VoxEU Column Labour Markets

Gay glass ceilings: Sexual orientation and workplace authority in the UK

Earnings gaps and ‘glass ceilings’ have been extensively documented for women and racial minorities. This column explores whether similar limits to advancement are present for sexual minorities, using data from the UK. Although gay men are found to be more likely than similar heterosexual men to report managerial authority, they seem to be restricted to low-level managerial positions, with little representation at higher levels. Similar glass ceiling effects are found for lesbians and bisexual adults, and the evidence is suggestive of discrimination playing a role. 

Do sexual minorities face barriers in accessing jobs with supervisory and managerial workplace authority? Once on the managerial ladder, do sexual minorities face glass ceilings that block them from higher-level posts? Very little empirical research has addressed these questions, despite a now comprehensive examination of how lesbian and gay earnings compare to those of heterosexuals (e.g. Badgett 1995, Carpenter 2007, Aksoy et al.2018). In contrast to the research gap for sexual minorities, large literatures document significantly less access to workplace authority for women and racial and ethnic minorities relative to white men (e.g. Baxter and Wright 2000, Wright et al. 1995, Cohen and Huffman 2007). 

Why does workplace authority matter?

Managerial authority at the workplace is important for three reasons according to Wright et al. (1995). First, as we will directly show in our empirical analysis, workplace authority is one of the main determinants of labour market earnings. Second, these jobs are desirable in their own right, since they typically have relatively high occupational prestige and recognition. Third, inequalities in authority across gender or ethnic groups may be key mechanisms that generate and sustain inequalities in workplace outcomes. Having more female senior managers, for example, may lead to more equitable treatment of women throughout the organisation (Cohen and Huffman 2004). The presence of high-status female managers has a large impact on mitigating gender wage differentials (e.g. Bell 2005, Kunze and Miller 2014). Finally, positions of authority in the workplace may allow individuals from underrepresented groups to sidestep personal discrimination and potential harassment.

Nationally representative dataset with direct information on sexual orientation

In a recent paper, we provide the first large-scale systematic evidence on the relationship between a minority sexual orientation and workplace authority (Aksoy et al. 2018). We analyse confidential data from the 2009-2014 UK Integrated Household Surveys which asked individuals directly about their sexual orientation, as well as containing a raft of individual, household, and workplace questions. This data benefit from a large sample size – we analyse data on over 645,000 working-age adults, including more than 6,000 self-identified sexual minorities. 

Measures of managerial authority in the workplace

There are two independent avenues by which we can examine workplace authority. We use direct questions on whether or not individuals have managerial and/or supervisory authority in the workplace. A different question also asks about the occupation held by the individual and codes this by the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC). Importantly, the NS-SEC occupations include ‘managers and professionals’. We use both the direct questions and the occupation codes in our analysis, and we find that our results are robust to the measure. The NS-SEC measure has the advantage that it differentiates between higher-level managers (which have more prestige and higher pay) and lower-level managers (which have less responsibility and authority). This allows us to investigate the existence of possible glass ceiling effects (Cotter et al. 2001).

What the data say

Our analysis yields clear and surprising findings for gay men. Specifically, we provide the literature’s first evidence that gay men are significantly morelikely than otherwise similar heterosexual men to report managerial authority and/or supervisory responsibilities in the workplace. Using the NS-SEC measure, we also find that they are significantly more likely to have a managerial/professional post. However, we find strong evidence from the NS-SEC that there are glass ceilings – the managerial advantage experienced by gay men stems entirely from the fact that they are more likely than heterosexual men to be low-level managers. In fact, gay men are significantly lesslikely than otherwise similar heterosexual men to attain the highest level managerial positions that come with increased status and pay. 

The results for lesbians are less clear-cut. Lesbians are significantly more likely than heterosexual women to have managerial authority. But they are significantly less likely than comparable heterosexual women to have any NS-SEC managerial/professional occupation, notably including the highest-level managerial posts. Bisexual men and women are both significantly less likely than otherwise similar heterosexual adults to have any of the types of workplace authority (regardless of the measure), though these differences are not always statistically significant.

Is it discrimination?

We perform decomposition analyses to understand the sources of the gay male disadvantage with respect to workplace authority and find that the majority of the difference is due to differential returns to observed characteristics and skills (such as education) as opposed to differential endowments. That is, the evidence is most consistent with discrimination explaining differential access to top managerial positions. Furthermore, we document evidence of intersectionality – the ‘gay glass ceiling’ effect whereby gay men have significantly lower access to top managerial posts is much stronger for racial minorities than for whites.


Access to managerial authority, and particularly high-level managerial posts, is not just about the individual. Those holding these posts are the exemplars, the mentors, and the decision-makers on who will be the next generation of senior leaders. Bringing more sexual minorities, women, and non-whites into managerial posts potentially increases the access for those further down the managerial/supervisory ladder – with similar characteristics – to be promoted. As with representation of women and minority groups on corporate boards, there is the potential to shift to a more representative outcome more broadly within the organisation. 


Aksoy, C, C Carpenter, J Frank and M L Huffman (2018), “Gay glass ceilings: Sexual orientation and workplace authority in the UK”,Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), working paper 11574.

Aksoy, C, C Carpenter and J Frank (2018), “Sexual orientation and earnings: New evidence from the UK”, Industrial and Labor Relations Review 71(1): 242–272.

Baxter, J and E Olin Wright (2000), “The glass ceiling hypothesis: A comparative study of the United States, Sweden, and Australia”, Gender & Society 14: 275–294.

Badgett, M V L (1995), “The wage effects of sexual-orientation discrimination”, Industrial and Labor Relations Review 48(4): 726–739.

Bell, L A (2005), “Women-led firms and the gender gap in top executive jobs”, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), working paper 1689.

Carpenter, C (2007), “Revisiting the earnings penalty for behaviorally gay men: Evidence from NHANES III”, Labour Economics 14(1): 25–34.

Cohen, P N and M L Huffman (2007), “Black under-representation in management across US labor markets”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 609: 181–199.

Cotter, D A, J M Hermsen, S Ovadia and R Vanneman (2001), “The glass ceiling effect”, Social Forces 80(2): 655–681.

Huffman, M L and P N Cohen (2004), “Occupational segregation and the gender gap in workplace authority: National versus local labor markets”, Sociological Forum 19(1): 121–147.

Kunze, A and A R Miller (2014), “Women helping women? Evidence from private sector data on workplace hierarchies”, NBER, Working paper 20761.

Wright, E O, J Baxter and G E Birkelund (1995), “The gender gap in workplace authority: A cross-national study”, American Sociological Review 60:407–435.

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