The percentage of LGBTQ workers who say they are closeted at work only decreased by four points since 2008.
That’s according to a new study on workplace climate for LGBTQ employees published by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. While societal and cultural changes — including the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 — have broadened LGBTQ-inclusive business practices over the past decade, millions of employees still do not feel comfortable being out at work.
Moreover, there are no consistent federal laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Deena Fidas, director of the HRC’s Workplace Equality Program said she would have been encouraged in 2008 “if you had told me that 10 years from now, there will be marriage equality, there will be transgender people in top rated shows and movies — all of these really significant markers of social and legal change.”
Yet, she said, “in the same breath, as we track this over time, we also have seen the persistent challenges that remain.”
One in five LGBTQ workers reported having been told, or had co-workers imply, that they should dress in more feminine or masculine styles, according to the report. Fifty-three percent of LGBTQ workers reported hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people every so often.
And one quarter of LGBTQ workers say an unwelcoming environment distracts them from their jobs.
The top reason LGBTQ workers don’t report negative comments they hear about LGBTQ people to human resources or a supervisor: They don’t think anything will be done, and they don’t want to damage relationships with their co-workers.
The data came from a sample of 804 LGBTQ respondents and 811 non-LGBTQ respondents in February and March.
Fidas highlighted the “persistent double standard” faced by these workers. While non-LGBTQ employees might feel comfortable sharing details about their work or personal lives with co-workers, LGBTQ employees are often met with subtle or overt messages that their own stories are best kept to themselves.
Some of the results exposed that very double standard: 78 percent of non-LGBTQ workers say they are comfortable talking about their relationships or dating to co-workers, but 59 percent of non-LGBTQ workers think it is unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.
“The perception is that to be cisgender, that that’s ‘normal,’ and to be LGBTQ is somehow so different as to make your everyday contributions in the workplace to be perceived as overly personal or inappropriate,” Fidas said. “And that gets in the way of people forging connections and other relationships that really matter in a person’s career, like getting a mentor and getting along with your immediate teammates.”
Still there are signs of change: In 2012, 43 percent of non-LGBTQ workers agreed they would be uncomfortable hearing about the dating life of an LGBTQ co-worker. And back then, 75 percent thought it was unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity at work.
Todd Sears, founder of the global LGBT+ business network Out Leadership, noted the nuances of being out at work, saying the “idea of being out is not quite as binary as just in or out.” Workers who are out at the office may still mask aspects of their identity, like relationships or mannerisms that are prone to stereotypes.
“The difference is that policy does not equal culture, and that’s where the gap comes from,” Sears said.
For Fidas, improving these figures requires widespread collaboration, including through federal protections for the LGBTQ community and clear-cut non-discrimination policies throughout the private sector.
Beyond that, much of the cultural change will have to be driven by individuals actively supporting their LGBTQ peers, Fidas said. Sears agreed, saying being an ally is the “single largest thing people have to do,” beyond business policies.
“In addition to LGBTQ people navigating the workplace and living openly, a lot of this report is aimed at allies or would-be allies,” Fidas said. “They can often be the ones to disrupt some of these challenging dynamics.”