Why Are 20-Something Women Pretending To Be Straight At Work?
The Debrief: We should feel like we can bring as much of our real selves as possible to work. So, why don't we?
‘So, are you seeing anyone at the moment then?’
To any outsider, it might sound like a harmless enough question from a well-meaning colleague. But for Bea, 23, it was enough to throw the usually self-assured town planner momentarily off balance.
What her colleague didn’t know was that ‘someone’ was actually a she. And Bea had been seeing her for a year, was sharing a place with her and had met her parents and didn’t want anyone at work to find out.
It might sound far-fetched that Bea would go to extreme lengths to conceal such an integral part of her identity. After all, we like to think we live in a world where we’re accepting of people’s diverse sexualities and genders. Tinder, for one, rolled out 37 different gender identity options just a few months ago in an effort to make the app more inclusive.
There’s no denying that the 9-5 can be a minefield on an average week. But for many 20-something lesbian and bi women in the UK - 73% in fact, according to a recent study by the British LGBT Awards - pretending to be straight from 9-5 is the norm.
So, why are nearly three-quarters of lesbian and bi (LB) women opting to keep their sexuality private at work?
After coming out at university, for some of the women I spoke to, starting their first job went hand in hand with getting back into the closet. Bea*, 23, was one of them. Although she was in a long-term relationship with her girlfriend Kate*, who she met at uni, she kept her relationship a secret in her new role. It was her skills she wanted to be recognised for – not her sexuality. Alex Gwynne, a spokesperson for Stonewall says, the fear of being ‘labelled as the “new lesbian”’ can loom large for young women starting out in their careers.
Bea agrees. ‘People like putting people in boxes. Even I’m guilty of it. They want to put you in them.’ Bea isn’t the only one – the Human Rights Campaign found that 62% of LGBT graduates returned to the closet after accepting their first job.
Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University found that 5% of lesbian jobseekers are less likely to be offered an interview than their straight counterparts, even when they have identical skills. When these women are just getting a foot on the career ladder, it’s not hard to see why leading a double life might seem like a more attractive option.
Abi*, 23, a Newcastle-based secondary school teacher knows this all too well. While she identifies as bisexual on equality forms, she wonders ‘how many times I’ve lost out on a job opportunity because I’ve ticked that box?’.
And, once they do get onto the first rung, they can be wary of making any wrong ‘moves’ that could hinder their long-term career progression. Considering the fact that Abi’s ‘been reduced to tears by screaming parents’ because her pupils ‘don’t like maths’, it’s not hard to understand why disclosing her sexuality feels like a daunting prospect. ‘A lot of parents equate anything other than straight as a perversion,’ she tells me.
While Abi has long referred to her significant other as her partner, she notes ‘I’m currently with a man but it’s interesting to see how people always assume my partner is male, even before I use pronouns.’ Heteronormativity, she laments, ‘is alive and well’.
Even though navigating the workplace as a young British LB woman can, as Bea and Abi have experienced, be fraught with hurdles, we’re still led to believe that the British LGBT community is comparatively ‘better off’ than the States.
At present, you can still be sacked for being gay in 28 states with 1 in 10 lesbian, gay and bi workers reporting being fired from a job in the past five years. And the Trump administration could be set to roll back even more of their rights if his first week in office is anything to go by.
It’s certainly true that the 2010 Equality Act made some significant strides on this side of the pond when it comes to protecting lesbian and bi women from indirect and direct discrimination, harassment and victimisation at work. But, did it go far enough? For many of the women I spoke to, verbal intimidation – or at least the threat of it – was constantly in the background, an invisible backdrop to their everyday working lives.
Emma, 28, a teacher, won’t come out as lesbian to her colleagues, largely in part due to negative past experiences in her first job at a play centre.
‘I started dating a colleague. We were walking home from work one day holding hands and happened to walk passed my boss,’ she says. Not long after, ‘he started making slurs. He once said that we shouldn’t watch the kids when they went toilet and to wash our hands before making lunch as we weren’t “normal”.’
While she continued to work there after her ex left as she ‘couldn’t take it anymore’, Emma felt that she was ‘always being looked at as different by him.’
And, while she admits that she doesn’t mind pretending to be straight in her current role – even though she’s been with her girlfriend for three years, Emma does express frustration that her straight colleagues can frame pictures of their partners and children: ‘I don’t feel like I can do that as it would raise too many questions.’
This is familiar to Cynthia, 27, who identifies as bi. She works in a pub and is ‘nervous about’ the customers who frequent it. ‘You never know who’s going to pass through the doors. I ended up having a chat with someone who forever kept saying “that’s so gay” in a derogatory way’, she tells me. “I had to bite my tongue when I overheard [another] conversation about how “gay parents aren’t really parents”’ she tells me.
Emma and Cynthia certainly aren’t alone. 64% of LB women that have come out at work have experienced inappropriate language or bullying.
It’d be easy to assume that bi women at work have it ‘easier’. But being bi can come with its own pitfalls. Namely, as Lucy, 23, a policy campaigner says, it can be ‘perceived more as a kink than an identity’. Indeed, a recent study found that bisexual women earn 7%-28% less than their straight colleagues, because of their so-called 'dishonesty'.
Both Lucy and Abi also reported feeling like they constantly have to ‘prove’ their sexuality, particularly if their current partner, as in Abi’s case, is male. ‘Talking about a partner is talking about a relationship’, Lucy says, but ‘talking about bisexuality is talking about sex’.
For all of these women, a lot of physical and mental energy in being invested in trying not to be ‘found out’.
Considering that workers who are already out perform better, you would think that employers should be doing more to protect LB women? After all, if MI5 – which notoriously didn’t hire gay people until 1990 – is now the most LGBT-friendly workplace in the UK, surely other employers can follow suit? It's not only the right thing to do, it's in their interest: one report found that the cost of replacing workers who leave their jobs because they can’t come out could amount to £650m a year.
Optimistically, the situation certainly seems to be looking up. The 2016 Orlando shooting, for one, proved to be a turning point. The aftermath saw an increase in people coming out of the closet and its impact on British workforces can still be felt by some women today.
‘I was in Brussels on business and my boss knew I was really shaken up’, Lucy remembers. ‘She texted me and told me to go to a safe queer space in the city and have a few beers…that was a pretty powerful moment for me’ she says, ‘I felt truly seen’.
Stonewall stresses the importance of having a ‘champion’ at work like Lucy’s boss. Alex Gwynne explains this is ‘having someone high up in an organisation who actively and vocally supports LB women at work can help people feel more at ease’.
The importance of this cannot be stressed enough, particularly in light of the fact that most, if not all, of the women I spoke to would consider leaving their roles if their sexuality was ever called into question. ‘Any workplace that treated me negatively because I’m bi would be a place I didn’t want to work’,” Lucy says. ‘For me, it's an indictment on a workplace if a person doesn't feel safe to be themselves’.
Yes, millennials are the most likely generation to switch jobs, with an average of four jobs under our belt by the time we reach 32. For LB women that means having to face a choice between coming out or climbing back into the closet multiple times over the course of their career.
We need to get to a point where as many of us as possible, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can bring as much of our ‘real selves’ as possible to work. Why? Because, as Lucy puts it, ‘being real about who are outside the office makes us better at our jobs’.
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