Jun 23, 2022
How to Close the LGBTQ+ Wage Gap in the U.S.
Conduct a career audit, figure out your thriving wage, and push for inclusive benefits.
Hadassah Damien realized that if she didn’t make a big change to her financial situation, she would never get ahead and lose the chance at a secure financial future in her older years.
For years, she had been living with roommates in rent-controlled New York City housing, deferring personal maintenance like dental work, and biking because she couldn’t afford a metro card for the subway.
“I kind of theoretically knew there were well paying jobs, but I didn’t know if I knew of anyone who had one or what well paying meant,” says Damien, who identifies as LGBTQ+. “I had this very kind of othering sense of money and people who had money.”
She was in her mid-30s, making between $25,000 and $35,000 per year working at non-profit organizations, community organizing events, selling her own art, and “a little of this, that, and the other thing.”
Then, in 2015, Damien experienced what she calls her “light bulb moment,” realizing that there was more money out there to be made — a lot more — and she had to figure out how to get it.
“I started to look around and was like wait a minute, some of the people I do know actually do seem to have more money. Where does that money come from?” she says. “I was in a sort of cultural norm of not making a lot of money.”
She worked her way up the financial ladder, taking higher and higher paid non-profit gigs by leaning into her interests and skills in tech and data. She then earned her graduate degree and stepped outside her comfort zone and into the for-profit world, landing her first six-figure job in tech and design.
Damien, who now lives in Denver, Colorado with her wife in a four-bedroom home, is paying it back by lifting up other LGBTQ+ Americans who are struggling financially.
Her website, Ride Free Fearless Money, aims to help other people who are in the same place she was — underpaid, undervalued, and struggling to survive with no path to break the cycle. She has helped more than 2,000 people through workshops, courses, and an online video series.
Creating an even playing field
Damien, and her clients, are far from alone.
Savings, debt, and unemployment have all affected LGBTQ+ Americans harder due to discrimination, lack of protections, and little recourse to turn the tide toward equity. But experts are now eyeing the LGBTQ+ pay gap in the same way pay gaps have been studied, analyzed, and discussed for years when it comes to women and people of color in the workplace.
On average, an LGBTQ+ employee earns 90 cents for every $1 earned by their heterosexual counterpart, according to a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign. Of the 7,000 people surveyed, the median weekly salary was about $900 compared to the $1,001 median weekly pay of a typical worker per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The gap becomes even more stark when compared by race and gender.
While white LGBTQ+workers earn 97 cents on the dollar and Latinx LGBTQ+ workers earn 90 cents on the dollar, the gap widens to 80 cents on the dollar for black LGBTQ+ workers and 70 cents for LGBTQ+ Native American workers.
LGBTQ+ men earn an average of 96 cents on the dollar, compared to 87 cents on the dollar for LGBTQ+ women. But transgender men as well as workers who identify as non-binary, genderqueer, or genderfluid earn an average of 70 cents on the dollar.
The lowest paid demographic? Transgender women earn just 60 cents on the dollar compared to cis, heterosexual employees, according to the same report.
Greater job security and inclusivity may help
Experts are hoping that more employment protections and a growing culture of inclusivity in some states will make that gap smaller in future reports.
But it won’t happen quickly.
“There are historically fewer educational opportunities, less employment protection, [and it’s] easier to get fired, harder to get hired,” says Shoshana Goldberg, director of public education and research at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, based in New York. “And when you’re in the job, it’s harder to get promoted or get raises.”
The wage gap, like those for women and people of color, is rooted in what Goldberg calls basic discrimination.
“LGBT adults have traditionally been underemployed or unemployed. This wage gap is among just those who are employed,” she says. “If we were to include wages that included the zero dollar wages for those that are unemployed, we’d actually see a much bigger wage gap.”
Another major factor behind the wage gap is that LGBTQ+ workers are, as a group, more often employed in industries that are less stable, lower paid, and offer fewer benefits. Those industries, Goldberg says, include food service, the arts, and hospitality.
“The jobs that they are getting into already have less benefits and lower wages, and then it’s less easy to get into these jobs,” she says.
Topics such as money and salary are a common trauma, Damien says, among the LGBTQ+ community who have gotten used to being underpaid.
“There’s this potential fear cycle happening where people are saying ‘If I ask for more money I might not get the job,’ or ‘I might be seen as too much when perhaps it’s already asking a lot for them to hire a queer person in the first place,’” she says.
The 2020 landmark Supreme Court ruling that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity gives LGBTQ+ employees a federal level of protection, but it doesn’t prevent the wage gap and it doesn’t force states to guarantee the same protections. Currently, only 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, offer employment protection based on sexual orientation and gender identify.
“We will hope that when there are employment protections this wage gap will close,” Goldberg says, adding that she’s hoping to see some movement in these next few years after the Supreme Court ruling.
How to close your wage gap
It’s now on individual companies, industries, governments, and employees themselves — both LGBTQ+ and straight—to continue pushing the needle toward inclusiveness.
There are many ways LGBTQ+ employees can ask for more money in ways that are both smart and safe, as well as ways straight allies can help all of their colleagues no matter their orientation or identity.
Figure out your “thriving wage.” There’s a difference, Damien says, between putting food on the table and actually thriving. A thriving wage, Damien says, means you can “cover needs, cover some wants, and dig out of any holes of the past. And take care of yourself in the future.”
Damien settled on $100,000 as her target thriving wage, even though it seemed unattainable at the time. “Coming up with that number itself can be scary .. .but challenge yourself to try,” she says.
Conduct a career audit. Figure out what jobs pay a lot of money and find one that “doesn’t suck,” Damien says. Then go after it.
“What jobs might I do that pays that amount of money?” she says. “Am I going to get a job working for somebody else or some organization, am I going to get professional training so I can get some sort of other job, or am I going to start a business?”
Websites such as Glassdoor and Payscale can help you figure out what different jobs pay based on experience, education, skills, and location.
Discuss your salary with your co-workers. This used to be cultural workplace taboo, but “more pay transparency benefits all people,” Goldberg says. “Those who are most marginalized will stand to gain the most from pay transparency,” she says. “They can assess if they’re being paid equitably.”
Enlist the help of a union, if possible. “If you’re in a company that has a union … work with the union, [make] sure the union is advocating for non-discrimination protections and enforcing them,” Goldberg says.“Then get together with co-workers to go as a team to managers to request a raise.”
Push for inclusive benefits. LGBTQ+ workers are often forced to pay more for benefits that cisgender, hetersexual employees don’t have to worry about. That includes fertility treatments, pre-transition fertility preservation, parental leave for biological, adopted, and foster children, and gender affirming care for employees and for their children.
“Businesses benefit by having inclusive policies and promoting inclusive climates,” Goldberg says. “It makes it a better experience for their workers and their workers will perform better at work.”
Apply for jobs with posted salary ranges. Negotiating a salary is still part of the hiring process, but posted salary ranges can help LGBTQ+ employees know what they can expect to make before they apply, without worrying about being lowballed well below market rate.
Some job sites, including LinkedIn, give hiring managers space to fill in the expected salary range. And several states, including Colorado, Nevada, Connecticut, California, Washington and Maryland, already have laws in the books requiring that some sort of salary range information be posted along with hiring notices.
Both Goldberg and Damien say they are counting on the younger generation of LGBTQ+ workers who are out and proud to help undo the decades of fear and discrimination that led to the wage gap existing in the first place. That starts with making inclusiveness the norm, rather than the exception.
“More and more young adults are identifying as LGBTQ,” Goldberg says. “I think that could hopefully lead to a climate where we see the gap getting smaller.”