Workplace Discrimination And The Queer Black Woman

February 24, 2016 ‐ By Lauren McEwen



According to a recent study from New York University, certain “LGBT indicators,” such as previous work experience with an LGBT advocacy organization or a past leadership position at an LGBT student organization, may make it more difficult for queer women to get a callback for job interviews.

Published in the sociological journal Socius, “Discrimination Against Queer Women in the U.S. Workforce: A Resume Audit Study” found that women who listed previous work experience at an LGBT organizations were 30 percent less likely to be called in for an interview. Researcher and study author Emma Mishel personally understands the plight.

“When you look at my work history, it’s a lot of LGBT organizations, so it’s pretty obvious that I’m queer,” she told Fusion in a recent interview.

But what happens when it’s pretty obvious you’re Black and queer? As the study’s introduction states,“limited research has examined hiring discriminations in the United States, and little to no research has examined hiring discrimination against LGBT (or queer) women specifically,” pointing out that the only two sizable resume audits done regarding discrimination based on sexual orientation either focused on gay men or “restricted their experiment to gay-friendly and/or left-leaning metropolitan areas, thus providing limited insight into broader patterns of discrimination.”

The need for more research into discrimination against queer women in the workplace is further demonstrated by past wage discrimination research which Mishel noted has shown that LGBT women “may in fact be favored over straight women in the workforce,” sometimes getting paid more than straight women or having more success in male-dominated fields. When it comes to Black LGBT women the data is even more limited.

“Right now, most diversity and inclusion efforts are about discrete identities—women, gay employees, employees of color, et cetera—but in reality, most of us have a bit of this and a bit of that,” said an anonymous financial services executive in the Center for Talent Innovation’s January study, “Out in the World: Securing LGBT Rights in the Global Marketplace.”

“I’m black, I’m a woman, and I’m queer. My issues are not going to be identical to a white woman’s issues, or a gay man’s issues.”

So far, a white woman’s issues are the most researchers have to go on. In her study, Mishel drew up two very similar resumes for two fictional women and applied for more than 800 administrative positions in Virginia, New York, Washington, D.C. and Tennessee. On one resume, she included a leadership role at an LGBT student organization (she explicitly spelled out the phrase “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” to be sure the hiring manager knew what the acronym meant), indicating that the candidate might be queer. The other resume, which acted as the experiment’s control, included a leadership position at a non-LGBT student group. The inclusion of an LGBT activity proved to be the defining characteristic resulting in the overwhelmingly large percentage of less callbacks.

“You would think that in 2016 people wouldn’t have to hide their beliefs on their resume,” said Ellen Kossek, a gender diversity, human resources and workforce expert who currently works as the director of research in Purdue University’s Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence. “There’s nothing about that that’s job-related unless you’re like a religious institution (and I don’t feel that you should hide behind that, but I have to respect other people’s beliefs). You should hire people for their skills and not based on their sexuality. That’s a private matter, so why are we making people hide who they are in order to get hired?”

This isn’t the first study to find evidence of anti-LGBT discrimination. According to a 2014 report co-authored by the Equal Rights Center and Freedom to Work, LGBT applicants who applied to positions with federal contractors “were 23 percent less likely to receive a call-back than their non-LGBT counterpart, even when the LGBT applicant was more qualified than the non-LGBT applicant.”

Job searching is already a pretty stressful experience. For many people, these anxieties are compounded by worries about discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation and gender expression and all of their intersections.


Cydney Brown is a senior psychology major and Swahili minor at Howard University, as well as the president of the university’s LGBT advocacy organization, CASCADE, which stands for the Coalition of Activist Students Celebrating the Acceptance of Diversity and Equality. Brown is androgynous, masculine-presenting and prefers women. When she graduates, she hopes to work in the nonprofit sector, specifically working with groups that advocate for LGBT youth of color.

“Right now, I’m focusing on comprehensive sex ed for young people between the ages of 13 to 24, making sure there’s adequate info in textbooks across the country so that people our age are able to make informed decisions about their own bodies,” Brown said.

Although she plans to head into a career in which she won’t have to worry about anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace, she has had concerns when applying for positions in the past.

“I started thinking about it because I’m masculine-presenting. The first thing I think about is, ‘Are they going to be OK with the fact that I wore a suit and tie to my interview?’ Most of the time, I come off as a black man, so there’s already that dynamic. Once they realize I’m a woman, it’s like a whole list of other factors has to go into this employer’s perception of me,” she said, noting she often worries about how to “navigate gender and professionalism.”

For example, when Brown had a government internship, her primary concern was the strict dress code. “They had very clear rules about what men and women can wear in the workplace, but as someone who kind of fluctuates on the gender spectrum, well, could I be more accessible this way? Would it still be appropriate if I wore this suit and tie with no tie?”

Although she eventually plans to go into the kind of work “where that doesn’t matter,” she noted that “masculine-presenting people are still a new thing in society.” She worries that a boss might be more “traditional or old-fashioned” and wonders how open she can be about her own family dynamic, since she was raised by two women.

“Because I’m a Millennial and it’s absolutely mandatory that wherever I work accept all of me for who I am, I’m not really in the mindset to sacrifice that, but I understand not a lot of people have that option. Being a part of organizations that work to foster a more affirming perception of different identities across the board is more important to me,” Brown said.

For 25-year-old Christina Lyles, interacting with male coworkers is more of an issue than dealing with an employer’s attitudes about her sexuality. Although she has never been a part of any LGBT groups that might tip employers off about her sexuality during the application process, she has found the retail industry to be “lesbian-friendly.”

In fact, Lyles said she’s only felt apprehensive about her sexuality when dealing with male co-workers finding out that she’s a lesbian, likening the experience to going to a straight club and having men instantly assume that she’s straight, available and interested in their advances.

“Of course, you tell one person you’re gay and everybody knows, which is fine, but then you find out that they know now and you’re kind of walking carefully because you don’t want them to say something awkward, or you’re wondering if that’s why they stopped speaking,” she said.

Some members of the LGBT community don’t even make it to the point of being discriminated against in the workplace, as Mishel’s study pointed out, the exclusion often comes before one can even get their foot in the door. To combat these issues, Kossek offered up these suggestions.

“First idea of inclusion is whether you could even have access to the job,” she said. If an LGBT-identifying applicant does get the job, the next questions that need to be asked are (1) would they be comfortable working there and (2) would they be able to perform to the best of their ability while dealing with the anxiety of feeling discrimination at work?

Follow-up studies that focus on how organizations are managed and how people are socialized to recruit people will be necessary to answer those questions, Kossek said.

“I would like to see a leadership study, including people of all backgrounds and keep an experiment keeping all of those controls in and see what happens with some relatively non-expensive inclusion training and recruiters and leaders speaking out.”

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