LGBTQ+ workers earn about 10 percent less over their lifetimes compared to straight white men — and LGBTQ+ people of color, transgender people and nonbinary people earn even less. A host of factors contribute to this, including a shortage of LGBTQ+ role models in leadership positions and fewer opportunities for sponsorship and mentorship from leaders outside the community.
Another factor that's less discussed is the mental toll that comes with being "different" from what is perceived as the norm.
"Part of the challenge for folks who are part of the community is that there's a constant feeling of having to 'come out' at work. People who are heterosexual, they don't have to constantly come out to people," said John Volturo, a partner at the coaching, consulting and investment firm Evolution. "It's draining emotionally. People who are part of the community often don't have as much energy at the end of the day because they're constantly in a fight mode."
Understanding the LGBTQ+ pay gap
The gender pay gap is generally well known: White women earn 20 percent less than men on average, a figure that increases for women of color — including a 30 percent gap for Black women and a 35 percent gap for Latina women.
The LGBTQ+ pay gap is less understood, though the factors that drive pay discrepancies for people in the community often mirror the experiences other historically marginalized groups report at work.
Take, for example, this longitudinal study of Black women who received an MBA from Harvard Business School, arguably the most competitive business school in the United States. Though published in 2018, the study offers a rare glimpse into the long-term effects of being an "other" in the workplace. Within 40 years of graduation, only 13 percent of Black women who received a Harvard MBA went on to reach the senior executive ranks in their fields, compared to 40 percent of Harvard MBAs overall.
Of the Black women who managed to reach the top, many said they struggled to “be themselves” at work and often felt “on display” in their workplaces. “It makes you work hard to make sure you’re never misstepping,” one Black woman CEO told the Harvard Business Review.
Of course the experiences of a Black woman and a white man in the workplace will be very different, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. But the internal conflict that comes from feeling "on display" is echoed by people in the LGBTQ+ community — and many say it holds them back from growing in their roles.
"Yes, more people than ever feel comfortable coming out," said Evolution partner Peter Gandolfo. "But there's this question looming over them: Will their decision to be 'out' and 'how out' they're going to be have a detrimental impact on their standing within the organization?"
It can seem even harder to be open at work as increasingly hostile rhetoric toward the community continues to make headlines in the U.S. "Ten years ago, being out was one thing. Today it feels like you're opening yourself up for a political debate that could ensue in the workplace," Gandolfo said.
The constant need to "come out," and the fear of what could happen when they do, adds up to LGBTQ+ people feeling they can't be their authentic selves in the workplace, which research shows has detrimental effects on career growth.
How to counter the LGBTQ+ pay gap: From leadership ranks to corporate culture
Openly LGBTQ+ people hold just 25 of the 5,670 board seats in the Fortune 500, a mere 0.40 percent. Of those 25 seats, only two are held by LGBTQ+ people of color, according to Out Leadership, a global LGBTQ+ business platform.
"Some of the key challenges LGBTQ+ workers face are specifically around the idea that they don't see role models at the top," said Volturo, who spent decades serving in C-suites and on corporate boards as an out member of the community. "We call it the Rainbow Glass Effect — emphasizing how the lack of those LGBTQ+ individuals in leadership positions really creates a glass ceiling and keeps people pushed down."
To help answer this need for their community, Volturo and Gandolfo co-created Evolution's Gay Men's Leadership Circles, a peer group of directors, managers and C-suite leaders from across organizations. Members range from aspiring leaders in their 20s and 30s to seasoned executives in the golden age of their careers. They meet regularly to support each other, opening the door for personal connection and mentorship that may not exist within their own workplaces.
"One of our biggest drivers for creating this was the desire for connection and community," said Gandolfo, who helped launch the LGBTQ+ employee resource group at Mattel, among other leadership roles before joining Evolution. "There are a lot of LGBTQ people in leadership roles who can feel quite alone — either because they don't have peers they can confide in around their business challenges, their worries, or they're the only LGBTQ person within their organization."
The space to connect helps younger leaders learn from veterans and creates a platform to discuss ideas or concerns without judgment. As a result, members have grown in their careers, become champions for inclusion within their organizations, and found the courage to come out at work for the first time. But many LGBTQ+ workers don't have access to this type of space, which means every organization has more to do when it comes to championing LGBTQ+ people in leadership and building a culture in which people feel they can be themselves.
"This increasing rise in the culture war is causing us to have to work a lot harder to make people feel safe — and not only feel safe, but feel like they don't get penalized for being who they are wherever they go," Volturo said.
Inclusion benefits businesses as well as workers, and everyone has a role
For LGBTQ+ workers who don't have a space to connect with peers in their workplaces or communities, the power of self advocacy can go a long way toward breaking down the barriers that contribute to the LGBTQ+ pay gap, even if it feels scary at first.
"When you're more of yourself, you're performing at your best and people can respond to you in deeper, more connective ways," Volturo said. "Make sure you're advocating for yourself, questioning things and doing it in a way that feels safe for you. The most important thing is for you to feel safe, physically and emotionally, but when you start talking to people and you realize who your allies are, those allies become really important folks for helping to create a dialogue and for defending you during meetings, defending you during hiring. And by ‘you’ I mean the community itself, to make sure that we have a voice."
"Any parts of coming out that were hard paled in comparison to the benefits and empowerment that I felt by being able to be out and to be more of myself," Gandolfo added.
But just like it isn't up to Black employees to "fix racism" within their organizations, creating workplaces more conducive to the advancement of LGBTQ+ workers is everyone's responsibility. In other words: Those who consider themselves allies to the community need to act like it. "Allyship is a verb," Gandolfo said. "We don't just get to say we are an ally. Leaders and organizations have to take active steps to support inclusion of LGBTQ workers or anybody else that's marginalized."
Taking action on the host of evidence-based ways to build inclusion within organizations is not only good for workers, but it's also proven to have a bottom-line benefit that should make leaders look twice.
"We know through lots of qualitative and quantitative studies that when people are showing up authentically at work, the bottom line improves for companies," Volturo said. "The work has an emotional component for creating psychological safety, but it also has a profit component, too. Imagine your best workers doing their best work because they're in an environment that supports that."
Image credit: Mercedes Mehling/Unsplash
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.