Study: Sexual orientation plays part in pay gap

Paul Mayne//Western NewsA recent study by Western Sociology professor Sean Waite showed that lesbian, gay and bisexual community members continue to find themselves on the lower end of the pay scale compared to their heterosexual men counterparts.


Lesbian, gay and bisexual community members continue to find themselves on the lower end of the pay scale when compared to their heterosexual male counterparts – findings one researcher says call for further exploration and could support the inclusion of sexual orientation in employment equity legislation.

Currently, the Federal Employment Equity Act says federally regulated industries have to take specific measures to accommodate four groups in the workplace – women, visible minorities, Indigenous and those with disabilities.

“Lesbians, gays and bisexuals are not part of the group,” Sociology professor Sean Waite explained. “I feel that would be a nice first step to embrace diversity and would force federally regulated industries, including universities, to keep numbers of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals within their organization and take steps to accommodate diversity and difference in the labour market.”

In his most recent study, Waite, BA’11 (King’s University College), explored sexual orientations, relationship statuses and a number of factors related to individual earnings – hours worked, level of education, type of occupation, industry and geography.

He found that a “wage hierarchy persists, with heterosexual men being the most advantaged, followed by gay men, lesbians, bisexual men, heterosexual women and then bisexual women.”

The study, Lesbian, gay and bisexual earnings in the Canadian labor market, was published in the Feb. 11 edition of Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

Single bisexual men earned 20 per cent less and single bisexual women 29 per cent less than single heterosexual men. For comparison, single heterosexual women earned 9 per cent less than heterosexual men and coupled gay men earned roughly 5 per cent less than coupled heterosexual men.

“Differences in the allocation of work effort explain some, but not all, of the residual wage gap for coupled gay men and lesbians,” Waite said. “Residual differences in earning for coupled gay men and lesbians, relative to heterosexual men, are likely driven by cultural stereotypes of the ‘ideal worker,’ which provide married heterosexual fathers with large marriage and fatherhood premiums. Lesbians, on average, have fewer child care and household responsibilities, which free up their time for labour market pursuits.”

Using data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, which began asking questions around sexual orientation in 2003, Waite found single lesbians were more likely than heterosexual men to be employed. Bisexuals, regardless of partnership type, were less likely to be employed or working full-time, relative to heterosexual men.

“Different occupations pay different amounts. We do see that gay men and lesbians sort into different occupations,” Waite said.

“Gay men tend to sort into gender atypical occupations – so more feminized occupations – and lesbians tend to sort into more masculine occupations. That does explain some of it, but what we also see is that gay and lesbians tend to more highly educated than their heterosexual counterparts. That means they sort into higher paid occupations, but in those occupations they still earn significantly less.”

Waite added that less educated gay men don’t sort into the traditional male occupations, like trades, rather sorting into female-dominated occupations that are lower paid, like hairdressers or sales.

Working with Western PhD candidate Vesna Pajovic and University of Alberta sociology professor Nicole Denier on this latest study, Waite said their findings for gay men and lesbians were generally consistent with previous literature. But the results for bisexuals were “novel and illuminating.”

In the study, bisexuals tended to be younger, especially bisexual women; less likely to be married or have children; and have lower incomes than heterosexuals.

Unlike gay men, bisexual men had a relatively large representation in trades, transportation and equipment-operation occupations. They were underrepresented, relative to both heterosexual and gay men, in management and business, finance and administrative occupations.

Bisexual women were overrepresented, relative to everyone else, in sales and service occupations and retail trade industries.

“The magnitude of the bisexual point estimates highlights an important and understudied area of labour market inequality,” Waite said. “There is a large body of literature that shows bisexual people are particularly discriminated against and stigmatized by the gay and lesbian community and the heterosexual community.”

While bisexual men and women earn significantly less than their heterosexual counterparts, Waite feels more research is needed to better understand the forces behind that.

In his interviews with the lesbian, gay and bisexual community, Waite was optimistic it’s not all “doom and gloom,” with some seeing their sexual orientation as an advantage. But work remains.

“There may be biases – conscious or unconscious – about the kind of person an employer wants to work with. That’s rooted in cultural stereotypes of the ideal worker. It’s not easy challenging those cultural stereotypes.”