You Sound Lesbian, You Can’t Be a Leader!
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are often stigmatized because of their sexual orientation. They face discrimination at work and in the hiring process, and sometimes struggle to get promoted. This may happen most often when they are qualified to reach high-status leadership positions that are stereotypically perceived as ‘masculine,’ or are male-dominated professions. Such positions may be seen as ‘inappropriate’ for gay men because they are stereotyped as ‘feminine’ and lacking those ‘masculine’ features that strong leaders are said to require.
What about lesbian women? Their case is more complex. As women they may be seen as a poor fit for stereotypically masculine jobs. As lesbians they may be stereotyped as having those ‘masculine’ traits that undergird a leader’s competence. Reality, however, tells us that lesbian women do not have any advantage among sexual minorities in the leadership labor market. Indeed, in the OUT-standing list published every year to celebrate LGBT leaders, men vastly outnumber women.
Lesbian women may be blocked from leadership roles by the intersection of two status variables: gender and sexual orientation. Women are seen as lower status than men and sexual minorities are seen as lower status than heterosexuals. The effect of gender on the selection of leaders is well researched, while the effect of sexual orientation is less researched. Hardly any research addresses the effects of the intersection of these two status variables.
Now, imagine a situation in which you apply for a job, the interview is conducted via Zoom, and your camera does not work. (Technical issues always happen at the wrong time!) Your voice is the only thing employers can hear. They may guess your age, gender, and ethnicity moments after hearing you speak. They may also guess your sexual orientation. They may not do that consciously, and their guesses may be correct or not. Still, their guesswork can affect their judgments. Research on the so-called ‘auditory gaydar’ has shown that voice can ‘signal’ sexual orientation, and that perceiving someone as gay-sounding can prompt discriminatory responses.
However, most auditory gaydar research has focused on male speakers. We know much less about how lesbian-sounding women are perceived and treated. This gap in the literature motivated us to examine how both lesbian-sounding women and gay-sounding men are treated when they apply for leadership positions.
In three studies, we asked heterosexual participants to imagine selecting a candidate for a leadership position. They listened to candidates briefly introducing themselves, and then reported their first impressions including which ones they would be most likely to hire. We did not tell these listeners the candidates’ sexual orientation, nor that we had selected speakers whose voices were pretested as sounding lesbian or heterosexual (for women speakers), or gay or heterosexual (for men speakers).
The lesbian-sounding candidate was consistently described as the least competent and rated as the least employable. This finding was robust across jobs that were stereotyped as more masculine or feminine, and job opportunities that arose in supposedly successful and failing companies. Surprisingly, we also observed that the heterosexual-sounding woman was the most preferred candidate for the leadership position. This form of discrimination—the lack of competence attributed to lesbian-sounding women and the resulting intention to hire other candidates—may be a subtle, hard-to-detect form of job discrimination that helps to explain why so few leaders are openly lesbian women. Certainly, we found no evidence that lesbian-sounding women, when perceived as masculine, were consequently advantaged over heterosexual-sounding women.
Where are these findings leading us? In the UK, where the studies were conducted, discrimination by perception is recognized under the Equality Act. Hence, those who are being treated differently because they are merely perceived as non-heterosexual, regardless of whether they are or not, should be protected. This legal recognition condemns subtle forms of modern prejudice that may occur simply because of how a person’s voice sounds. Still, the reality of such discrimination is often difficult to prove in court cases. Our research can be used not only in legal contexts to evidence the reality of such discrimination, but also to design training and interventions to reduce voice-based biases and promote equality.
For Further Reading
Fasoli, F., & Hegarty, P. (2020). A leader doesn’t sound lesbian! The impact of sexual orientation vocal cues on heterosexual persons’ first impression and hiring decision. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 44(2), 234-255. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684319891168
Fabio Fasoli is a lecturer is Social Psychology at the University of Surrey. His research focuses on how communication, voice, language, and visual information affect interpersonal and intergroup relations.
Peter Hegarty is a professor at the Open University in the UK. His research interests are in gender, sexuality, social cognition, language, history, and public understanding of science.