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On the Clock, in the Closet

Researchers have begun to delve into the implications of carrying a concealable stigma—like sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or political allegiances—into the workplace.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AndreyPopov/Thinkstock.

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.

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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.

Living in the closet may be stressful, but it’s also, apparently, good training for lots of jobs.

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.


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