• Apollina "Polly" Kyle

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Sexual harassment against LGBT+ employees is still too present in our workspaces. We need to find a way to reach the end of the rainbow where they are protected and respected.

Thankfully society is always evolving. Celebrating Pride this month should highlight some of the successes for the LGBT+ community in Europe. More and more the community is feeling proud and safe to live as who they are; the number of LGBT+ aged 18 and above who feel they are always open about their sexuality has increased from 36% in 2012 to 52% in 2019.

According to a Gallup poll in 2019, 63% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, compared with about 44% in 2010. Many nations are taking the proper steps towards protecting and empowering their LGBT+ citizens. Yet, there are still many spheres where LGBT+ individuals do not feel truly safe and unfortunately one of those places is in the workplace.

Organisational psychologists have researched why sexual harassment occurs specifically in the workplace and the implications it can have for the LGBT+ community. The analysis is formed around Gender Based Discrimination and Harassment (GBDH) is the umbrella term for the power relations that occur through the act of harassment.

GBDH explains why sexist notions of power can also be the root for homophobic behaviour within companies. In the same way that it is assumed that women can be viewed as the inferior gender, thus their harassment is socially validated, so this argument is applied for the LGBT+ community. Therefore it is not surprising that employees who believe they have the least amount of organisational support within the workplace are the one to have reported the most harassment levels.

For LGBT+ employees, a constant within the workplace are micro-aggressions. Micro-aggressions are intersectional so this does not just apply to queer employees, but also to women employees, or employees of colour. It is 2021 and the blatant homophobia and racism has (hopefully) mostly been removed from our dialogue, but the micro-aggressions have stayed.

Micro-aggressions are subtle, implicit and harmful actions directed at a group of people that can be verbal, behavioural, or environmental. They seem innocent, but they are negatively impacting the target's well-being.

There are three types of micro-aggressions: a micro-assault: “For a man, you sure don’t act masculine enough, why are you wearing nail polish? That is something women do”; a micro-insult: “This report is well thought out, who helped you with it?”; a micro-invalidation “There isn’t enough time to address our LGBT+ issues on the agenda today, don’t ask again”.

Because these attacks are implicit, they are harder to combat. Yet studies have shown that 90% of transgender people have reported harassment on the job. When comparing heterosexual harassment to that targeted against LGBT+ employees, there is a stark difference: The harassment rate for heterosexuals over a six month period was 6.4%, it tripled for bisexuals to 19.2%, was 16.9% for lesbians and 13.7% for gay employees.

Thus, sexual harassment should not just be viewed within the gender binary of who gets harassed, as these number showcase that sexual orientation can also be a source of gender-based harassment and discrimination.

In the U.S. Title VII was created to protect employees from any discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex and national origin. In the past, it has been applied to protect against harassment based on gender, sex and sex stereotyping, but it falls short of protecting against sexual orientation.

In the European Union, while sexual orientation has been recognised as grounds for discrimination, the LGBT+ community still believe that law, policies, and behaviour still greatly affect their lives without much change. A majority of LGBT+ respondents (58%) say that in the five years before the survey, they experienced harassment in the form of offensive or threatening situations – including incidents of a sexual nature – at work, on the street, on public transport, in a shop, on the internet, or anywhere else.

Source: EU LGBTI II, 2019

Even with inclusion and respect policies being passed at the European level, LGBT+ employees are still feeling discriminated against in the workplace. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2019 Report on LGBT+ inclusion, the number of respondents who feel they have been discriminated against at work due to being LGBT+ in the past year has barely changed in a 7 year period.

The policies in place are simply not enough.

So then, what needs to be done to support the LGBT+ community has to happen at a larger regulatory scale than what is currently occurring, but a bottom up approach for companies is still useful. It is important for companies to develop policies against sexual harassment and gender based harassment while also incorporating a clause protecting against harassment based on sexuality.

Often, employees who account for being the most targeted for harassment are the ones who feel the least supported within a company. Therefore, an easy first step is to question the level of support your organisation offers its employees and strengthen it if necessary.

To offer support, there are many websites that can increase the feeling of trust within a company like The Safe Zone Project for free safe zone training and GLAAD, which is devoted to shaping the conversation for LGBT+ folk in the workplace. Support can also be created by by implementing sexual harassment reporting tools, such as those offered by Metta Space.

Lastly, as we have come to know, diversity on executive boards of companies leads to more efficiency, but also greater attention to risk oversight and increased accountability measures. When boards not only have gender diversity, but also other legally protected classes, the likelihood of the company adopting LGBT+ workplace protections increases dramatically.

We can all be afraid or intimidated by change. It means we have a long road ahead and a lot of work to do. However, no one should ever be afraid to set foot in an office, feel unhappy going to work, or uncomfortable talking to their colleagues. Organisations must do more to ensure all their employees, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, feel protected, safe and satisfied going to work.


Written By: Apollina "Polly" Kyle, Research Ambassador at Metta Space

Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space

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