Home Blog Marquette faculty advances research on LGBTQ workplace discrimination

Marquette faculty advances research on LGBTQ workplace discrimination

February 08, 2023
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Dr. Jennica Webster, co-director of Marquette University’s Institute for Women’s Leadership and an associate professor in the Department of Management, holds a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology. She is an esteemed member of the research community that helps business leaders implement evidence-based management techniques developed from original scientific research about human behavior in the workplace.

A specialist in diversity, equity and inclusion, Dr. Webster collaborated with two other researchers on a 2021 study of transgender workers that offers insights into ways managers and leaders can improve organizational climate and make all employees feel valued, in turn leading to greater engagement, productivity and loyalty.

Learn more here about that research and its practical implications, along with background on the national landscape surrounding LGBTQ workplace discrimination. We'll begin by clarifying some important terms.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are different

The American Psychological Association explains that gender identity and sexual orientation are distinct dimensions of a person. Children as young as three years old have a sense of their gender, while people develop a sexual orientation as they mature.1

Sexual orientation refers to a person's patterns of emotional and sexual attraction, whether that is to the opposite sex, the same sex or both sexes. Although there is an element of social identity created by sexual orientation, the terms gender identity and gender expression refer to the alignment or divergence of a person's sex as assigned at birth and their sense of themselves. Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity aligns with their assigned birth sex.1, 2

Transgender refers to a gender identity state

The term transgender encompasses people who identify with the opposite of their assigned birth sex or do not identify with either sex. "Some who do not identify as either male or female prefer the term 'gender nonbinary' or 'genderqueer.'”1

Workplace discrimination includes harassment

Unfair treatment of an employee because of one or more of their personal characteristics is discrimination. Harassment, unwelcome conduct of a verbal, physical or sexual nature, is included.

Employment discrimination is illegal

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits workplace discrimination based on the target's personal characteristics, including:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Sex

The law applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. It covers employer actions such as hiring, promotions, salary and job assignments. Title VII also requires employers to protect workers from harassment by anyone, whether a supervisor, co-worker or customer, in the workplace.3, 4

Subsequent laws and Supreme Court rulings have clarified what is encompassed in the sex category of Title VII. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v Clayton County that this protected class also shields people from unfair treatment at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.5

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency charged with prosecuting violations of many federal employment discrimination laws.

LGBTQ workplace discrimination continues in spite of federal law

Slightly more than a year after the Bostock v Clayton County ruling, researchers at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that employment discrimination against the more than 8 million U.S. workers who identify as LGBT "continues to be widespread and persistent."6

They surveyed nearly 1,000 LGBT adults and nearly one third of their respondents reported that they experienced discrimination or harassment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity within the past five years, with respondents of color reporting higher incidence of discrimination and harassment, including verbal harassment, sexual harassment and physical harassment.6

Of those surveyed, 8.9% reported being fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity within just the last year.6

Slightly more than 20% of respondents reported being physically harassed: punched, hit or beaten up in the workplace.6

It's not surprising, then, that over half of LGBT employees hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from their supervisors, and nearly three-quarters of them hide this information from co-workers.6

Transgender employees face even more discrimination and harassment

Transgender workers reported not getting a job or being discriminated against at work because of their gender identity about twice as often as cisgender LGB employees. They also reported significantly higher levels of verbal harassment at work and were twice as likely to report sexual harassment in the past five years.6

In response, transgender employees were also much more likely to engage in behaviors to minimize their gender identity at work, including changing their appearance and their use of the bathroom.6

Journal of Applied Psychology research publication on supporting transgender workers

In late 2021, the American Psychological Association’s prestigious peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Psychology published research by Christian N. Thoroughgood, Ph.D., from Villanova University, Katina B. Sawyer, Ph.D., from George Washington University and Marquette University Associate Professor Jennica R. Webster, Ph.D.

“Because You’re Worth the Risks: Acts of Oppositional Courage as Symbolic Messages of Relational Value to Transgender Employees” reported on a four-part study investigating the positive effect that courageous acts of allyship by non-stigmatized employees can have on the well-being of colleagues with stigmatized identities, specifically transgender employees.

The research offers insights into ways managers and leaders can improve organizational climate and make all employees feel valued, in turn leading to greater engagement, productivity and loyalty.

Psychological terms used

The publication uses several psychological terms, explained simply here:

Emotional exhaustion is an important indicator of mental well-being and a key component of job burnout that results from accumulated stress. For transgender employees, it can be caused by attempts to conceal their gender identity as well as by incidents of discrimination and harassment. People suffering emotional exhaustion can feel drained, powerless and apathetic.

Identity centrality refers in this context to how important a person’s transgender status is to their sense of self.

Oppositional courage refers to a workplace act in support of those with less organizational status and power and in defiance of formal or informal power structures. Acts of oppositional courage expose the actor to such risks as isolation, hostility, career derailment and job loss. The researchers note that the perception of courage in the situation by those involved is what is important. In this context, it refers to acts by straight employees that promote respect, safety and equity for transgender workers.

Organization-based self-esteem (OBSE) refers to a person’s perception of self-worth based on their reflected competence and value within an organization.

Sociometer theory (SMT) holds that humans have highly developed sensitivity to social cues and that self-esteem in social or organizational settings is based on social cues about how they are valued by others in the immediate situation. If a person is rejected or otherwise devalued, those social cues lower their self-esteem and create psychological distress. If that person is embraced or praised, those cues increase their self-esteem.

Summary of the research

Using a novel application of sociometer theory, Webster and her colleagues theorized that acts of oppositional courage publicly convey esteem for transgender individuals, indirectly improving those individuals’ well-being by raising OBSE and job satisfaction while lowering emotional exhaustion.

The researchers used four studies to illuminate the relationship of perceived acts of oppositional courage to transgender individuals’ organization-based self-esteem, job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion, along with the moderating effect of identity centrality.

The first study gathered reports of acts of oppositional courage and identified overlapping themes within the descriptions of the acts that the researchers named “advocating, defending and educating behaviors.”7

The researchers used that information to create scenarios in the second study, which they used to verify a link between the acts of oppositional courage to trans individuals’ OBSE, and to understand the importance of the perceived risk in contributing to the effect.

They again used the results of the first study to generate a tool for measuring oppositional courage in the third study, which validated the existence of oppositional courage as a distinct construct. The research report also highlights the broad applicability of this tool in studying stigmatized groups in various work settings.

The fourth study used two surveys of the same individuals taken six weeks apart to quantify the relationship between perceptions of oppositional courage and OBSE, job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion. They found that identity centrality moderates these relationships.

Research results

“Study 4’s results suggest that when trans individuals perceive their cisgender colleagues take risks to oppose noninclusive policies, norms, or behavior toward them at work, they tend to report a greater sense of value at work and, in turn, higher job satisfaction and lower emotional exhaustion. Yet, these effects emerged only for those with trans identities that are more central to their self-view.”7

In addition to making several contributions to the literature and theory on workplace inclusion, the researchers developed practical guidance for individuals, managers and leaders seeking to improve organizational culture.

Practical implications of the research

Noting that acts of oppositional courage can have wider positive organizational effects, Webster and her colleagues suggest that HR leaders encourage workers to engage in acts of oppositional courage by equipping them to stand up for trans colleagues. “Diversity trainings should educate employees on how they can courageously foster more trans-inclusive workplaces, equipping them with the strategies and self-confidence needed to translate knowledge into action.”7

An important caveat is that cisgender employees should be aware of and respect the wishes of their transgender colleagues with respect to handling instances of discrimination or harassment of trans workers.

The researchers cite the Human Rights Campaign, the Transgender Law Center, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Out & Equal as having published guidelines for supporting transgender members of the workforce.

Because supervisor support, whether public or private, can be very beneficial to the well-being of transgender workers who are transitioning, the researchers urge supervisors to follow workplace transition guidelines from Out & Equal, SHRM or the Human Rights Campaign.

Learn evidence-based management skills for modern leadership at Marquette

Dr. Jennica Webster has published research in several professional journals and her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation. She exemplifies the innovators, leaders and creative thinkers who teach in the Marquette Graduate School of Management. Supporting high-quality research and student excellence are strategic priorities for Marquette University, with our Jesuit-informed dedication to holistic education. As a student in our online Master in Management (MiM) program you will benefit from working with award winning faculty members like Dr. Webster and an innovative curriculum that prepares you to lead skillfully in changing times. Talk with an Admissions Advisor to learn more.