LGBTQ+ women often find themselves dealing with both sexism and homophobia at the workplace – a double whammy of discrimination to which society largely remains oblivious. The 2019 OECD Society at a Glance report and a 2020 study carried out by researchers at Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences focusing on the situation of lesbian women in the workplace in Germany both found that found that lesbian women are less likely to be invited to job interviews if their application contains clues to their sexual identity. Nash Mir Center’s 2014 survey revealed that in Ukraine more than one-third of lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents received lower wages, had been denied employment, or had experienced harassment at work because of their sexual orientation. Despite legislation banning LGBT discrimination at the workplace having been introduced in Ukraine in 2015, in practice it does not prevent dismissals or incidences of homophobia in the workplace. While several cases of LGBTQ+ discrimination have been recorded in Ukraine, none have been successfully prosecuted to date. And this just the very visible tip of the hostility iceberg that many LGBTQ+ women face at work.
What are the personal stories behind these numbers?
Interviews with women in Ukraine and Germany highlighted some stark differences in corporate culture, but over all they revealed similarities in unpleasant and often maddening job experiences, whether in Kyiv, Berlin, Odessa, Cologne, or elsewhere.
They include very obvious examples of homophobia that occur in the workplace: Kateryna, 22, a former youth social worker was forced to relocate to a different catchment area after being outed at work by individuals she works with. She had to deal with what she described as an “obsessive interest in her private life”, increasing threats, assault, and harassment. She did not receive support from her superiors or colleagues at work, and feels that her relocation to a different office further away from where she lives was a rug sweeping exercise. Removing her from her geographical area of work may have seemed like a quick fix to her superiors, but not addressing the source of the harassment, and the fact that she still lived in the same area as where the harassment and and assault took place, means that the problem was far from resolved. In a working environment at the intersection of the more vulnerable sectors of society, her attitude of openness regarding the topic of sexual orientation jarred with the “stricter, authoritarian” and patriarchal model favoured by social services in Ukraine.
Olena, 51, a journalist and activist in Ukraine also reports being harassed and attacked: after a man recognised her from an LGBTQ+ demonstration, he “almost broke [her] arms” while bringing her “down on [her] knees”. She describes a terrifying sense of helplessness during that encounter, but one which strengthened her resolve to demand equal rights. Her support network were also vital in helping her find the courage to stand up for herself, and knowing how to protect herself.
Sexual harassment is common. The cocky delusion among some heterosexual men that lesbian women just haven’t met that “special man” yet is something Simone, 52, a consultant and coach, has also observed in her career spanning 30+ years in the banking industry in Germany. While in her experience, cisgender, heterosexual men tend to be accepting of lesbian women on the surface, she recounts instances where her identity as a homosexual woman has invited unwanted, prying personal questions. In these instances, it is usually male colleagues who don’t respect personal boundaries. Being accepted as a lesbian coworker is often a double-edged sword. On the one hand, one is considered “one of the lads”, and on the other hand a spoilsport when not joining in on a sexist or homophobic joke. According to her, sexualized communication is very common in the finance and banking sector.
Sexual harassment also pervades other job sectors, such as media. Olena describes a conversation she had with a male colleague, where after learning that she is lesbian, “he offered her sex to make her normal”, and said that “she would really like it, and it would make her not be a lesbian anymore”. In her professional experience, these kinds of statements are run-of-the-mill. So much so that she has an almost automatic response: “so you are saying that by raping me, I will no longer be attracted to women?”
Olena is jewish, openly lesbian, and a vocal feminist. What she finds with “her doctor, her dentist, her coworkers”, is not that they fully accept her identity and her orientation, but rather that she is an acceptable exception to a disliked and derided minority group because they know her personally. She is reminded of a Ukrainian turn of phrase, where in an antisemitic society everyone had their “favorite jew”. She sees her acquaintances’ attitude to her sexual identity in a similar vein. Olena recalls a colleague cheerily telling her to go out to find a man and get married at the beginning and end of every workday, a kind of joking ritual at her expense. Despite this, she feels that because of her traditionally feminine appearance, she has an easier time of it, since she does not conform to society’s image of a stereotypical lesbian woman, and therefore does not usually bear the brunt of aggressive homophobia. Her colleagues do not openly support LGBTQ+ rights, rather the atmosphere at work is akin to “don’t ask don’t tell” where people joke about these topics. There is no profound sense of acceptance to speak of, but also no overt aggression. Interestingly, in her case she feels that she gets the most hostility due to being a feminist, or as some see her, an “enemy woman” as this is still very controversial in Ukrainian society.
Simone also describes pigeonholing and stereotyping that is implicitly and sometimes explicitly present in workplace dynamics. In her experience at a large German bank, lesbian women are generally accepted in the workplace, however their success in their careers is often received differently. In hyperbolized terms, when lesbian women assert themselves, they are often met with admiration for their “hardness” by male heterosexual peers, but covert contempt by their heterosexual female colleagues.
Sexism, role models, and visibility
It is no secret that women, whether hetero, homo, bi, or transgender are affected by implicit and explicit sexism in Ukraine and Germany.
In Kateryna’s view, female employees are often seen as “sex objects”, where those considered most attractive, heterosexual, and potentially available are more likely to be given new opportunities within the company, which in turn means that women who do not fit into these constructs are at a strategic disadvantage.
Maryna, 33, an operational manager for a supermarket chain from eastern Ukraine, states that internalized misogyny among women is still a common problem in her country. Women unfairly judging each other on whether they have children, or not, whether they are working mothers, or not. She says that is often feels like you can’t win. She also sees unequal pay between men and women as a significant problem in Ukraine, and that women have to work much harder than men to receive the same level of respect and recognition in their careers. Originally from Donetsk but now working in Kyiv, Maryna sees a stark geographical difference in attitudes, with the east being more conservative than western Ukraine. Patriarchal structures and gender stereotypes have persisted throughout Ukraine’s transition from a planned economy to a free market one, and the emergence of capitalism is in her view closely related to the “strong man” image and the expectation that women sacrifice their careers for the family.
Annette, 53, a German HR and diversity executive at a large multinational company also finds that LGBTQ+ women face at least “double the discrimination” because of their gender, sexual identity, ethnic background, or disability status. It feels to her that women are generally given the message to “not make such a big deal about it”, and when one is vocal about diversity issues internally, it can lead to professional pigeonholing. She remarks that “the more open you or your professional environment is, the subtler the discrimination becomes”. Openly gay colleagues might be passed up for opportunities or promotion for reasons seemingly unrelated to their sexual identity, be it alleged lack of experience or an issue of “company fit”. Nevertheless, she has seen a lot of positive change in her company in the last few years. Since it became more international, the topic of LGBTQ+ visibility has become more broadly accepted. LGBTQ+ members began the push for visibility and diversity policies several years ago, and LGBTQ+ allies, wanting to join in, started by hanging rainbow flags in 20 company offices around the world. In Annette’s experience it is now increasingly common for LGBTQ+ members to be open about their identity at work and participate in corporate diversity projects.
Visibility is vital, whether specifically for LGBTQ+ individuals or women in general. Looking back on several decades of experience, Simone is adamant that role models are crucial. The lack of women, and more specifically lesbian women is still a problem in Germany. She identifies multiple layers to this issue. The lack of women in visible executive positions often convey the false idea that there is only space for very few women at the top. No-one questions an all-male management or supervisory board. This often contributes to a hostile and overly competitive environment among women. Parallel to this is the phenomenon that in competitive situations, in Simone’s experience, male applicants are prone to exaggerate their capabilities and qualifications, whereas female applicants tend to do the opposite. This is exacerbated by the tendency to bolster potential in younger male employees rather than in their female counterparts. As such, Simone supports a women’s quota in leadership and management positions. In structures that are unfairly biased in favor of men, be it due to company culture or society at large, change cannot be achieved in this regard without forcing policy.
As Maryna has also seen, a lot is contingent on company culture. Her situation is somewhat unusual in Ukraine, she is fully out at work, and has not encountered homophobia or discrimination at her current job. More importantly, her family status is seen as equal to her heterosexual colleagues, and as such gets the same perks and privileges. She attributes this to the fact that the company owners are young and western orientated. The general atmosphere at work is one of openness and acceptance, the priority is getting the job done.
Room for change
In Simone’s experience, support for female employees and diversity policies only last as long as the company is doing well. At least in the corporate world in Germany, diversity policies are an easier sell because of their potential for increased revenue and productivity. As Annette remarks, the gay community is also a customer base with money to spend. Profitability is leverage. Comparably, the Open for Business Study focusing on Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine found that companies embracing LGBTQ+ people “have better financial outcomes” and outdo their competitors.
Despite this, Annette also finds a certain complacency regarding furthering diversity policy. While having a corporate gay pride initiative and diversity network is a major milestone, it sometimes appears that hanging up some pride flags and having openly gay employees means that the box has been ticked, and the mission accomplished. In her experience, visibility is only one aspect, and only one step in the path towards equity and equality of LGBTQ+ people. While just slapping a pride flag on a corporate logo and calling it a day is met with outrage in several countries with a vocal gay community, the same cannot be said for Ukraine. LGBTQ+ visibility is still a hard sell, and members of the LGBTQ+ community see corporate endorsement as a way forward.
On a more concrete level, company policies that recognize same sex families are critically important to foster positive change in corporate culture. Kateryna, Maryna, Olena, Annette, and Simone all talked about “straight privilege” in one way or another. The fact that heterosexual couples, families, and individuals are considered the default, and their needs are therefore not questioned and second guessed. Companies would do well to offer the same flexibility and accommodations to LGBTQ+ couples and families, and normalize employees attending corporate events with their same sex partners. Fostering an atmosphere of respect and openness regarding LGBTQ+ experiences is an important step to taking away the stigma still attached to being openly lesbian at work. “We are not zoo animals or guinea pigs” as Kateryna puts it. Specific and substantial company policies to deal with discrimination and paths to escalate complaints are also necessary to give diversity policies clout.
Katerina, Maryna, and Olena are all hopeful that the situation in Ukraine is changing for the better. Younger generations are becoming more open and accepting of LGBTQ+ experiences. Maryna has seen recent changes: women have become more vocal and occupy more leadership positions than 20 years ago, when the only conceivable executive position for women was as accountants. Now there are more women in a range of sectors calling the shots. Simone is also of the opinion that there is a shift in Germany in this regard. Younger generations are more open to flexible gender norms.
Despite all the negative experiences the women describe, they all agree that being open about their sexual orientation is much better than hiding it. There is a power in knowing who you are and standing by it – and society is changing for the better.
Freelance researcher with degrees in Russian studies and political science