Numerous scholars have noted the disproportionately high number of gay and lesbian workers in certain occupations, but systematic explanations for this type of occupational segregation remain elusive. Drawing on the literatures on concealable stigma and stigma management, we develop a theoretical framework predicting that gay men and lesbians will concentrate in occupations that provide a high degree of task independence or require a high level of social perceptiveness, or both. Using several distinct measures of sexual orientation, and controlling for potential confounds, such as education, urban location, and regional and demographic differences, we find support for these predictions across two nationally representative surveys in the United States for the period 2008–2010. Gay men are more likely to be in female-majority occupations than are heterosexual men, and lesbians are more represented in male-majority occupations than are heterosexual women, but even after accounting for this tendency, common to both gay men and lesbians is a propensity to concentrate in occupations that provide task independence or require social perceptiveness, or both. This study offers a theory of occupational segregation on the basis of minority sexual orientation and holds implications for the literatures on stigma, occupations, and labor markets.The authors note
Occupational segregation—the systematic distribution of people across occupations based on demographic characteristics—is a pervasive and consequential phenomenon in contemporary organizations. The concentration of members of a demographic group, such as women or racial minorities, in certain occupations profoundly shapes individuals’ social and economic prospects (England, Chassie, and McCormack, 1982; Reskin, 1993; Mandel, 2013).
Likewise, occupational segregation has important consequences for organizations, such as narrowing the talent pools from which employers might hire and shaping the demographic profile of different positions and professional groups within organizations (Dobbin et al., 1993; Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly, 2006; Barbulescu and Bidwell, 2013; Bidwell et al., 2013).
The occupational segregation of gay and lesbian workers — "one of the largest, but least studied, minority groups in the workforce" (Ragins, 2004: 35) — presents an unresolved puzzle for researchers. Since the late nineteenth century, numerous scholars have noted the unusually high concentration of gay or lesbian workers in certain occupations (e.g., Ellis, 1897; Baumle, Compton, and Poston, 2009), but systematic explanations for this phenomenon remain elusive. This question is particularly puzzling because, at first glance, these occupations seem to have little in common, ranging from some blue-collar trades (e.g., various repairers and mechanics) to certain service jobs (e.g., flight attendants and massage therapists) and white-collar occupations (such as psychologists and postsecondary teachers).
To date, the most consistent account of this phenomenon has been that lesbian and gay workers are often found in occupations that are traditionally associated with the opposite sex (Baumle, Compton, and Poston, 2009). Although predictions based on this observation account for some of the important patterns in gay and lesbian occupational segregation, they leave a great deal of variance unexplained. Recent U.S. data suggest that nearly half of gay men are actually in occupations in which men are the majority of workers, and twothirds of lesbians work in female-majority occupations. The tendency of lesbians and gay men to cross occupational gender lines also cannot account for professional fields in which both lesbian and gay workers are overrepresented, such as psychology, counseling, law, and social work (Baumle, Compton, and Poston, 2009). While numerous other explanations have also been proposed for gay and lesbian occupational patterns, many of these apply to just a small set of occupations and are relevant to either gay men or to lesbians (e.g., Be´ rube´ , 1990, 2011; Chauncey, 1994), rather than capturing the drivers of segregation common to both populations.
To provide a more comprehensive explanation for lesbian and gay occupational segregation, we conceptualize minority sexual orientation as a potential source of concealable stigma (Smart and Wegner, 1999; Ragins, 2008), that is, a socially stigmatized characteristic that is not readily apparent to observers. We draw on Goffman’s (1963) classic insight that a principal challenge for individuals with concealable stigma is to manage information about their stigmatized status in social interactions. This need for stigma management — both at work and beyond — is likely to have important consequences for occupational segregation. In particular, it might lead to an overrepresentation of gay and lesbian workers in occupations that provide a high level of task independence (i.e., freedom to perform one’s tasks without substantially depending on others) or require a high level of social perceptiveness (i.e., accurate anticipation and reading of others’ reactions), or both.
Task independence would allow these workers to manage information about their stigmatized status more effectively in the workplace, while also mitigating the risks associated with disclosure. Social perceptiveness is likely to emerge as an important social adaptation or coping skill for many gay and lesbian people at a relatively young age. Addressing the dilemma of disclosure versus concealment across social situations requires sensitivity in order to read and anticipate others’ reactions (Radkowsky and Siegel, 1997; Pachankis, 2007), which in turn are valued behaviors in occupations that require social perceptiveness.
We test our predictions with two distinct population samples and multiple measures of sexual orientation. Our first data source is the 2008–2010 American Community Survey (ACS), which provides a nationally representative sample of nearly five million people in the United States and allows us to systematically identify individuals living with a same-sex partner. While the size and quality of this sample offer unique advantages, one limitation is that these data capture only those lesbian and gay workers who are members of a cohabiting same-sex couple. Thus we also test our hypotheses on a second sample, the fourth wave of the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, collected in 2008–2009. Although this sample is restricted to respondents between the ages of 26 and 31, it effectively complements the ACS data by providing indicators of sexual orientation independent of partnered status. We combined both samples with data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), the primary source of survey-based information about the characteristics of occupations in the U.S. economy (Liu and Grusky, 2013). These data allow us to test the hypothesis that common to both gay men and lesbians is a propensity to concentrate in occupations that provide task independence or require social perceptiveness, or both.They comment further
Building on Goffman’s (1963) classic insights into concealable stigma, we identified two patterns that underlie the occupational landscape for gay and lesbian workers. Fundamental to both of our hypotheses is the idea that occupational segregation is shaped by gay and lesbian workers’ adaptation to potential discrimination and the dilemmas of disclosure that they face both in the workplace and beyond. Our results suggest that this framework can parsimoniously explain a large set of seemingly random patterns across the occupational spectrum. While gay men are more likely to be in female-dominated occupations than are heterosexual men, and lesbians are more highly represented in maledominated occupations than are heterosexual women, common to both gay men and lesbians is a tendency to concentrate in occupations that provide task independence or require social perceptiveness, or both.
A focus on social perceptiveness and task independence can also explain many previous observations about lesbian and gay jobs. As noted earlier, for example, one finding that a sex-typing perspective could not account for is that both gay and lesbian workers are often concentrated in professions that focus on creativity, psychology, counseling, law, and social work (Baumle, Compton, and Poston, 2009). Clearly, working in these fields requires a non-trivial degree of social perceptiveness, perhaps most obviously in the case of psychology, counseling, and social work, but also in creative or artistic fields, in which perception of social conditions and audiences plays an important role. Some of these fields (e.g., creative jobs and psychology) also tend to provide a relatively high level of task independence.
Similarly, many artistic, service-oriented, and care-focused occupations commonly associated with gay men require an above-average level of social perceptiveness. Awareness and anticipation of others’ reactions and mental states — whether they are patients in a healthcare setting, passengers on a plane, audience members in a theatre, or students in a classroom — are relatively important components of many such jobs. Likewise, the (only partially accurate) observation that lesbians might be drawn to highly ‘‘masculine’’ bluecollar work can be explained in a more nuanced and empirically accurate way if one notes that lesbian workers are especially likely to be found in those maledominated, blue-collar jobs that provide an above-average degree of task independence. It is quite striking, for example, that four of the five male-majority occupations with the highest proportion of lesbian workers are various repairers and installers with an above-average degree of task independence (table 2). Thus rather than simply reflecting an innate sensibility of gay men for artistic or caring jobs, or a natural attraction of lesbians to ‘‘masculine’’ jobs, these occupational patterns might be more effectively understood in terms of social perceptiveness and task independence, factors that reflect social adaptation to concealable stigma in the workplace and beyond.
The notion that social perceptiveness due to the need for stigma management plays a key role in occupational segregation suggests implications for both the past and the future of gay and lesbian work. For example, the labor historian Berube’s (2011: 265) research into the gay labor movement led him to ask, ‘‘How do people find queer work and how do they make these jobs their own?’’ By ‘‘queer work,’’ Berube´ meant work that is often performed by, or has the reputation of being performed by, homosexual men and women. His question stemmed from, for example, the observed concentration of gay men in a handful of military jobs during World War II and in steward jobs on ocean liners after the war. By identifying some possible dimensions of ‘‘queer work,’’ our study’s findings start to answer Berube’s question.
Our study suggests, for example, that the ‘‘special talents’’ that some observers attributed to gay soldiers during World War II might not be fully imaginary (Be´ rube´ , 1990: 57). Being a hospital corpsman, a navy yeoman, or a chaplain’s assistant—jobs in which gay men were believed to congregate in the military—may have required a higher degree of social perceptiveness than many other military occupations. Attending to wounded soldiers’ medical and emotional needs, to navy officers’ clerical needs, or to soldiers’ religious comfort are tasks in which the understanding of others’ needs, reactions, emotions, and cognitive states is likely to play a non-trivial role. Similarly, social perceptiveness is likely to have been integral to the work of ship stewards, a servicefocused role involving frequent interactions with passengers. It is important to emphasize, however, that what earlier observers saw as a perhaps innate ‘‘special talent’’ we conceptualize as the result of social adaptation to concealable stigma.
One implication of this view is that, in the long run, the possible de-stigmatization of minority sexual orientation may weaken the relationships that we have documented. In particular, in societies that become more tolerant of same-sex relationships, the need for stigma management in everyday social interactions (Goffman, 1963) might fade over time. Intriguingly, as broader tolerance alleviates the intense and ongoing need for managing stigma-related information in everyday life, it might also lead to a relative ‘‘deskilling’’ of gay and lesbian workers with respect to social perceptiveness. Put otherwise, these workers might lose their distinctiveness (Anteby and Anderson, 2014). At the same time, the patterns that we observed are likely to remain in place for a significant period of time. Even if de-stigmatization took place rapidly, broad occupational patterns are slow to change because they continue to reflect earlier educational and career choices and because network-based mechanisms (such as homophily in job referrals) might also help maintain segregation patterns that had initially emerged as a response to stigmatization (see Marquis and Tilcsik, 2013).