  lesbian  research  –  The  double-­‐glazed  glass  ceiling,  2008   www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/doubleglazed_glass_ceiling.pdf  





1  Stichting  OndersteBoven/Universiteit  van  Amsterdam  2009  


Challenges  and  Opportunities  
1. Recruitment  and  Selection   • Lesbians  have  their  own  networks  and  through  these  networks  they  can  bring   potential  employees  to  the  company.  Utilizing  these  networks  helps  the  company   avoid  always  finding  the  same  sort  of  employee  (clones).  Having  a  diverse   workforce  helps  the  company  be  attractive  to  all  sections  of  society;  when  the   internal  organization  and  the  external  client  base  match,  business  is  easier.   2. Developing  talent   • Pink  competencies   3. Motivating,  Engaging,  Bonding   • Lesbians  avoid  joining  male-­‐dominated  employee  networks.  Gay  men,  lesbian   women  and  transgendered  men  and  women  experience  some  things  at  the  work   place  in  the  same  way,  and  many  in  a  different  way.  LGBT  employee  groups  are  a   very  useful  way  of  shaping  LGBT-­‐friendly  workplaces.  However,  lesbians  also   need  separate  spaces  to  explore  and  discuss  together  shared  issues  on  the  work   floor.  While  gay  men  may  use  traditional  male  networking  methods,  women   network  most  effectively  in  private  and  safe  environments.     • Recent  Dutch  studies  show  that  most  lesbians  are  between  the  ages  of  25  and  30   when  they  come  out  of  the  closet.2  Lesbians  in  many  cultures  experience  family   rejection  when  they  come  out  of  the  closet.  Their  work  offers  them  a  space  to  be   themselves.  For  all  lesbians,  coming  out  at  work  requires  bringing  their  private   life  into  public  spaces  with  greater  potential  harm  to  the  career  (or  perceived   potential  harm  to  the  career)  than  when  a  heterosexual  woman  for  example  talks   about  her  weekend  with  her  boyfriend.  However,  if  there  are  anti-­‐  lesbian  or  anti-­‐ gay  jokes  at  work,  about  ‘being  one  of  the  boys’  or  ‘being  an  old  maid’  –  or  the   many  bad  taste  jokes  that  are  all  too  well-­‐known,  this  group  of  women  is   particularly  vulnerable.    Initiatives  to  promote  bonding,  motivating  and  engaging   lesbians  must  be  sensitive  to  these  issues  and  recognize  that  women  who  are   willing  to  be  openly  lesbian  at  work  are  both  courageous  and  at  the  same  time   indicating  that  they  are  wanting  to  be  100%  themselves  at  work.  These  are  two   very  attractive  qualities  in  an  employee.   4. Utilizing  lesbians   • Lesbians  have  learned  to  be  flexible  and  creative  –  we  have  to,  to  survive.  We   have  learned  to  think  differently,  and  certainly  outside  the  box.  This  is  an  asset  to   an  organization.   • Lesbian  women  have  their  own  networks  and  through  these  networks  they  can   bring  clients  to  the  organization.  Lesbians  connect  with  lesbian  and  trans  clients   in  a  way  that  straight  women  or  gay  or  straight  men  do  not.  The  barrier  to  



2  Keuzekamp  S.  (red).  “Steeds  gewoner,  nooit  gewoon”,  Sociaal  en  Cultureel  Planbureau,  the  

Hague  (The  Netherlands),  June  2010  

                   Workplace  Pride,  Postbus  59238,  1040  KE  Amsterdam,  www.workplacepride.org            3  

starting  the  conversation  is  lower.  There  is  a  subtle  yet  present  willingness  for   lesbian  women  to  do  business  with  each  other.  The  willingness  is  to  really   connect  as  people,  without  the  flirting  expected  in  female-­‐male  contacts,  without   the  annoyance  with  men  prevalent  when  straight  women  connect.  It  is  about   getting  to  work  and  making  it  work.   5. Work  life  policies   • Lesbians  may  be  excellent  choices  for  foreign  assignments.  HR  departments  must   be  aware  of  the  special  actions  that  are  needed  to  accommodate  the  partner  and,   potentially,  the  children,  in  a  foreign  posting.  Companies  must  have  the  same   policies  for  the  spouse  and  family  in  a  married  lesbian  couple  and  in  a  married   heterosexual  couple;  it  is  not  good  enough  to  apply  the  law  of  the  host  country  of   the  foreign  assignment.  Unless  the  company  has  specific  policies  supporting   lesbian  women  on  foreign  assignments,  lesbian  women  will  not  even  contemplate   taking  the  assignment.    They  may  not  even  be  aware  that  they  are  avoiding  the   assignment.  The  employer  misses  out  on  being  able  to  use  her  skills  unless   policies  are  in  place  to  support  lesbians  and  their  families  on  foreign  assignments.   • Many  lesbians  are  able  to  work  full  time.  Companies  must  break  through  any   heteronormative  assumption  that  women  will  not  work  full  time  and  will  not   pursue  their  careers.    In  a  heteronormative  culture,  being  a  lesbian  requires   breaking  through  the  concept  of  what  is  normal.  Yet  there  is  nothing  abnormal   about  being  lesbian.  It  is  simply  who  we  are.   • Lesbians  want  to  be  valued  for  their  contribution  to  the  work.  Heteronormative   workplace  practices  often  have  the  inbuilt  assumption  that  men  and  women  will   interact  in  a  certain  way.  Lesbians  often  do  not  adhere  to  these  interaction   practices.  The  practices  are  often  the  result  of  bringing  majority  norms  from  the   outside  world  into  the  workplace  practice.  The  workplace  must  learn  to   differentiate  itself  by  building  a  culture  of  inclusion.   6. Leadership   • Lesbians  in  many  cultures  experience  being  rejected  by  families.  Work  is  a  place   where  they  could  simply  be.  If  the  workplace  is  supportive  of  lesbians,  lesbians   will  support  the  workplace.     • A  culture  of  sexual  identity  secrecy  interferes  with  an  organization’s   effectiveness.  When  women  hide  their  identity  at  work,  the  organization  is  faced   with  an  organizational  and  not  a  personal  weakness.  It  is  often  public  knowledge   that  a  top-­‐level  heterosexual  leader  has  a  spouse  and  children,  yet  even  in   rankings  like  Opzij’s  100  most  influential  Dutch  women,  lesbians  usually  choose   not  to  expose  their  private  circumstances.  Secrecy  at  the  leadership  level  does  not   simply  affect  the  woman  herself:  all  lesbians  in  the  company  receive  the  message   that  they  should  leave  who  they  are  at  home,  and  adopt  a  purely  work  persona  at   work.  Workplaces  that  are  not  spaces  where  lesbians  can  be  out  of  the  closet  do   not  benefit  fully  from  competent  women.     • Many  companies  in  the  Company  Pride  Platform  acknowledge  that  LGBT  network   leaders  and  others  spend  time  developing  the  networks  and  that  these  networks   add  value  to  the  company.  Very  few  companies  however  adjust  the  performance   KPIs  to  include  the  work  in  promoting  a  workplace  that  works  for  lesbians.  When   lesbian  diversity  results  are  made  measurable,  SMART  and  included  in  the  KPIs,   middle  management  are  enabled  in  supporting  leaders.  




7. Public  Service  Motivation   • Lesbians  in  many  cultures  experience  being  rejected  by  families.  Work  is  a  place   where  they  could  simply  be.  If  the  workplace  is  supportive  of  lesbians,  lesbians   will  support  the  workplace.     • Lesbian  women  do  not  always  feel  safe  being  ‘out’  at  work.  This  includes  women   who  are  comfortable  with  their  sexuality.  There  is  always  the  chance  in  the   background  that  at  some  point  in  their  career,  being  an  out  lesbian  will  be  used   against  them.  This  can  be  “best  will”  discrimination,  such  as  a  company  not   approaching  a  lesbian  for  a  foreign  placement  because  they  know  it  to  be  unsafe.   It  can  also  be  more  malicious,  like  not  wanting  to  promote  an  out  lesbian  who   might  at  some  time  ‘embarrass‘  the  company.  Do  not  assume  a  single  woman  is   single,  or  straight.   • Sensitize  upper  management,  middle  management  and  the  work  floor  to  the   implications  of  embracing  difference.  Rather  than  singling  out  LGBT  people,  make   this  an  explicit  part  of  a  total  business  campaign  to  allow  all  employees  to  be  fully   themselves  at  work.  

The  5  Do’s  and  Don’ts  
for  businesses  that  want  to  retain  lesbian  talent  
  1. Have  policies,  with  sanctions,  against  any  activity  that  demeans  lesbians.  The   work  environment  must  be  a  place  where  lesbian  women  can  work  with   freedom,  equality  and  full  self-­‐expression.   2. Create  and  maintain  a  culture  of  diversity,  in  which  lesbians  can  proudly  be   lesbian.  Don't  stop  until  every  lesbian  feels  safe  to  be  out  at  work.   3. Don’t  assume  lesbians  do  not  have  the  family  commitments  of  other  staff   4. Don’t  assume  that  lesbians  will  not  want  foreign  postings  in  non-­‐gay  friendly   countries.  Never  think  on  behalf  of  lesbians.  Talk  with  them.   5. Create  ‘hard’  KPIs  for  lesbian  network  leaders  for  their  work  with  lesbian  issues   at  the  workplace,  and  ensure  that  management  accommodates  these  KPIs.      

                   Workplace  Pride,  Postbus  59238,  1040  KE  Amsterdam,  www.workplacepride.org            5  


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