A new study into the experiences of lesbian and bisexual women in the workplace has revealed that many of them were more concerned about their gender than their sexuality.
Lesbians are far less visible in the workplace than gay men, and few women attend sexual orientation staff networks or events.
The research also found that out gay women see few if any role models or other out gay women in high-level positions.
Ruth Hunt, Stonewall Head of Policy, said:
“Women know that in 2008 the glass ceiling is very much still in place.
“What this report shows is that for lesbians, that glass ceiling is double-glazed.
“It’s no surprise therefore that Britain’s two million lesbians remain almost invisible at work. In publishing this report Stonewall wants to see that change.”
Participants talked of a range of indicators that they felt sent a strong message that in order to succeed as women they had to work much harder than male colleagues, according to the study, Double-Glazed glass ceiling, published today.
Women felt that their identity as a woman, and being able to achieve their potential as women, was of greater concern than the need to be accepted as a gay woman.
Many contrasted the relative invisibility of lesbians with the strong identity of gay men. Some felt that they faced a different decision about coming out compared to male gay colleagues.
“For a lot of men they’ve already got a much stronger established community of other gay men at work.
So they know they’re drawing attention to themselves, but it’s okay because there are lots of other guys who are in that position and there’s an established club for them to belong to as gay men,” said Jacqui, who works in the private sector.
The lack of visibility may in part come from the fact that many women feel unprepared to ‘put their hand up twice’ and be open about their sexuality, as they are already identified as a ‘minority’ group.
The report also considered the advantages of being out at work.
Some women said taking a “proactive and assertive” approach to their sexual orientation allowed them a greater degree of control over how colleagues respond to them.
Others found that their ability, as a lesbian or bisexual woman, to sidestep feminine conventions was both liberating and empowering, as it made them feel more able to engage with men as equals.
“I think that there is less emphasis on flirting and more emphasis on being able to play with the boys
because it is such a male-dominated culture,”said Nicola, who works in the private sector.
Some went further, arguing that in the corporate world in particular, the image of a successful woman was so heavily associated with the stereotype of an aggressive lesbian that senior women of all sexual orientations often tend to act in a way that heterosexual women perceive to be gay, in order to infiltrate senior leadership structures.
The report concludes that many women feel LGBT networks are male dominated and do not appeal to them. Many were more likely to attend the women’s network groups instead, as they had identified these
types of structured professional development opportunities there.
Women’s networks were popular because gay women may be more likely to respond to initiatives that focus on gender rather than on sexual orientation.
Some felt that a significantly different mood could be achieved with a few key changes to the format of events. Participants suggested that events that took place during office hours and that provided nourishing food rather than canapés would encourage women to attend in greater numbers.
Among the recommendations made by the report are that employers should promote career development opportunities to lesbian and bisexual women and encourage them to develop confidence and assertiveness.
It also recommends that employers should support and enable lesbian and bisexual senior members of staff to be out and involved in awareness raising initiatives.