In 1994, investment banker Walter Schubert Jr. walked into a therapist’s office and burst into tears. Schubert told the therapist that he was the only gay man on Wall Street. His analyst calmly assured him that he most certainly was not, but that he could become the first to be open about it. Schubert did come out publicly. But five years later, at the turn of the millennium, he was still the only openly gay individual among the 1,365 members of the New York Stock Exchange.
The workplace remains a bastion of discrimination—at times subtle, often overt. For women and visible minorities there’s no way to hide: Once you show up for an interview (or even before), you’re outed. But for many, like Schubert, the “stigma,” or source of potential discrimination, can be kept from view with some effort—and considerable psychic suffering.
Social scientists have tended to focus on documenting the effects of easily identifiable sources of workplace discrimination—based on skin color, gender, and other physical attributes. A small but growing literature has begun to delve into the implications of carrying a concealable stigma—like sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or political allegiances—into the workplace.
One recently published study argues that despite having the ability to pass as “normal,” people with concealable stigmas tend to cluster in particular occupations with particular characteristics. This isn’t simply because they seek out kindred spirits in their workplaces, as has often been argued. Rather, the authors’ novel argument is that the coping skills that those with concealable stigmas have developed to pass turn out to help them in their professional lives. Living in the closet may be stressful, but it’s also, apparently, good training for lots of jobs.
The new study, by sociologists András Tilcsik, Michel Anteby, and Carly Knight, focuses on gays and lesbians and draws on insights from Erving Goffman, among the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. Goffman made his name in 1959 with The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, his analytical account of the theatricality of basic social interactions. Four years later he published Stigma, a slim volume that described the lives of those who suffer from the feeling that they have some “deeply discrediting attribute.” (Goffman observed that shame is in the eye of the beholder, pointing to the example of a hardened criminal who made surreptitious visits to the local library, for fear his less scholarly associates find out.) Goffman goes on to analyze the challenges faced by people with concealable stigmas, along with their means of coping, which differ greatly from people with easily observable stigmas.
People with concealable stigmas have a choice to make, and it’s a hard one. You can choose to out yourself and thus put yourself in a similar position to the visibly stigmatized. Or you can keep your stigma to yourself. But keeping a secret is difficult (and for some, such concealment may well be impossible). You might find some solace by revealing the truth to a circle of friends or family. Or you might lead a double life, staying closeted by day and coming out only in a community where being gay—or transgender or born-again—is accepted, not the occasion for prejudice.
Building on his earlier work in Presentation of Self, Goffman argued that stigmatized individuals are particularly skilled at managing the way they present themselves in social situations. Every conversation or interaction can be revealing, and the person aiming to conceal his secret must constantly navigate whether “to display or not to display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.” Forced to actively manage, from a young age, every interaction, individuals with concealable stigmas develop a keener sense of social perceptiveness—gauging and predicting others’ likely reactions—than those with no stigma to hide.
This skill comes in handy in certain professions: Think, for example, of any field that requires a good bedside manner or the ability to see things from another person’s perspective. Tilcsik and his co-authors suggest that gays and lesbians use these skills in their professional lives, clustering in occupations like psychology, human resources, and social service management.
The other obvious professional option for gays and lesbians aiming to stay in the closet is to take jobs where they essentially work on their own—where they can have what Tilcsik et al term “task independence.” This includes a range of roles, from Web development to air conditioner repair. Then there are those jobs that require social perceptiveness and task independence. Psychologists and teachers, for example, tend to spend most of their days working apart from their co-workers but require intensive interaction with students, patients, and other “customers.”
The central thesis of Tilcsik, Anteby, and Knight’s paper is that gays and lesbians will tend to be employed at high rates in occupations that require social perceptiveness, allow for task independence, or both. They test their theory using data from the American Community Survey—a gargantuan study of nearly 5 million Americans conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau—and the U.S. National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), an ongoing study that has followed the same group of Americans since 1994. All Add Health respondents were in middle or high school in the mid-1990s, so they were just beginning to settle into their careers around 2008, the year the study uses for its analyses. Both data sets include questions that can be used to infer sexual orientation, as well as information on respondents’ occupations.
The authors connected these data to assessments of the extent to which particular jobs require social perceptiveness and whether they allow for task independence, which come from ratings from the Occupational Information Network, a survey of employees on what they see as their job requirements and attributes. The survey seems particularly well-suited to the researchers’ task. One question asks the extent to which workers “depend on themselves rather than on coworkers and supervisors to get things done” (task independence), while another asks whether “being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do is essential to the job” (social perceptiveness).
The link between these attributes and sexual orientation is immediately apparent from browsing the list of the top 15 occupations with the highest proportions of gay and lesbian workers. Every single one scores relatively high on either social perceptiveness or task independence, and most vocations score high on both. According to the authors’ calculations, the proportion of gays and lesbians in an occupation is more than 1.5 times higher when the job both has high task independence and requires social perceptiveness.
It might be tempting to argue that this is an example of turning adversity into a strength: Remaining in the closet allows gays, lesbians, and others who might try to hide their social stigmas to develop a set of skills that are valued in the job market. Maybe. But it comes at high cost. Goffman conjectured that hiding one’s identity exacted a physical and psychological toll, a claim supported by decades of subsequent research. Developing “closet skills” may also come at the expense of developing other ones. And the sorting of invisible minorities into fields based on a desire for independence may lead them to avoid team-oriented work situations where their skill sets might otherwise have allowed them to thrive. This results in a “labor misallocation” that is a source of drag on the economy overall.
We’d like to think that times have changed since Schubert came out. And they have: President Obama has, throughout his term, enacted various protections for LGBT people working in the federal government; many states—and the vast majority of the Fortune 500 companies—have similar nondiscrimination rules in place. More generally, in a 2013 Pew survey, 92 percent of LGBT adults said that society is more accepting than it was 10 years ago. António Simões, the openly gay CEO of HSBC’s U.K. operation, told us that he’s been able to turn his sexual orientation into an advantage: “By being truthful about something that is more easily left unsaid, you end up being more trusted.”
Yet just last May, the Wall Street Journal ran a profile of several young gay professionals who, despite coming out of the closet in college, decided to go back in after graduation lest their sexual orientation affect their careers. Nor are problems limited to a few testosterone-driven fields like banking—a 2011 study found that nearly half of college-educated gays and lesbians kept their sexual orientation hidden from co-workers. Simões, or someone like Apple’s Tim Cook, might be celebrated for coming out of the closet, but for many Americans, it’s still safer to remain inside.
As social acceptance for hidden minorities rises and people can come out earlier and earlier, the prevalence of these “closet skills” may decrease among lesbians and gay men. That’s not a bad thing—provided the environment they’re coming out into lets them be who they truly are.