I may well be one of the few openly bi+ chief executive officers in America today. I know firsthand the importance of creating spaces of belonging for the bi+ community in the workplace.
September 21 marked the beginning of Bisexual Awareness Week, a time to elevate bisexual, pansexual, and queer voices as well as raise awareness of the unique issues facing the Bi+ community. Tomorrow, as we celebrate Bisexual Visibility Day, I think back on my own journey and career.
I know well the struggles as a bisexual person in the workplace. Truthfully, at the beginning of my journey, I felt completely alone. Not knowing anyone at work who openly identified as bisexual, I remained in the closet. While colleagues openly identified as gay or lesbian, I felt I couldn’t fully belong. Like many in the bi+ community, I feared the rejection, ambiguity, and stigma too often associated with bi+ identity. Even more, I feared the impact it could have on my career.
Instead of expressing my true self, I chose instead to come out as a lesbian to my coworkers. I thought that identifying along the binary (gay rather than straight) was safer and easier for people — both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ alike — to understand. While I received acceptance at work upon coming out, I knew deep down that I still wasn’t seen.
As many in the world of diversity and inclusion know well, inauthenticity has consequences. Experiencing some of these consequences, I finally summoned the courage to come out in my personal life as bisexual, and I was met with confusion and hesitation. Even years later, I can recall the reaction of one of my family members: “I wish you were just a lesbian because that would be easier to understand.”
As a member of the bisexual community, I know the journey to acceptance and belonging can be fraught with obstacles from navigating your own identity to fighting against stereotypes. From my vantage point today as CEO of Out & Equal, I also know that Ccorporate America can play a powerful role to elevate bi+ voices and address the issues we face in the workplace. So for Bisexual Visibility Day, here are a few important things business leaders must know about bisexuality in the workplace:
First, members of the bi+ community are less likely to be out in the workplace than our lesbian and gay peers.
Despite remarkable progress in LGBTQ workplace inclusion broadly, many bi+ employees struggle with visibility and inclusion in the workplace. Pew Research reports that 28 percent of bisexual people have come out to the important people in their lives, compared to 77 percent of gay men and 71 percent of lesbians. Additionally, gay men and lesbians are more likely than bisexual peers to say that their sexual orientation is a positive factor in their lives.
The bi+ community’s struggle with visibility has serious impacts in the workplace. A study by Stonewall reveals that 38 percent of bisexual people are not out to anyone at work (compared to 18 percent of LGB people overall). Bi+ employees are often overlooked when it comes to inclusive policies and language, employee resource group programming, and benefits. The lack of representation of bi+ people in leadership positions, especially in the C-suite, contributes to the stigma around coming out as bi+ in the workplace. Bisexual erasure leads to lack of access to the resources, opportunities, and support members of the community need.
Second, the bi+ community makes up a high proportion of the LGBTQ community.
Though the bi+ community struggles with a lack of visibility the workplace, it’s important to know that this is not due to small numbers. In fact, research estimates that there are more people who identify as bi+ than lesbian and gay people combined.
When looking at the next generation of our American workforce, we see can see that bisexual, pansexual, and queer people are approaching a majority. In a study by the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group, only 48 percent of Gen Z respondents identified as exclusively heterosexual — meaning that just over half of Gen Z respondents identified somewhere on the spectrum of bisexuality. Workplaces that have already established or are beginning to establish inclusion initiatives for this group will be far better prepared for their own futures.
Despite its significant size, the unique needs of the bi+ community often go unaddressed in the workplace and beyond. Regrettably, bisexual employees also are less likely to self-identify their sexual orientation even in anonymous human resource surveys — 59 percent of bisexuals compared to nearly 80 percent of gays and lesbians. This figure indicates that employers are not yet fully capturing the breadth of needs facing bi+ workers, which can affect employee retention, engagement, and upward mobility in the company.
Third, bi+ employees regularly face stigma and negative stereotypes.
Frequently, the workplace is not a welcoming environment for bi+ employees. Pervasive biphobia targets the legitimacy of bisexual, queer, pansexual and fluid identities and comes in many forms: jokes, stereotypes, noninclusive language, and even abuse. Unfortunately, 43 percent of LGBTQ employees report hearing jokes specifically aimed at bisexuality.
In addition to hearing jokes, members of the bi+ community are negatively stereotyped as promiscuous, unfaithful, and hypersexual. Bisexual identity is frequently delegitimized, as many mistakenly believe that bisexuals are just confused, are undecided, or have not come fully out of the closet yet.
Sentiments like these influence a bi+ employee’s decision to come out or stay in the closet in the workplace. Furthermore, they set the stage for unfriendly workplace environments for bi+ employees, which can negatively affect overall employee performance, productivity, and well-being.
Fourth, bi+ Individuals often feel excluded by both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ peers.
Bi erasure is unfortunately reality for many in the bi+ community. Bi+ voices and experiences are often excluded or erased in both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ spaces, including in LGBTQ resources, conversations around queer issues, and opportunities. Even in the LGBTQ community, bi+ individuals fight against the stigma that bisexuality is just a phase or a front for lesbian or gay individuals who are too scared to come completely out of the closet. According to research by the Equality Network, nearly 70 percent of bisexual people can feel excluded by both the straight population and the LGBTQ community.
Though one’s relationship status does not determine their sexual orientation, bisexual people are often assumed to be straight or gay based on the gender of their partner or significant other. This assumption is just as common in LGBTQ spaces as it is in non-LGBTQ spaces. Thus, LGBTQ employee resource groups may not always feel like a safe space, especially for those in different-gender relationships.
Fifth, the bi+ community needs allies in the workplace.
Clearly, there is much to be done to ensure bi+ employees feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, and this is where allies play critical roles. Here are just a few recommendations for creating more inclusive spaces for bi+ employees:
- Celebrate Bisexual Awareness Week within your employee resource groups, on your company’s social media platform, and through virtual programming to elevate bi+ voices.
- Offer bi+ inclusive LGBTQ educational resources and training to employees and management.
- Offer domestic-partner benefits that are inclusive of same- and different-gender partners.
- Ensure there are bi+ employees in your employee resource groups’ leadership roles.
- Ensure your LGBTQ employee resource groups are inclusive of bi+ people and programming — including those in different-gender relationships.
- Use inclusive language: Rather than asking “Do you have a husband/wife?” ask “Do you have a partner/someone important in your life?”
- Consider that not everyone in a different-gender relationship identifies as straight, and not everyone in a same-gender relationship identifies as gay or lesbian.
- Recognize that an individual’s relationship does not determine their sexual orientation.
- Education plays a critical role in advancing inclusion and building cultures of belonging. Continue your education on bi+ identities and inclusion at our upcoming Virtual Workplace Summit October 5-9. Our summit features a whole track of workshops dedicated to bisexual and queer identities. Check out the full list of options below:
Bi Bi Baby — Parenting While Bi
Bisexual, Person of Color, and a Womxn — 3 Strikes
Bisexuality and Pansexuality: Similarities, Differences, and Togetherness
Free to B: Creating Community That Empowers Bisexual Men
Resting Bi Face: We’re Looking at You
Why Is It Challenging to Organize Around Bi+ Identities?
Erin Uritus is CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates (outandequal.org), the world’s premier nonprofit dedicated to achieving global LGBTQ workplace equality. Beginning October 5, Out & Equal will host its 22nd global summit — the world’s largest LGBTQ business and professional gathering with more than 5,000 attendees from the U.S. and over 24 other nations.