Psychological Science at Work


The indispensable research blog on the science of the modern workplace, covering everything from leadership and management to the behavioral, social, and cognitive dynamics behind performance and achievement.


Does Your Sexual Orientation Shape Your Career Plans?

Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals gained some new strides against discrimination this week when President Barack Obama announced plans to bar federal contractors from hiring or firing employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But despite job protections, marriage equality laws and other protections that members of the LGB community are garnering, many of them believe their sexual identities will at some point encumber their careers, research indicates. And that expectation may have at least some degree of influence on their actual career choices.

This is a photo of a businessman in a maze.In a study published in 2012, psychological researchers at the University of Memphis examined not only the types of career barriers LGB individuals have encountered, but what barriers they anticipate hitting in the future.

They questioned whether these individuals ruled out certain career options over fears of facing discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Under the direction of psychology professor Suzanne H. Lease, the researchers contacted nearly 240 adult members of LGB communities through social networks and listservs. Slightly over half of the participants were women. Four of the men and 21 of the women contacted identified as bisexual.

Each participant was given a questionnaire that measures several types of career-related barriers, including: lack of confidence; career dissatisfaction; difficulties with networking and socializing; harassment; and different forms of discrimination, including bias against their sexual identity.

Participants were asked to rate how much they expected to encounter each barrier, and how much of a career impediment each of the barriers would be. They were also asked to rate the degree to which they’d experienced these barriers in the past.

Both men and women in the study identified lack of confidence and career dissatisfaction among the most frequent obstacles they had encountered in the past. Women said they experienced more sex discrimination, multiple-role conflicts, and discouragement from entering nontraditional careers compared with the men.

But overall, sexual-orientation discrimination ranked well down the list of most common barriers encountered.

The respondents had considerably different expectations about future career hurdles. In fact, sexual-orientation discrimination was among the top anticipated barriers cited in the responses. What’s more, respondents anticipated this discrimination no matter how long they’d been employed, and no matter how often they’d already experienced it.

Reporting on their findings in the Journal of Career Development, the researchers said those expectation could hamper career planning for LGB individuals, dampening their abilities to advance in their careers or feel satisfied in their jobs.

“While individuals might anticipate career dissatisfaction for many reasons, it is possible that the GLB participants anticipated poorer career progress or dissatisfaction with their jobs for reasons related specifically to the discrimination they may experience at work,” they wrote. “They may also be dissatisfied if they chose careers based on beliefs about what would be safe work environments rather than choosing careers based on their interests.”

The researchers call for deeper research, including the specific career concerns among LGB from various socioeconomic and ethnic groups.

They cite a particular need to examine the role that internalized homophobia — the prejudices and negative stereotypes that LGB individuals may hold toward themselves — plays in career development. Internalized homophobia has a crucial impact on one’s self-efficacy, goal formation, relationships with co-workers, and perceptions of discrimination.

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