Individual Level Antecedents

In addition to examining organizational- and group-level predictors, researchers have tried to determine personal aspects of heterosexuals that correlate with heterosexism. Although no studies support the claim that individual traits cause heterosexism, they do create a general profile of heterosexuals who are most likely to hold these attitudes. For example, some research indicates that race and ethnicity may affect attitudes toward gays and lesbians; both Asians (Lippincott, Wlazelek, & Schumacher, 2000) and African Americans (Herek & Capitanio, 1999) were found to harbor more heterosexism than their Caucasian counterparts. Results of this work also indicated that heterosexual men are typically less tolerant of gays and lesbians, particularly gay men, than are heterosexual women (Moss, 2001). Additionally, antigay prejudice is stronger among men and women who strongly adhere to traditional gender roles (Kite & Whitley, 1998). This may be related to a more general finding that people who support rigid social rules, such as those who adhere to right-wing authoritarianism (Whitley & Lee, 2000) and socially conservative philosophies (Heaven & Oxman, 1999) are also likely to harbor negative attitudes toward lesbians and gays. Similarly, individuals who hold traditional and conservative religious values are often opposed to homosexuality on religious grounds (Hunter, 1991). Existing research indicates more negative attitudes toward homosexuality among individuals with fundamentalist Christian religious orientations (Kirkpatrick, 1993), and those from conservative non-Christian religions, such as Muslims (Beck, 1999). Finally, researchers have found links between heterosexist attitudes and (a) sexist attitudes in general (Stevenson & Medler, 1995), (b) personal contact with gay men and lesbians (Horvath & Ryan, 2003) and (c) the belief that homosexuality is a choice rather than a biological orientation (King, 2001).

Consequences of Discrimination

Now that we understand the antecedents of heterosexism, we can begin to examine some of the outcomes associated with its practice. Research in this area addresses two basic questions. First, what are the behavioral consequences of heterosexism? And second, how do gays and lesbians react to this treatment? This section will explore each of these questions in turn.

Heterosexism prompts heterosexuals to engage in a variety of negative behaviors toward lesbians and gay men in the workplace. At best, these behaviors can be described as "avoidance"; at worst, they represent overt and aggressive forms of discrimination and physical harassment (Bernat, Calhoun, Adams, & Zeichner, 2001). A national study of 534 gay and lesbian professionals revealed that over a third had been physically or verbally harassed in prior positions because of their sexual orientation, 37% faced discrimination because others suspected or assumed that they were gay or lesbian, and 12% left their last job because of sexual orientation discrimination (Ragins & Cornwell, 2001b). Swim and her colleagues found that heterosexual women made public statements to distance themselves from attitudes and opinions held by a lesbian (Swim, Ferguson & Hyers, 1999). Other studies indicate that individuals who hold heterosexist beliefs help gays and lesbians far less than do those without this prejudice (Ellis & Fox, 2001). Similarly, Kite and Deaux (1986) found less information-seeking behaviors and more guarded self-presentation among heterosexual males interacting with a gay man. Participants in other research experiments were found to speak more quickly and abruptly to people believed to be gay (Cuenot & Fugita, 1982) and to label gay men as less preferred work partners, regardless of the quality of their work (Karr, 1978). Moreover, although many heterosexuals recognize that overt discrimination is unacceptable or illegal in some locales, more subtle forms of interpersonal discrimination emerge. For example, one study found that while job applicants who posed as gay men and lesbians did not face overt workplace discrimination, they still were subject to interpersonal biases that resulted in shorter job interviews, less eye contact, and more negative and truncated communication interactions (Hebl, Foster, Mannix, & Dovidio, 2002). This suggests that even in the presence of formal organizational policies and legislation that prohibit discrimination more subtle, even unconscious, forms of discrimination can persist.

This research suggests that prejudiced heterosexuals can make work life difficult to intolerable for lesbian and gay colleagues. At best, gay and lesbian workers are avoided; at worst, they face overt job discrimination or even physical assault. To date, very few studies have directly investigated the effects of workplace heterosexist behaviors on lesbians and gays, but the existing research provides some insight. First, heterosexism thwarts career progression for many lesbians and gay men (Friskopp & Silverstein, 1996). For example, one study found that lesbians limited their job and career choices to avoid heterosexist work environments (Fassinger, 1996). Gay male workers have been found to earn significantly less compensation than their heterosexual counterparts, although this finding was not replicated for lesbians (Badgett, 1995, 2001; Black, Makar, Sanders, & Taylor, 2003; Clain & Leppel, 2001). Other studies confirm that heterosexism has a negative effect on lesbians' and gays' workplace productivity (Powers, 1996). Additionally, the Ragins and Cornwell (2001a) study cited earlier found that greater reports of workplace heterosexism were associated with fewer promotions over a 10-year period. In this investigation, reports of heterosexism also had a negative relationship with job satisfaction, organizational commitment, career commitment, organization-based self-esteem, and satisfaction with opportunities for promotion, and a positive relationship with intentions to leave the job. Moreover, repeated discriminatory treatment takes its toll on lesbian and gay workers. Research documents the stress gay men and lesbians experience as a result of the discrimination they encounter both on and off the job (e.g., Bosanok, 1995; Waldo, 1999). The health hazards associated with this stress include drug and alcohol abuse (Appleby, 2001), mental health problems (Garnets, Herek, & Levy, 1992), and diminished physical health and well being (DiPlacido, 1998).

Research into the antecedents and consequences of heterosexism has unique methodological and conceptual challenges. We now turn to examining some of these dilemmas.


In this section we review some of the key conceptual and methodological challenges confronting research on heterosexism in the workplace. These include the measurement of sexual orientation and workplace discrimination, the disclosure of sexual identity, and practical issues relating to obtaining a representative sample of gay and lesbian respondents.

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