by Julie Gedro | Issues of lesbians, and their challenges and opportunities in corporations and organizations, are generally an under-explored phenomena. During my doctoral work in Human Resource Development at the University of Georgia back in the late nineties, I grew increasingly aware that the literature in my field did not speak to me as a lesbian. The literature in management, leadership, and career development was void of considerations of the intersection of gender and sexual orientation.
Out of this awareness of the lack of exploration into lesbian issues in the workplace, I conducted a national, qualitative study in which I asked participants (lesbians in managerial, director and executive positions in mostly Fortune 500 corporations) what they learned about success. The themes of that study were threefold. First, lesbians who were succeeding in corporate America learned to pre-screen a person or a situation in order to get a “read” on what the response will be if she makes her sexuality known. Second, successful lesbians learned how to come out, and that coming out was an iterative and ongoing process. Third, successful lesbians learned that they felt a commitment to serving as change agents by educating others about the unique issues that lesbians face.
That study led to a variety of wonderful opportunities to lecture, conduct workshops and even propose and create a college course offered within the State University of New York (SUNY system), where I am an Associate Professor of Business, Management and Economics at Empire State College. Over the last ten years, lesbians have gained increasing visibility in society in general, thanks to the popularity of delightful people such as Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, Jane Lynch, and Martina Navratilova. This means that there has been a bit of a shift in the challenges and opportunities facing lesbians in the workplace.
In response to queries by lecture attendees who have asked me to explain to them why issues faced by lesbians are different than issues faced by all women, I wrote an article, published in the European Journal of Industrial Training (2010), entitled “Lesbian Presentations and Representations of Leadership, and Implications for HRD .” The issues specific to lesbian leaders, I argued, include visibility and invisibility (that is, lesbians often have the dubious luxury of “hiding”); the persistent assumption of heterosexism in the workplace; and expectations for gender conformity.
The good news is that today in 2012, the center of gravity of lesbian issues in the workplace is undergoing a significant shift. Part of this shift is generational. Younger lesbians are much less likely to tolerate the oppressive systems and structures of the workplace and instead, they are acting out of a sense of personal power and self-confidence. They are not willing to closet. Lesbians who are, like me, baby boomers have gained an increased sense of comfort and security based in no small part on the state-specific workplace legislation prohibiting discrimination based upon sexual orientation; the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the visibility in popular culture of out lesbians, and the general enlightenment of corporate America.
Work remains to be done regarding lesbian issues in the workplace. Training sessions that deal with diversity should be informed by an awareness of the unique issues of intersectionality. Research needs to be done to acquire more insights about sexual orientation identity development and career development. Lesbian who are in positions of senior management have an opportunity to mentor younger lesbians who have high career aspirations.
Please feel free to contact me at Julie.Gedro@esc.edu if you have an idea for a research study, or would like more information about any of the topics that I have touched on in this article.
Julie Gedro is an Associate Professor of Business, Management and Economics with Empire State College / State University of New York. Dr. Gedro served, from 2008-2010, as final Director of the FORUM Central Management Program. FORUM was an innovative Residency program for first level managers, mid-career managers, and entrepreneurs who seek completion of their undergraduate degrees in Business, Management and Economics. Currently, Gedro is the Faculty Chair for the Central New York Center of Empire State College. She is the founding Chair of the ad hoc Committee of the Empire State College Senate on Workplace Civility. Prior to becoming an educator, Dr. Gedro served in Human Resource Management and Development positions of increasing responsibility in the finance, high-tech and telecommunications sectors in Atlanta, Georgia. She has a B.A. in Economics from the College of William and Mary; an M.B.A. in Information Systems from Kennesaw State University; and a Doctorate of Education (Ed.D.) in Adult Education and Human Resource Development from the University of Georgia. Dr. Gedro is certified as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR) by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Dr. Gedro researches, writes, publishes and speaks on Civility in the Workplace, LGBT Issues in the Workplace, Social Capital, Mentoring, Business Ethics Pedagogy, and Leadership. She is published in a variety of Adult Education, Human Resource Development, and popular press publications. Dr. Gedro has a “magnificent obsession” with lifelong learning, which inspired her transition into the academy.