Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 17 / 24 April 2014
 
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Significant hiring discrimination, study shows

NEWS

Gays in the workplace


Researcher M.V. Lee Badgett said a Harvard researcher's recent study pointed to discrimination based on sexual orientation when people apply for jobs. (Photo: Bob Roehr)
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Openly gay men face "significant" hiring discrimination in several parts of the country, but there are wide differences from state to state. That's the finding of a new, large-scale study, which also found that employers in areas where anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation are less likely to discriminate.

Additionally, the study found that employers are more likely to discriminate when job descriptions emphasize "stereotypically male heterosexual traits."

The findings come from "Pride and Prejudice: Employment Discrimination Against Openly Gay Men in the United States," published in the September issue of the American Journal of Sociology .

The study was conducted by Andras Tilcsik, a researcher at Harvard University, who sent out 1,769 pairs of fictitious resumes in response to online job postings by private employers. The job advertisements were for recent college graduates and covered five occupations (administrative assistant, analyst, customer service representative, manager, sales representative) across seven states (California, Florida, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas).

The resumes in each pair were of similar quality, differing only enough to "avoid raising suspicion" that they were fictitious.

One resume in each pair stated that the candidate was treasurer of a college gay and lesbian organization. He was given a leadership role, rather than simple membership in the group, because the role required financial and managerial skills, and justified mention on a resume. It would thus be clear the candidate was gay – but employers would not see him as "lacking business savvy" for including information about "irrelevant" activities, according to the study.

The other resume stated that the applicant was treasurer of a college progressive and socialist organization. Tilcsik explained that because many people perceive LGBT organizations to have a liberal slant, if both resumes implied liberal organizations, any difference in the responses would not be because of an employer's political bias.

Overall, 11.5 percent of heterosexual "applicants" received a callback for an interview, versus 7.2 percent of gay men, meaning heterosexual men received over one-and-a-half times as many callbacks. Heterosexual applicants would have to apply for fewer than nine jobs to get an interview, whereas gay men would have to apply to almost 14.

"Until now," said Tilcsik, "the extent and patterns of this kind of discrimination have not been systematically documented on a large scale, across geographic areas."

Previous studies looked at less objective, self-reported instances of hiring discrimination, were limited to a small sample, or were conducted outside the United States. And some focused on wage differences, which skeptics could attribute to differences in productivity rather than discrimination.

M.V. Lee Badgett, director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and research director of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, has authored several previous studies of employment discrimination against lesbians and gay men. Badgett said the most important aspect of Tilcsik's study is that "it rules out differences in the gay and heterosexual applicants' skills and experience by design, so the fact that gay applicants are much less likely to be invited for an interview is hard to explain by anything other than discrimination."

Different states, different findings

But the overall finding by Tilcsik was significantly different from his findings in various states.

In New York, Pennsylvania, and California, the gap between callbacks for the fictitious gay and heterosexual applicants was insignificant.

But in Texas, resumes of heterosexual men received more than three times as many callbacks as those of gay men. Heterosexual men would need to apply for only eight jobs to get an interview, versus 27 for gay men.

In Ohio, resumes of heterosexual men received over two-and-a-half times as many callbacks, and in Florida, almost twice as many.

The number of job postings in Nevada during the study period was too small to draw definite conclusions there, according to the report.

When employers were in cities, counties, or states without laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, gay men received fewer than half the number of callbacks of heterosexual men. In areas with such anti-discrimination laws, the gap was smaller but still significant – gay men received three-quarters as many callbacks.

California, Nevada, and New York have statewide protections against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas do not, although they have some cities and counties with such protections.

Tilcsik cautioned that it is hard to determine whether the lower levels of discrimination were because of the anti-discrimination laws themselves or because people in areas likely to adopt such laws had more positive opinions about gay people to begin with.

Tilcsik did not look at whether specific employers had corporate anti-discrimination policies. He explained in an interview that getting accurate information on such policies can be difficult, especially for small companies. And, he said, "previous research suggests that such policies often have little effect."

Another key finding was that the discrimination was based partly on "the personality traits that employers seek" and stereotypical beliefs about gay men.

When job postings used traditional masculine traits like "aggressive or assertive, decisive, or ambitious" to describe an ideal candidate, heterosexual applicants received almost three times as many callbacks as gay ones. When such traits were not part of the job posting, heterosexual applicants received only about one-and-a-half times as many callbacks.

"The discrimination documented in this study is partly rooted in specific stereotypes and cannot be completely reduced to a general antipathy against gay employees," said Tilcsik. It demonstrates the "potentially powerful effect" of stereotypes on hiring decisions.

Badgett said Tilcsik's several findings are consistent with previous research in showing "clear evidence of discrimination."

Tilcsik's study, she said, is also "good evidence" that employers "are taking sexual orientation into account at an early stage of the [hiring] process."

But Tilcsik noted that much more research remains to be done on other parts of the LGBT spectrum, other stages of hiring and employment, and "specific factors that might reduce the likelihood of discrimination" such as anti-discrimination laws, public attitudes, and organizational policies.

Tilcsik's is the first large-scale study to use the objective paired resume approach to explore discrimination against any part of the LGBT spectrum in the United States. Smaller and more subjective studies have indicated that such discrimination exists for lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people as well.






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