The ‘gay glass ceiling’ is real: Here’s why feminine men get overlooked for leadership roles, researchers say

Man posing by his laptop
While gay men appear to enjoy increasing equality and representation in the workplace, they are still passed up for promotions compared to white male counterparts if they display femininity.
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If you search for the term “glass ceiling” on Google, there’s a myriad of advice for business women on how to break through barriers to the top.

However, according to new research, this advice should also be tailored to feminine-presenting men. 

Despite presenting effective “feminine” leadership traits like empathy, nurturance, and interpersonal sensitivity, flamboyant gay men are more likely to be passed up for leadership roles, according to a University of Sydney study.

And although there is increased acceptance in Western communities of being gay or queer, the study also found that gay men themselves are “complicit” in penalizing “feminine-presenting members of their own community.”

Why “openly gay men” are overlooked for leading roles

As part of the research, 256 Australian men (half who are gay, and half who are heterosexual) were asked to help cast a gay man in a campaign promoting the country’s largest city,  Sydney.

The participants, who were naive to the aims of the study, were shown audition tapes of six gay, white male “short-listed candidates,” of which three actors were masculine-presenting and three were feminine-presenting.

Various combinations of the actors delivering the same short script, with their body language and voice adjusted to appear more feminine or more traditionally masculine, were shown. After that, participants were asked to vote for the candidate they thought people would most admire and think of as a leader.

Both the heterosexual and gay men taking part were significantly more likely to cast a masculine-presenting gay candidate over a feminine candidate.

The findings suggest that “openly gay men” are more likely to be overlooked for leading roles—and that despite being part of the same minority group, gay men may be “complicit” in unconsciously working against feminine-presenting gay men.

The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, explains that this could be down to negative stereotypes that still exist today that gay men are “feminine and are therefore perceived as less equipped to occupy higher-status positions in social hierarchies, such as the workplace.” 

As a result, gay men may consciously or unconsciously suppress feminine traits.

The researchers also found that for heterosexual men, antigay sentiments influenced their preference for a masculine-presenting gay candidate; meanwhile, sexism influenced both heterosexual and gay participants’ votes.

The gay glass ceiling 

Women have become an increasing presence in the C-suite over the last century, yet the “think manager, think male” narrative hasn’t shifted. 

According to the research, because society tends to automatically associate leadership qualities with masculine characteristics, we generally have higher expectations of those who emit masculinity. 

This unfounded and sexist belief system rewards traditional masculine men with more respect and higher status, while “gay men who fail to sufficiently project traditional masculine traits are at particular risk of status penalties.”

This has been described as “the gay glass ceiling effect” by academics. 

Despite possessing characteristics that are “better suited for managing modern organizations, compared to more traditionally masculine and domineering traits,” feminine gay men are still not given a fair shot at climbing the ladder. 

As well as being less likely to be promoted into positions of power, openly gay men are also less likely to get interviews, are rated less positively, and are offered lower salaries than their straight male counterparts.

How to make your business more inclusive of feminine-presenting men

In the past few years, leaders and HR departments have been imposing diversity quotes to increase the representation of diverse voices in their firms, and for good reason. As management guru Peter Drucker would say, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.”

But as the research shows, even when recruiting for specifically men from the LGBTQ+ community, masculine-presenting men within the community have an unfair advantage. 

“Even with such processes in place, feminine-presenting gay men may still be denied equal access to opportunities, particularly at the hands of individuals who harbor antigay sentiments,” the researchers warn. 

To this end, leaders are advised to be aware of how their own outdated biases may be at play when recruiting or promoting men within their organization. The study points to diversity training as a good place to start educating those with hiring powers. 

Only by being promoted into leadership positions can openly gay feminine-presenting men shed stale “think manager, think male” stereotypes. 

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