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Queers in corporate Canada still hitting the pink ceiling

'The straight old boys' network is alive and well,' says advocate

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Queers trying to climb the corporate ladder face barriers that limit their career advancement, says a new report.

“LGBT women and men are highly engaged in workforces globally,” states the report. “Nevertheless the difficulties that LGBT employees face in the workplace are often unnoticed or ignored by organizations.”

Conducted by the Toronto office of the international research firm Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that focusses on the advancement of women in the workplace, the report also found that queer women experience less positive relationships with their work managers compared to queer men and straight men and women.

The report, entitled “Building LGBT-Inclusive Workplaces: Engaging Organizations and Individuals in Change,” is based on qualitative research from two surveys of Canadian workers: one that looked at 232 queer-identified respondents, 104 women and 124 men, who had an average of eight years experience working specifically in a corporate organization, and a second survey that focused on career advancement in corporate Canada and involved 17,908 respondents, 466 of whom identified as queer.

Michael Bach, national director of diversity equity for accounting firm KPMG Canada, says he isn’t surprised by the study’s results.

“It wasn’t a shock to me,” says Bach, who is also the founding cochair of Pride at Work Canada, an advocacy group that supports queers in the workplace. “I know [queer] people in Toronto who work for major corporations who are fearful of coming out because they’re worried about how it will impact their career.

“The straight old boys’ network is alive and well.”

The report, sponsored by the Scotiabank, was released Jun 1 to coincide with the beginning of Pride month. Vice president of Catalyst North America Deborah Gilles says releasing the study close to Pride was intentional.

“There is an open awareness of [queer] issues at this time,” says Gilles. “We wanted to tap into the broader community.”

But she notes that creating inclusive work environments for queer people isn’t a one-shot deal. “It’s something organizations need to focus on year round as part of their commitment to diversity.”

The report suggests that queers working in corporate Canada would be able to advance their careers if there was a greater awareness of queer issues in the workplace, less discrimination and hostility toward its queer employees and if corporations provided queer employees with fair opportunities to network.

“I think that misconceptions of what it means to be LGBT still exist and can cause people to be concerned that we are going to show up to work one day dressed in drag or leather,” writes one gay male survey respondent.

“As a lesbian women, I have sometimes had to fend off occasional stereotypes of lesbian women as all butch and muscular and ungainly — I’m none of these,” writes a lesbian respondent.

Both male and female participates reported feeling excluded from networking activities, which is critical to career advancement in many professions.

“Not being part of the golfing crowd has excluded me from several opportunities in my career,” writes one survey participant.

“Trans people are left out of these networking attempts/opportunities because we are seen as complicated — maybe an embarrassment,” writes a self-identified queer, transsexual female-to-male respondent.

Some anecdotes contained in the report address the lack of queer role models in corporate Canada.

“There has not been an openly LGBT person in a senior management or VP role in my division of the organization since I have been employed here [since the early 1990s]. It does make me wonder,” writes a gay male participant.

The report also suggests that corporate Canada doesn’t fully get our colourful identity politics.

One survey participant, who identifies as a “heterosexual, transgender man who sometimes presents as a woman,” writes that, “our HR types… thought ‘crossdresser’ translated into something equal to ‘flamboyant drag queen in pink hot pants and thigh-high boots.'”

The Catalyst report, which is intended to help corporations create more inclusive and productive work environments, found that queer employees who work for corporations with diversity and inclusion programs were more satisfied at work, perceived their workplace as more fair and had more positive relationships with their superiors. The report also argues that when queer employees spend less time thinking about whether or not to disclose their sexual orientation, both organizations and employees benefit.