Feb 18

The Disturbing Truth of Workplace Discrimination

If someone were to ask you to provide a definition of three terms, specifically, stereotype, prejudice and discrimination, what would you say? How would you respond? What language would you use? Would you phrase your response in a positive or negative light? Most importantly, would you be able to effectively differentiate these three terms? It can certainly be argued that society has come a long way with respect to all three but the unfortunate truth is that they all still exist today. But, going back to the original question, what do they actually mean and why do they matter?

In order to grasp the purpose of this post, you need to know the definition of the above terms. A stereotype is a belief held by an individual, about certain characteristics or behaviors for members of a specific group (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). Prejudice can be described as an attitude towards someone else based on specific group membership; when that attitude becomes an actual behavior towards another, it is referred to as discrimination (Schneider et al., 2012). For example, a stereotype regarding gay men is that they are all sexually promiscuous. An example of prejudice is when people say that they dislike all gay men because they are sexual predators. Discrimination can then occur when gay men experience negative insults or slurs based upon these common misconceptions.

The examples provided above are not just based upon observation; instead, they are all things that I have directly experienced throughout the last 10 – 15 years. Truthfully, I had never realized that I was the victim of discrimination until after high school. Looking back, it is easy to pick out examples of some truly unfortunate behaviors towards me. As the years have passed though, I have seen a decline in the amount of direct discrimination towards myself and others; however, it is still prevalent enough to warrant a discussion, specifically regarding workplace discrimination of LGBT individuals. Some people seem to be under the false understanding that LGBT individuals no longer face workplace discrimination, but the following statistics and studies paint a much different picture.

First, one in four LGBT employees reported experiencing employment discrimination in the last five years; the transgender unemployment rate is three times higher than the national average; nearly one in 10 LGBT employees have left a job because the environment was not welcoming; eight percent stated that this discrimination made their work environment negative and even worse, one in four LGBT adults struggled to put food on the table (Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, 2017). It is true that some states protect LGBT individuals within the workplace, but there is currently no federal law that prevents employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (Stern, 2015). In other words, there is no true consistency when it comes to protection for LGBT individuals. Some wonder how the EEOC can believe sexual orientation to already be illegal, without a true federal law. The short response is that it all relates to interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the EEOC believes it protects LGBT individuals, the current Department of Justice disagrees (Riotta, 2017) and the Supreme Court has refused to consider a case to make a final determination (Wolf, 2017). So why does this matter and what types of discrimination can occur?

András Tilcsik (2011) demonstrated that gay men encounter barriers in a hiring process because employers will more readily disqualify openly gay applicants than equally qualified heterosexual applicants. Additionally, gay job applicants were 40% less likely to be offered a job interview. Geographic variation was also found to be very high, with some states in the southern and midwestern U.S. showing strong discrimination practices and those in the western and northeastern states showing little discrimination (Tilcsik, 2011). Badgett, Sears, Lau and Ho (2009) demonstrated, by examining 10 years of data, that sexual orientation-based discrimination and gender identity discrimination was a common workplace practice in many areas across the country. Additionally, gay men were shown to earn approximately 10% – 32% less than heterosexual men and findings show that employers, sales clerks and some outside observers have treated LGB applicants or customers differently than heterosexuals (Badgett, Sears, Lau, & Ho, 2009).

In a more recent study, 37 percent of LG individuals had experienced workplace harassment during the previous five years, 12 percent had lost their job because of sexual orientation and 33 percent refused to be open about their sexuality within the workplace (Pizer, Sears, Mallory, & Hunter, 2012). Some people argue that they would prefer not to hear about sexuality in the workplace anyway, which is completely fair and understandable; however, the problem arises with the inevitable relationship discussions or common workplace banter. In having been in those situations, it may seem easy to simply ignore those questions or ask that they not be discussed but you then run the risk of being ostracized or being labeled as cold and rude.

There is no dispute of the fact that there have certainly been improvements relative to workplace acceptance of LGBT individuals. However, these improvements are not equally spread or applied in a consistent manner. Worse yet, even with some of these protections, levels of experienced discrimination still run high enough to warrant change. That said, the purpose is not to force a particular agenda; rather, the purpose is to provide awareness, especially given that stereotypes, prejudiced behavior and discrimination are very much still in existence. The question then is how can we go about helping to reduce this discrimination? What interventions can be implemented to ensure that we are providing a more equal and welcoming atmosphere? And if it may seem that these questions are of little importance, I can assure you that having been in some of these situations, you would certainly not want to be in them for yourself.


Badgett, M. V. L., Sears, B., Lau, H. S., & Ho, D. (2009). Bias in the workplace: Consistent evidence of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination 1998-2008. Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.unc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1186&context=faculty_publications

Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. (2017). 2017 Workplace Equality Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://outandequal.org/2017-workplace-equality-fact-sheet/

Pizer, J., Sears, B., Mallory, C., & Hunter, N. D. (2012). Evidence of persistent and pervasive workplace discrimination against LGBT people: The need for federal legislation prohibiting discrimination and providing for equal employment benefits. Loyola Law Review Los Angeles, 45(3), 715-779. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3wf4t3q9#main

Riotta, C. (2017, September). Trump administration says employers can fire people for being gay. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/trump-doj-fired-being-gay-lgbt-issues-jeff-sessions-673398

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Stern, M. J. (2015, July). EEOC rules workplace sexual orientation discrimination already illegal under federal law. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2015/07/16/sexual_orientation_discrimination_at_work_eeoc_says_it_s_illegal_under_federal.html

Tilcsik, A. (2011). Pride and prejudice. Employment discrimination against openly gay men in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 117(2), 586-626. doi: 10.1086/661653

Wolf, R. (2017, December 11). Supreme Court won’t hear LGBT job discrimination case. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/12/11/supreme-court-wont-hear-lgbt-job-discrimination-case/940028001/

Oct 15

Madonna-whore complex

According to the sexual script theory, human sexuality is largely determined by culturally-prescribed scripts, or templates for behavior.  These gender-normative scripts are typically heterosexual, where men are depicted as sexually active and assertive, while favoring nonrelational sex.  Conversely, women are described as sexually passive and seeking relational sex.  Such tendencies are learned through socialization and then acted out, thereby creating further reinforcement of the conventions, making these scripts cyclical in nature.  Despite the twenty-first century‘s advances in gender roles, the stereotype that men are generally sexually eager and women are coy, if not repressed, is still the sexual norm (Garcia, Reiber, Massey, & Merriwether, 2012).  Both evolutionary drives and media messaging explain this phenomenon, which is also related to social dominance theory’s view that men have more power in the gender hierarchy (PSU WC, 2015). To further complicate matters, adhering to these traditional gender roles is associated with societal rewards and punishments (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).

These concepts of gender and sexuality are stereotypical and fairly obvious, yet a deeper look reveals huge and complex juxtapositions for both men and women.  The terror management theory suggests that men have a profound subconscious ambivalence towards women and their sexuality because it reminds them of their true corporeal animal nature and therefore, mortality.  This concept is woven throughout many different culture’s religions and histories.  On the one hand, men spend much of their lives lusting after women, and on the other hand men wrestle with an intense fear of women.  This contradiction is unsettling and at the mild end of the spectrum can create cognitive dissonance for men, potentially leading to sexism, misogyny, and even violence and rape, in the extreme (Landau et al., 2006).

Accordingly, Sigmund Freud developed a theory to explain men’s anxiety towards women’s sexuality, suggesting that men cast women into one of two categories to allay the uncomfortable dichotomy of fear and desire: the Madonna (women he admires and respects) and the whore (women he is attracted to and therefore disrespects).  The Madonna-whore complex views women’s desirability/licentiousness and purity/maternal goodness as mutually exclusive traits.  Love is seen as clean and virginal whereas sex is viewed as dirty and shameful.  Because healthy sexuality is sublimated, it is rerouted towards the secrecy and debasement involved in pornography where the concept of slut is outwardly despised and privately craved.  This dichotomy may contributes to many relationship issues, where men generally seek to maintain the image of their romantic partner as Madonna, but may seek the whore in the form of an affair in order to achieve both opposing idealizations that are difficult to project onto the same woman (Landau et al., 2006).

Hartmann (2009) asserts that though many of Freud’s sexual theories are now considered antiquated and sexist, his psychoanalytic notion of the Madonna-whore complex is still quite viable and pervasive in modern sexual dynamics and gender roles.  Women are given so many shaming antisexual messages suppressing the understanding and integration of their sexuality, while simultaneously being valued principally for their youth, thinness, attractiveness, and overall sexual prestige by society. The female plight is just as dichotomous as the male’s: women want to be both respected (primarily) yet desired (secondarily), whereas men struggle to reconcile these concepts that they can find paradoxical, creating cognitive dissonance.  Landau et al. (2006) indicate that men’s ambivalence towards women’s sexuality is predicated on the ambivalence about their own sexuality, again a painful reminder of their mortality.

My initial aim in writing this blog was to explore the difficulties involved in women’s gender roles and sexuality, however, after further research it seems that men’s attitudes and proclivities are just as complicated.  I think these dynamics are both fascinating and frightening.  So much of how we behave sexually it seems is based on genetic and societal programming outside of our control.  But understanding these deeply rooted tendencies and conflicts is the first step in self-actualizing to consciously create the gender and sexual roles we feel comfortable with and want to portray.  Also, I think the Madonna-whore complex does affect many relationships to varying degrees, especially married couples, and those with children most of all.  I’ve seen family and friends struggle with that dynamic, probably thinking the issue was unique to them, whereas I believe it to be a much more widespread phenomenon.


Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 161-176. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/a0027911

Hartmann, U. (2009). Sigmund Freud and His Impact on Our Understanding of Male Sexual Dysfunction. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(8), 2332-2339. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01332.x

Landau, M. J., Goldenberg, J. L., Greenberg, J., Gillath, O., Solomon, S., Cox, C., . . . Pyszczynski, T. (2006). The siren’s call: Terror management and the threat of men’s sexual attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), 129-146. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/0022-3514.90.1.129

The Pennsylvania State University World Campus (PSU WC). (2015). Lesson 6: Intergroup Relations. In PSYCH424: Applied Social Psychology (5). Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa15/psych424/001/content/07_lesson/05_page.html

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.



Skip to toolbar