Quick, think of some of the most influential US women in their fields, past and present. Got some? Chances are at least some of the women you thought of lesbians/bi/queer. Suze Orman for financial planning, Ellen DeGeneres for daytime talk shows, Jillian Michaels for fitness, Eleanor Roosevelt for politics, Virginia Woolf for writing, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova for tennis, Joan Jett for rock ‘n roll, Janis Joplin for rock ‘n blues.
Suze OrmanPhoto by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
The list goes on: Rachel Maddow for political commentary, Robin Roberts for television broadcasting, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich for acting, Margaret Mead for anthropology, Sally Ride for astronomy, etc. Regardless of whether the above women are the absolute best in their fields or just among the best/most widely known, the point is that gay and bi women appear in the upper echelons of almost every field.
Is this seemingly disproportionate appearance actually real, however, and if so, why are lesbian and bisexual women disproportionately represented among influential women? The answer, unsurprisingly, is complicated. To start with, no, gay women aren’t necessarily disproportionately represented. Approximately 2% of American women identify as lesbian, with another approximately 4% identifying as bisexual, meaning that about 6% of American women self-identify as being other than straight. A few examples of how this might play out in practice: given that there have been 45 First Ladies of the United States, two to three of those wives were likely gay.
So although Eleanor Roosevelt is memorable as having been one of the most high profile and commanding First Ladies, she probably wasn’t the only gay/bi First Lady…and truthfully, she wasn’t. Rose Elizabeth “Libby” Cleveland, sister of 22nd President Grover Cleveland, who served as Cleveland’s First Lady before he married while in office, lived the rest of her life with her female partner Evangelin Simpson and they are buried beside each other in Tuscany.
Similarly, Robin Roberts, co-host of Good Morning America, is statistical “predictable.” It’s a little difficult to figure out all the official titles of women who have appeared on the show, but it appears that since 1975, the show has had 22 female co-hosts, anchors, co-anchors, contributors or correspondents (plus one meteorologist). Statistically, there may (or may not be) another queer woman who has been on the show in a senior position but who hasn’t publicly come out yet.
Robin Roberts with Vice President Joe BidenPhoto by Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images
Six percent is not an insignificant percent of the female population, and therefore it should not be surprising that lesbians would play a prominent role throughout society. By numbers alone, gay women are actually generally underrepresented rather than overrepresented in certain fields. This can be explained in part by the fact that, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 54% of LGBT individuals are closeted at work. If those women currently closeted came out, the proportion of lesbian/queer women in powerful positions would seem even more disproportionate, when the number would actually be aligning itself more accurately to the population’s demographics.
Of course, demographics only tell part of the story of lesbians in the workplace. Lesbian and bisexual women aren’t evenly represented in all careers, so applying a universal 6% rule is a generalization done for easy math. They are present in higher concentrations in certain professions because of self-selection. According to one academic theory, gays and lesbians tend toward professions that have high degrees of task independence—the ability to perform one’s tasks without substantially depending on coworkers, which makes it easier to conceal sexual orientation from others, social perceptiveness—the accurate anticipation and reading of others’ reactions, derived from years of having to discern whether there’s a threat of discrimination by others or both.
Boiled down, lesbians are likely to be slightly overrepresented compared to straight women in careers that enable them to either go it completely alone or work autonomously in positions helping others—enter talk show hosts, financial and fitness consultants, suffragettes and folk musicians.
Additionally, studies tend to find that lesbians are overrepresented in traditionally male, often much higher paying occupations. They also are better educated than anyone but heterosexual women. This one-two combination leads lesbians to be “overrepresented among America’s most highly educated and better-paid women workers.” In one study, American lesbians averaged a 20% higher salary than heterosexual women of comparable education, skills, and experience. Although no one has quite nailed down why exactly lesbians are more successful than their heterosexual peers in most white-collar jobs (Is it because they have more masculine traits? Work longer hours and are less likely to have families?) it does help explain why queer women might be overrepresented in some fields: they choose higher paying jobs and are promoted faster.
There are therefore at least two possible explanations for trends in the appearance of homosexual women in positions of influence: first, they’re not actually more prominent than heterosexual women and are underrepresented, and second, lesbians self-select into the type of jobs that would enable them to have more influence and notoriety than their heterosexual peers and hence may be or seem to be overrepresented at senior levels. Neither trend is mutually exclusive. If LGBT women are underrepresented (or are accurately represented), why does it seem like lesbian and bi women are everywhere in the news? The answer is cognitive bias.
In this case, the bias is an illusory correlation, which is a bias that affects memory encoding. In illusory correlation, a false association is formed between membership in a statistical minority group (here, LGBT women) and a rare behavior (normally negative, but in this case positive—achieving the pinnacle of success in one’s professional field). The false association is formed because rare or novel occurrences are more salient and therefore tend to capture one’s attention and cause an individual to overestimate the frequency with which these correlations actually occur.
An individual who sees Ellen DeGeneres on TV all the time, for example, might draw the conclusion that lesbians dominate daytime talk shows, and every time that individual sees a lesbian or queer woman on a talk show (Sara Gilbert on The Talk, Raven-Symone on The View), that correlation is reinforced. What is ignored, however, are the dozens upon dozens of straight talk show hosts, like Kelly Ripa, Joy Behar, Meredith Viera, Chelsea Handler, etc.
So do lesbians “run the world”? Yes and no. A better answer would be to say that they help run the world, and leave the discussion of quality over quantity to another day.