Lesbian, gay and bisexual workers in Canada more likely than straight workers to report low quality, precarious jobs

Key messages

  • In a survey of Canadian workers, sexual minority (lesbian, gay and bisexual) workers reported lower job quality than their straight counterparts.
  • Sexual minority workers were three times more likely than straight workers to be in precarious employment than in standard employment.
  • There is a considerable lack of data on job quality among sexual minority groups.

Published: January 2024

Sexual minority workers are more likely to have low quality jobs and to be in precarious employment arrangements compared to their straight counterparts. Further, compared to lesbian, gay and straight workers, bisexual workers often reported the least favourable working conditions.

That’s according to a study jointly led by Dr. David Kinitz, recipient of a 2021 Institute for Work & Health (IWH) Syme award and now postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Dr. Faraz Shahidi, IWH associate scientist. Whether they’re less likely to have health benefits and union memberships, or more likely to experience discrimination at work and have temporary or part-time jobs, our study showed that lesbian, gay and bisexual workers have poorer outcomes on most job quality indicators than straight workers, says Kinitz.

The study, published in SSM - Population Health (doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2023.101535), set out to compare the job quality of sexual minority workers and their heterosexual counterparts. For the research team, it was important to take as broad a view of job conditions as possible. When researchers study job quality, we almost always focus on things like hours worked and dollars earned. But the quality of a particular job and the inequities faced by marginalized groups extend to more than just these two elements, says Shahidi.

Measuring job quality

The research team drew on data from the 2016 cycle of the Canadian General Social Survey (GSS). This cycle had a special theme that aimed to explore people’s views on work, home, leisure and well-being and included in-depth questions about job quality. Each year, the GSS surveys a sample of about 25,000 Canadians aged 15 years and older. The research team’s analysis focused specifically on 9,270 working-aged adults (aged 18 years or older) from the 2016 cycle who identified themselves as heterosexual (8,970 workers), gay or lesbian (190 workers) or bisexual (110 workers).

The team measured job quality along 25 dimensions captured in the survey. Fifteen of these dimensions relate to working conditions, which describe everyday experiences on the job. The remaining 10 dimensions relate to employment conditions, which describe contractual aspects of the employment relationship.

The study found that poor employment and working conditions were more prevalent among sexual minority workers. They more often reported part-time employment, irregular employment, lack of union membership, low income and lack of any benefits or sick leave than heterosexual workers.

Sexual minority workers also more commonly reported low job satisfaction, low work-life balance, overqualification, job mismatch, low career prospects and low sense of belonging. Among this group, bisexual workers often reported less favourable working conditions than gay and lesbian workers, including the highest rates of job insecurity, overqualification and job mismatch. Sexual harassment at work was five times more prevalent, and discrimination twice as prevalent, among sexual minority workers than among heterosexual workers.

Three categories of employment

The team then created three distinct types of employment and sorted participants into one of the three, based on their responses across the 25 job quality dimensions. We created the three categories of employment in recognition that job quality is based not on any single dimension, but on a 'package deal' of multiple, interacting factors, says Shahidi. These three types of employment are listed below on a continuum of job quality from highest to lowest: standard, flexible and precarious:

Standard employment. This is the standard working relationship often characterized by full-time, permanent employment offering numerous benefits, union membership, and  associated with higher levels of job satisfaction, job control and work-life balance. Jobs with standard employment are often considered higher quality.

Flexible employment. This group is comprised of nonstandard job characteristics, but workers often report being gainfully employed and satisfied with their jobs. Jobs in this group are more likely to be temporary or part-time, or those where workers make their own hours. These jobs typically do not come with union memberships or other benefits offered by the standard employment relationship. They can, however, include comparable or better working conditions than the standard group such as more job control, more job satisfaction and lower likelihood of perceived discrimination. 

Precarious employment. This employment type has the least favourable job conditions and working perceptions on virtually every dimension of job quality compared to the standard employment type. Jobs in this group more commonly include part-time, temporary or irregular employment, low income, low career prospects, high job demand and a low perceived sense of belonging. Workers in this group also reported the lowest levels of workplace benefits, union membership, work-life balance, job control and job satisfaction. Reports of discrimination, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, threats, humiliating behaviour and physical violence were most common in this group. 

After accounting for sociodemographic differences between these three groups such as age and gender, sexual minority workers were found to be nearly three times as likely as heterosexual workers to be in precarious employment versus standard employment. They were no more or less likely than heterosexual workers to be in flexible employment versus standard employment.

The Canadian government has employment protections for gender expression, identity and sexual orientation. But as we see from these findings, that may not be translating into the actual labour market experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. says Kinitz. The large proportion of sexual minority workers in low quality, precarious jobs sheds light on the need to consider how to address the disparities found between the employment experiences of straight and sexual minority workers, he adds. This includes a better understanding of workers’ career goals, hiring decisions and worker experiences within and across different types of employment.

As Shahidi puts it, strengthening protections could have the most profound impacts on those who need them the most. When we improve the regulation and enforcement of work-related standards—including psychosocial conditions such as job security, freedom from discrimination and harassment and opportunities for career growth—we particularly aid marginalized groups like sexual minorities who stand to benefit the most from better employment and working conditions.

Read about another IWH study investigating job quality:

For the researchers, these findings also show that we need to adopt a broader view of labour market inequities among sexual minority workers beyond just employment status to encompass more dimensions of inclusion, like job quality. 

But data that dive into deeper aspects of job quality in this group is hard to come by. In Canada, the surveys that provide us with the with the most meaningful and comprehensive portrait of employment and working conditions seldom provide information on sexual orientation, notes Kinitz. Even though this one cycle of the GSS does ask about job quality and sexual orientation—a theme that hasn’t been repeated since—the team was only able to look at the work experiences of 300 sexual minority workers, he adds. The study notes, for example, that larger and more routinely collected data sets on employment and sexual orientation are needed to monitor disparities over time—including potential progress towards reducing these gaps.

We need surveys—including those already being conducted on a provincial or national scale—to better integrate questions about sexual orientation and sample a larger number of sexual monitories. And when surveys ask these questions, they should also make sure to include detailed questions on working conditions, given the importance of work as a social determinant of health.  This will help bring lesbian, gay and bisexual—or further, transgender and gender diverse populations—into the conversation about job quality.