When It Doesn’t Pay to Wear the Pants

June 4, 2013This month, we’ll be focusing on LGBT issues and workplace inclusivity (“Everyone at the table”). We’re kicking off our coverage with today’s blog post—written by a former Catalyst intern!—which details obstacles faced by butch women in the workplace. As we delve into these important and timely topics, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

When my fiancée graduated from college with a dual degree in Mathematics and Secondary Education, a stellar GPA, and glowing references, I thought she would have no trouble finding a job. High school math teachers were in demand, and she had completed the training process with flying colors. Schools would be falling over themselves to hire her, right?

Wrong. That first post-grad summer, she sent out countless applications and went on back-to-back interviews. Often, she would run into her college classmates, who were interviewing for the same jobs. And every time, her classmates would score the position, despite their lackluster qualifications. It didn’t matter that my fiancée’s resume glowed with the accomplishments of a talented overachiever. No one wanted to hire her.

The problem is, my fiancée’s physical appearance isn’t as conventionally appealing as her CV. She only wears men’s clothing. Her eyebrows aren’t plucked, her face is never made up, and her nails are always polish-free. When it’s time for a haircut, she bypasses the beauty salon and pays a visit to the local barbershop. Within lesbian circles, my fiancée’s masculine demeanor earns her the label of butch, and it’s an identifier she embraces proudly. But it’s an identity that’s made it almost impossible for her to land a decent job.

And she’s not the only one. Almost every butch I know is either jobless or underemployed. Take my friend P., for example, who runs a support group for butch women of color and has been unemployed for years. Or my friend D., who has a degree in business management, but has spent the last ten years working in restaurants and retail stores. And then there’s V., who’s trying to make a name for herself as a personal trainer, but keeps getting derailed by unceremonious firings.

All of them have heard the constant refrains, “You just aren’t a good fit for our company,” “You wouldn’t mesh well with our staff,” and, “I’m sure you’ll be very successful in a different environment.” These statements are really just half-baked excuses, attempting to explain away the fact that many employers aren’t comfortable hiring a woman who doesn’t jive with stereotypical gender norms.

Even the most seemingly inclusive workplaces are guilty. D., who’s recently switched from waiting tables to canvassing for the Human Rights Campaign, told me she’d like to be an office-worker at an LGBT nonprofit some day, and did I have any contacts to share with her? I did—I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector for years. I’m also the kind of lesbian who wears skirts and makeup. It’s no coincidence that, with little experience and no degree, I managed to score the job that D.’s been dreaming of for years. If you’re a woman in the workplace, femininity is the most powerful business suit you can wear.

So when we talk about shattering the glass ceiling and closing the wage gap, we need to be fighting for all women, not just the ones who meet our expectations of what women should look like. Because for every pair of heels that makes it to the C-Suite, there’s an army of women in men’s suits who are still locked out of the office.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.