Can sexuality influence your pay?

Written by
Zee Hussain

02 Oct 2015

02 Oct 2015 • by Zee Hussain

Is sexuality discrimination rife in the workplace?

While much of the debate over equal pay has focused on the differences between men and women (women are generally paid around 10% less than men), a new report has highlighted a potential link between, not just sex, but sexual orientation and pay too. The research from a World Bank study has indicated that, globally, lesbians earn significantly more than their straight female colleagues, whereas gay men tend to earn less than heterosexual men.

For employers everywhere, this introduces a new layer of complexity to the question of equal pay and avoiding issues of discrimination. The surprising figures show that in the UK, the pay gap between straight and gay women is 8% and this rises significantly in other countries, shooting up to 20% in the USA. Gay men, on the other hand, earn 5% less than their straight colleagues in the UK and in other countries this is much more pronounced , including 9% in Germany and 12% in Canada.

For employers, this necessarily requires a re-examination of the way that gender and sexuality impact on career progression and the potential for discrimination in different workplaces.

Employee sexuality - what should employers be aware of?

In order to understand how the insight provided by this report might impact on the workplace, it’s worth looking into how the report’s author Dr Nick Drydakis, explains the statistics. He says that for women, being a lesbian can have an impact on life decisions and lifestyle choices that explain the pay differentials, as compared to straight women. He says the study found that these choices “differ from those they would have made had they adopted traditional gender-based household specialisation roles.”

So, for example he says lesbians might decide to stay in education longer, to choose a more male dominated career path that traditionally offers a much steeper salary climb and to work longer hours in a higher paid job. He also said that there could be positive discrimination towards lesbians who exhibit more masculine traits in the workplace, rather than against them. However, it seemed in part to depend on the environment in question, as the research showed that lesbians in female dominated workplaces tended to suffer more discrimination, as did gay men in male dominated workplaces.

Characteristic bias: is this a widespread problem?

Overall, for gay men, the report found an enormous amount of evidence of negative discrimination and Dr Nick Drydakis says that this is the reason why gay men are often paid less than their straight counterparts. The study found that many organisations are “biased against gay men” and that this comes down to many workplaces not placing any value on the characteristics of a gay man, as opposed to a heterosexual man.

Dr Drydakis said: “Studies suggest that firms that are biased against gay men consistently discriminate against them, and that the gap in gay men’s earnings relative to heterosexual men is directly related to the strength of the firm’s bias against gay men.” For a UK employer, this is dangerous ground as discrimination when determining pay – on the basis of sexual orientation – could potentially come under the Equality Act 2010.

The knock on effects for job satisfaction

It’s worth noting that, despite the higher pay for lesbians - overall, it is gay and lesbian employees who tend to report the biggest issues when it comes to workplace harassment or unfair treatment at work. Many are more likely to report lower job satisfaction than their heterosexual counterparts too. Only 20% of countries in the world have any kind of protection in place against discrimination against people in the workplace on the basis of sexuality so it’s not surprising that this is the case.

Is this really something employers need to worry about?

Some of the explanations raised by the report leave plenty of room for criticism, particularly the pigeonholing of gay men and lesbian women into a specific ‘type’ that may have certain characteristics and make certain career choices.Traditional avenues such as legal partnership and children are now on the cards for gay men and lesbian women, perhaps not identically to their heterosexual counterparts but nevertheless the life choices are not as clear cut and well defined as the author of the report seems to suggest.

However, it’s hard to ignore the statistics, which certainly point to the fact that sexuality has an impact on a working experience in one way or another and that, in many instances, this may not be entirely positive.

The need for transparency over pay is pressing

Perhaps the biggest issues that these statistics raise is that there are still huge issues with equality in the workplace and this is something that employers really need to address. This is particularly the case given recent developments in equality; for example, employment tribunals are now able to demand that an employer carry out an equal pay audit, as of October 2014, and to publish the results of the audit on the company website.

There have also been recent indications that the government is going to press ahead with forcing large firms to disclose data on any gender pay gap among staff, whether they want to or not.

Looking after your workforce

This World Bank study is not the only one to be completed on the issue and others have shown very different results, evidence of significant discrimination against lesbians in the workplace, for example. Then, of course, there are issues faced by straight women too that are not even mentioned here, who seem to earn less than everyone.

The message from all these studies to employers is clear: there is a need to deal directly and firmly with harassment and to ensure equality of opportunity, from evaluating business policies and recruitment, to encouraging a workplace free from discrimination and prejudice.