7 Systemic Barriers Faced by LGBTQ+ Young Professionals

PIOW recently hosted a panel discussion focused on the needs of young adults who are navigating career access, mobility, and workplace culture for the first time. Boston’s nonprofit leaders joined us to unpack the systemic barriers that can work against LGBTQ+ young adults as they seek to secure and maintain employment. Our conversation featured:

Use the following shortcuts to access the full panel recording and navigate our event recap and best practices:

PIOW Panel Recording

Systemic Barriers to Entry

1. Pandemic Job Loss

LGBTQ+ young adults traditionally face disproportionately high rates of unemployment, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this situation. A Rutgers study found that LGBTQ+ individuals in the US – especially those younger in age – experienced higher rates of job loss over the course of the pandemic.

The study also notes that losing a job has dramatic effects on the overall well-being of younger individuals, impacting their financial stability, standard of living, and access to healthcare.

“COVID-19 has created a completely separate employment crisis. Prior to the pandemic, the number of young people (16-24) who were disconnected from work [and] school… was approximately 57,000 here in Mass. Now it’s 88,000.” 

Connor Schoen (he/him), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Breaktime

2. Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislative Climate

In 2020, a landmark Supreme Court decision granted LGBTQ+ people protection against discrimination in the workplace. 

While many hoped this signified a turning point for LGBTQ+ equality in America, 2022 has seen a record-breaking 300+ bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community nationwide. Many affect LGBTQ+ youth in particular, including transgender athletes, their families, and healthcare professionals providing gender-affirming support for trans youth. 

Source: HRC

3. Public Discourse and its Amplified Effects

To some, the current proposed policies read as isolated cases. 

To members of the LGBTQ+ community, the collective legal and political debates over LGBTQ+ rights at the national level carry a heavy weight that follows us as we show up for work, school, and in conversations with those around us. 

Loaded, extremist perspectives on gender are being used strategically to “other” LGBTQ+ young people and challenge the humanity of those who support them. 

Panelist Derrick Young Jr. highlights the intersectional nature of public discourse and its amplified impact across marginalized communities:

Bills around critical race theory are part of the LGBTQ+ movement, because when we talk about black and brown folks, we are also queer and LGBTQ too. And so we’re experiencing this double hit saying, we don’t wanna talk about your history, your experiences… your identity doesn’t matter to us, your story doesn’t matter.” 

Derrick Young Jr. (he/they), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Leadership Brainery

Apart from the damage that the passage of this legislation causes, the ongoing conversation surrounding the bills connotes that LGBTQ+ individuals are worth or deserve less than their peers. This sentiment impacts the long-term mental health, confidence, and safety and well-being of LGBTQ+ youth as they age into young adults and early-career professionals. 

4. Lack of Housing and Financial Stability

Each year, LGBTQ+ youth are kicked out of homes or feel that they must leave current living situations to protect their own safety after coming out to family members. Without savings or familial support, options for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults are limited. Many are forced to seek out beds in strictly gendered shelters, risking exposure to sexual violence, assault, and harassment.

Boston, for example, has roughly 60 beds available for youth in shelters, prompting LGBTQ+ youth to enter unsafe housing situations or live on the street without support when the limited beds prove insufficient. 

For any of us to be gainfully employed, to hold a job and succeed and advance, we need a stable, safe living situation. We need food and clothing… to show up at work and participate,” Grace says, adding that “disproportionately, LGBTQ young people often don’t have that.

Grace Sterling Stowell (she/they), Executive Director, BAGLY

For those between stable living situations, financial stability and maintaining employment are greater challenges. Their need to focus on day-to-day survival prevents them from long-term career or financial planning. 

5. Limitations to Higher Education

Financial security is a particular struggle for the 45 million borrowers who collectively owe approximately $1.7 trillion in student loan debt in 2022. Studies show that LGBTQ+ adults are more likely than their peers to have federal student loans adding to their financial strain, which can limit their ability to pursue higher education at the risk of accruing additional debt. 

As many search for open positions, it is not uncommon to see job posts that require applicants to have obtained advanced degrees to qualify for entry-level positions.

“We find it a necessity to ensure that communities who have been barred from education and workforce leadership opportunities for decades because of their identities… have the tools and resources to get to the highest levels of education… Many folks look at [masters and doctoral degrees] as a luxury, but they are not a luxury. They’re a necessity. There are many careers in society that absolutely require postgraduate education like being a lawyer, being a doctor, or being a professor. You can’t access any of those industries without advanced degree.”

Derrick Young Jr. (he/they), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Leadership Brainery

6. Absence of Representation at Leadership Levels

Representation matters at all levels of an organization, especially in leadership positions. When young people can envision themselves in a role or see their identity reflected in an organization’s executive leadership team, they can feel empowered to pursue similar professional opportunities. In addition, as they gauge a potential workplace, LGBTQ+ youth seek representation as a sign of workplace safety. 

“Who is there that actually understands my experiences? Who is there that will speak up for me when I am misgendered, when we have biased dress codes and so forth to know that I matter too?”

Derrick Young Jr. (he/they), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Leadership Brainery
Source: McKinsey & Company

McKinsey research shows that LGBTQ+ individuals (especially women) are underrepresented at every stage of the management pipeline. 

This absence of visible, accessible LGBTQ+ executive leaders in corporate America means there is work to be done to improve representation. The few who are in positions of power also risk being stretched too thin to deliver meaningful mentorship experiences to incoming employees.  

7. Workplace Culture Shock

“What does it mean to be employed? What does it mean to show up every day at nine, if that’s the requirement of your job? What does it mean to interact with folks and to have a supervisor and to be part of a team? None of us are born knowing those things.”

Grace Sterling Stowell (she/they), Executive Director, BAGLY

Upon entering the workforce, there are a number of invisible barriers that can make it challenging for early-career professionals to maintain employment. 

For example, if an LGBTQ+ young adult has grown up without a mentor or parental figure to pass down the norms of workplace etiquette, one can easily misinterpret expectations around workplace behavior, dress codes, and scheduling in a way that makes them appear unprepared or uncommitted. 

Through a different lens, an LGBTQ+ professional could enter the workplace for the first time feeling prepared, having had access to adults modeling professional norms. On the job, they realize that this new work environment lacks a supportive network of LGBTQ+ allies. The employee is forced to adopt the responsibility of educating coworkers about their own identity and pronouns, and navigating uncomfortable situations when their supervisors don’t understand or affirm the core elements of their identity.

How to Support LGBTQ+ Young Professionals

1. Lead with patience.

Connor reminds us:

“Young people with barriers to employment, who haven’t had the privilege and access to resources and support throughout their lives, cannot just come in and hit a home run on day one all the time. That’s not what we should expect out of them… A lot of these young people, as they’re entering the workforce, are not going to get it right on day one.” 

Connor Schoen (he/him), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Breaktime

2. Invest in LGBTQ+ youth through sponsorship and mentorship.

“Young people know they deserve more than just getting or losing a job,” said Grace on our panel. “It’s about succeeding. It’s not just about tolerance, or acceptance, but to be seen as assets that will strengthen the workplace. Young people will enrich the workplace and what we do. We all want to know that we have something to contribute.”

Allies within organizations can step up as mentors, dedicating time to share best practices with LGBTQ+ youth, or sponsors who speak up for these individuals.

“[LGBTQ+ youth need sponsors who] throw biases and stigmas out the door and really just support a hard working individual who deserves to be at the next level… folks who already have their backs up against the wall and are struggling to speak up for themselves in a society that already tells us that we’re not good enough.”

Derrick Young Jr. (he/they), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Leadership Brainery

3. Support organizations that create stability. 

Learn more about BAGLY, which has supported LGBTQ+ youth in Boston since 1980. Today it is a youth-led, adult-supported social support organization, committed to social justice and creating, sustaining, and advocating for programs, policies, and services for the LGBTQ+ youth community, with a network of organizations throughout Massachusetts! 

Learn more about Breaktime, which provides emergency funding, housing, credit counseling, savings matching, and more to help LGBTQ+ youth build a foundation for job and financial security.

Learn more about Leadership Brainery, which works with academic institutions, prospective and current graduate students, employers, and committed community members to eliminate systemic barriers to master’s and doctoral degrees and workforce leadership opportunities for underrepresented talent — including people of color, individuals from a lower socioeconomic status, and LGBTQ+ individuals.

4. Use your organization’s influence.

Now is the time to speak up and speak out. According to the HRC, more than 150 major corporations have so far signed a letter warning that harmful new bills will have a negative effect on their employees, customers, competitiveness, and state and national economies.

“It’s vitally important [to speak out]. It’s about walking the talk, and ensuring that LGBTQ and all who experience discrimination and oppression for many different identities know that their company has their back. That means often taking public and sometimes controversial stands and saying the right thing and doing the right thing, even when it’s not easy.”

Grace Sterling Stowell (she/they), Executive Director, BAGLY

5. Be curious.

A shift is occurring in the world of work as businesses explore what it means to create equitable workplace experiences. (Gartner says it’s the #1 concern for HR professionals.) This requires a shift in mindset from competition to curiosity.

“We really have to think in an innovative way. How is the person with the most barriers to employment, with the least wealth and privilege at your company, how are they going to succeed if they don’t have the right resources behind them?”

Connor Schoen (he/him), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Breaktime

Grace reminds us that our journey towards equality begins with this genuine curiosity:

“You know, LGBTQ is a whole lot of letters and they’re all very different and have different experiences and histories. We need to remind ourselves that no matter how much work we do, there’s always more to learn. And the best way to start is by asking our employees, what do you need to succeed? What can we do to help? We can’t do everything, but at least you’re listening and providing a space that says, this is a place where we want to know the answer to that question. And this is a place where we want to support your success here.”

Grace Sterling Stowell (she/they), Executive Director, BAGLY

Thank you to our panelists for helping us understand how our next generation of leaders and young people can not only survive, but thrive within the workplace. 

Thank you as well for reading – as we build towards a more equitable future of work, learn how PIOW can support you in this journey.

Grace Sterling Stowell (she/they), Executive Director, BAGLY

Grace Sterling Stowell has been a pioneering activist and leader in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and social justice communities for over 40 years.

Grace is the founding executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Youth (BAGLY), one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ youth organizations in the nation. Grace is a founding member of several local and national LGBTQ youth advocacy organizations, and she currently serves as an Executive Committee member of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, a Steering Committee member of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), and a Board Member of Breaktime. Grace is also a nationally known advocate and leader on the issues facing transgender youth and young adults.

Grace received a B.A. in English from Curry College in Milton, MA, and a M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, and she currently resides in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. While Grace has served many roles in her community work over the past three decades, she is particularly honored to be known as “Mother” (and now “Grandmother!”) by three generations of greater Boston’s LGBTQ youth.

Connor Schoen (he/him), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Breaktime

Connor Schoen is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Breaktime–a rapidly-growing, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that empowers young adults experiencing homelessness to build sustainability in their lives while building resilience in their communities.

Recently recognized as Forbes 30 Under 30 for Social Impact, Connor is a young, emerging leader in the nonprofit world with a deep, infectious passion for empowering young people with the opportunities and support they need to reach their full potential. With an honors degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics from Harvard University, Connor brings a data-informed, quantitative approach to program design and evaluation. Connor is one of six Lead Innovators in the 2021 Social Innovation Forum cohort, and he recently was elected to the Board of the Midas Collaborative, where he advocates for state funding for matched savings programs to help eliminate the racial wealth gap and elevate MA residents out of poverty. Previously, Connor served as a Cheng Social Innovation Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, and he was a finalist in the American Heart Association’s 2021 EmPOWERED to Serve Business Accelerator.

Derrick Young Jr. (he/they), Co-Founder and Executive Director, Leadership Brainery

Derrick Young Jr. is a champion for social justice, racial equity, and anti-oppression. He is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Leadership Brainery, an organization working with prospective and current graduate students, academic institutions, employers, and committed community members to eliminate systemic barriers to advanced education and workforce leadership roles. Derrick believes that with greater resources and access to inclusive networks and advanced education, underrepresented communities can leverage influential and higher-wage careers to establish financial stability and reinvest in their communities to create generational prosperity.

He was formerly the Policy and Strategy Specialist for Intergovernmental Relations at the Boston Public Health Commission. At BPHC, he represented the City of Boston on local and state public health coalitions, drafted priority legislation, and prepared the annual operating budget for approval by the City Council. In addition, at the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, he was assigned to Boston’s Medical Intelligence Center as the Information Box Supervisor. In that role, he provided colleagues, first-responders, and residents with rapidly evolving coronavirus updates and resources.

Katie Martell (she/her), Host, Marketing Consultant, PIOW Board Member & Moderator

Katie Martell is an “unapologetic marketing truth-teller.” She is the author and producer of Woke-Washed, a book and documentary exploring the collision of marketing and social movements, and the author of Trust Me, B2B a short book about building long-term trust through marketing.

As marketing evolves in a digital age, she partners with brands to amplify stories of transformation and trends in customer experience. You may see her hosting Experience TV, a live show about the experience economy in partnership with Oracle, or hosting the annual Adobe Experience Maker Awards gala event.

Named “one of the most interesting people in B2B marketing” and a top marketing voice on LinkedIn 3X, Katie has been a startup CMO, SaaS entrepreneur, communications consultant and startup “Director of Buzz.” She served as Executive Director of Boston Content, New England’s largest community of content professionals.

With a distinct opinion and independent perspective, Katie is a frequent speaker and emcee at conferences in the US and internationally. She bats cleanup and plays third base on her modified softball team.

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