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Career counseling with lesbian clients: using the theory of work adjustment as a framework. (Practical Techniques).

Using the Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA; R. V. Dawis & L. H. Lofquist, 1984; L. H. Lofquist & R. V. Dawis, 1969) as a framework for identifying potential career challenges for lesbians, the authors explore the relationship between outness and discrimination and the four primary components of TWA. Career counseling implications are discussed, and specific suggestions are made for counselors.

Women who self-identify as lesbian represent a significant and invisible minority (Fassinger, 1991); current estimates suggest that as much as 3.6% of the population, or 2,300,000 women, are lesbian (Diamond, 1999). Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2000) indicated that women, as a group, earn only 72% of the amount earned by their male counterparts. Lesbian women report even more diminished earnings, at 5% to 14% less than the national average for women (Badgett, 1995). Reported incidents of employment discrimination as well as hate crimes against lesbians have increased over the past 5 years (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2000). With these very real threats to economic and physical survival, it seems that a lesbian would have strong reasons for maintaining secrecy regarding her sexual orientation. Conversely, using the high amount of energy required to accomplish this may interfere with job performance and satisfaction and may stall career development and advancement (Fogarty, 1980). This di chotomy places lesbians in positions in which either choice may result in an outcome that is less than optimal, and possibly detrimental, to their careers. Lesbians must determine the most efficacious strategy for career advancement while balancing the importance of "outness" on the job against the potential for negative consequences.

Black, Gates, Sanders, and Taylor (2000) found that as a group, individuals who self-report as lesbian or gay exist in all age categories, approximate the racial mix found in the total population, and are better educated than the average individual. Many contemporary authors also emphasized the similarities between lesbians and heterosexual women in appearance, interests, goals, and identities (e.g., Loulan, 1990). Despite the similarities, however, lesbians often face more obstacles as they work to achieve their career goals, while following career paths that are often more circuitous and lengthy (Boatwright, Gilbert, Forrest, & Ketzenberger, 1996) than those of heterosexual women. Perceived and actual threats to employment security exist for lesbians and potentially limit self-disclosure. Yet, the process of sexual identity formation has been shown to transform, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively, virtually all aspects of a lesbian's life, including her career (Fassinger, 1996).

There are two specific concerns of lesbian career development that invite further exploration: the decision to disclose sexual orientation to others and the experience of discrimination that is based on sexual orientation. Because the Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA; Dawis & Lofquist, 1984; Lofquist & Dawis, 1969) is a comprehensive career theory that incorporates career choice and subsequent career development while addressing both individual characteristics and pertinent environmental factors, it is well-suited for application to lesbian career concerns. Using TWA as a framework, we explore career concerns of lesbians and discuss implications for career counseling.

Theory of Work Adjustment and Its Relationship to Lesbian Career Development

Career development literature that specifically examined the career concerns of lesbians and gay men is limited, and little empirical work has been completed to date. Several traditional career theories have been evaluated for their applicability to lesbians and gay men, including those of Holland (see Mobley & Slaney, 1996), Super (see Dunkle, 1996), and Social Cognitive Career Theory (see Morrow, Gore, & Campbell, 1996). Although strong cases are made in support of the applicability of these theories to lesbian career development, TWA seems to be an equally appropriate theory that is applicable to minority populations, particularly given TWA's focus on the individual's interface with the work environment.

TWA is the product of an integration of concepts from several different theoretical orientations, including individual differences, learning theory, human relations, and vocational psychology paradigms (Dawis, 1994). The four prime components of TWA are satisfaction, person--environment correspondence, reinforcement value, and ability. It is clear that lesbians face particular challenges within each of these four facets of career development.

Career Satisfaction

Career satisfaction involves an individual's attitudes and feelings, or affective orientation, regarding his or her work roles within an organization. Dawis and Lofquist (1984) defined this as an employee's appraisal of how well the work environment fulfils requirements for reinforcers or needs. In addition, TWA addresses the satisfaction of the environment with the individual, a concept called "satisfactoriness" (Dawis, 1994). Variables that contribute to career satisfaction are found within the individual and within the work environment (Lease, 1998). For lesbians, a specific environmental factor that inhibits career satisfaction is discrimination, both sanctioned and illicit, based solely on sexual orientation.

Vocational discrimination against lesbians often results in diminished career satisfaction due to limited opportunities and limited financial rewards (Ferguson &Finkler, 1978). Research by Ellis and Riggle (1996) reported that individuals who were not completely open, often termed closeted, about their sexual identity at work were more satisfied with their income and generally had higher incomes than those individuals who disclosed sexual orientation to employers and coworkers. Research (Gutek, Cohen, & Tsui, 1996) indicated that perceived discrimination can foster a sense of helplessness in an employee. This can be intensified for lesbians who work in settings in which discrimination is not legally prohibited. Day and Schoenrade (1997) reported results of a study on the relationship between being open about sexual orientation at work and work attitudes. Their research focused on the negative outcomes (including lower job satisfaction, greater role conflicts, and less commitment to remain at a particular job) that might accrue for lesbians and gay men who are not open about their sexual orientation on the job. They were able to provide support for their hypothesis that homosexuals who did not disclose their sexual orientation would report lower job satisfaction and greater role conflicts. However, the group reported high scores for continuance commitment, which implies that rather than seek out a more supportive and tolerant work setting, lesbians would choose to continue employment in an environment that provided limited job satisfaction, greater role conflict, and intolerance for an integral facet of their overall identity. The researchers suggested that perhaps these individuals saw their current position as one of a very limited number of career options.

Relationships with coworkers are another important factor in career satisfaction (Day & Schoenrade, 1997) that may reflect the openness and sense of belonging an employee finds with other employees. The success a lesbian may have in developing these relationships may be contingent on her level of outness and the perceived effect openness may have on her coworkers. This conflict speaks to the attainment of intangible rewards (i.e., relationships) that women often seek on the job (Driscoll, Kelley, & Fassinger, 1996) but may be particularly difficult for lesbians to achieve.

Equitable pay, good relationships with coworkers, and advancement opportunities are a few of the needs that may go unsatisfied for lesbians who come out on the job. Making the decision to come out may satisfy a personal rather than a career-related need and may negatively affect relationships with others as well as invite the possibility of discrimination. A woman may no longer feel a sense of belonging at her workplace, which also reflects a compromised person--environment correspondence.

Person--Environment Correspondence

Person--environment correspondence, necessary to a successful vocation within a particular environment, has been described as harmony between the employee and her or his environment (Dawis, 1994). The concept of correspondence moves beyond the concept of person-environment fit developed by Holland (1997), which implied simply a vocational match or fit. Person-environment correspondence, as posited in TWA, includes a sense of mutual interaction and behavior between the individual and her or his environment.

Because of tacit and expressed discrimination against sexual minorities, person--environment correspondence is likely the least predictable and most influential component of TWA. Perhaps the most threatening and least preventable organizational feature that affects career development for lesbians is the prevalence of discrimination and harassment. Ample research has shown that lesbians and gay men face employment discrimination (see Croteau, Anderson, Distefano, & Kampa-Kokesch, 2000, for a comprehensive listing). All other components may indicate healthy career development within an organization for a lesbian, including requisite abilities and skills, multiple avail able reinforcement values, and potential satisfaction with the tasks and the environment, yet discrimination and bias from coworkers or employers may lead to low person--environment correspondence, thus foreclosing the possibility of a successful employment relationship. Additionally, in a study on gender roles and role conflicts (Peters & Cantr ell, 1993), lesbians reported less satisfaction than heterosexual women in their relationships with work-related acquaintances, both coworkers and employers, indicating a less than optimal person--environment correspondence. Role conflict and satisfaction with relationships were not dependent on whether or not the lesbians had disclosed their sexual identity.

Although lesbians have found employment in a wide variety of occupations, including traditionally male occupations (e.g., construction worker, factory worker) that pay more and earn greater respect than traditionally female occupations (e.g., teacher, sales clerk), lack of acceptance of a woman within a traditionally male workplace may compromise person-environment correspondence (Morgan & Brown, 1991). The choice to remain in such a position is generally influenced by strong reinforcers that counterbalance the negative environmental factors.

Reinforcement Values

Reinforcement value is related to the satisfaction component of TWA. Reinforcement values describe the intensity, or strength, that the fulfillment of a particular psychological need holds for an individual (Dawis, 1994). The strength of the desire to satisfy a need is the measure of its reinforcement value. Specific reinforcers include ability utilization, compensation, company policy, independence, recognition, security, social service, and moral values (Lofquist & Dawis, 1975). Lesbians who choose to come out on the job, and face the possibility of negative consequences (e.g., diminished compensation, security), have attached a high reinforcement value to the need to be open about their sexuality. Coming out and being honest about sexual orientation may be valued as the morally correct choice or it may meet a lesbian's need for recognition of her true self on the job.

Level of outness is a measure of the willingness of lesbians to reveal sexual orientation to others (Mohr & Fassinger, 2000), and this may vary across environments. For example, although a lesbian may choose to be completely out to her employers, she may choose to remain closeted to her family. One study found that 65% of the respondents had not disclosed their lesbianism to their employers, and 37% were not out to anyone at their workplace (Eldridge & Gilbert, 1990). When a lesbian woman is deciding to choose between outness and nondisclosure of sexual identity, she must evaluate potential reinforcement for this choice.

Lesbians who do come out on the job and who might be the first out gay employee or the only gay employee may be seen as token employees, who are defined as members of a subgroup that makes up less than 15% of the majority group (Kanter, 2000). If they are seen as the token gay employee, these women may face greater visibility and may be seen as representative of the entire lesbian population. As with other token employees, out lesbians face concerns that majority employees are spared and that can create internal stress for lesbians. They may feel isolated from other employees, left out of informal communication and support networks, measured against other token group members, and may fear being singled out by the majority employees for being different.

Making the decision to disclose sexual orientation is often fraught with damaging consequences, yet many researchers (e.g., Croteau & Hedstrom, 1993; Elliott, 1993; Fassinger, 1991, 1996; Morgan & Brown, 1991) have acknowledged the toll that is taken on the mental health of lesbians who exert the energy necessary to maintain secrecy. Conversely, by coming out, lesbians may open themselves up to discrimination and harassment, which can lead to constant fear and anxiety (Gelwick, 1984).

Discrimination and harassment toward lesbians can exist both formally and informally (Levine & Leonard, 1984). Formal discrimination is evidenced by company policies that result in unfair treatment in the form of hiring decisions, wages, evaluations of performance, and lack of domestic partner benefits and policies. Informal discrimination comes from coworkers and other employees who may verbally harass the lesbian employee, threaten or cause harm and devalue and discredit her work. Acceptance of formal discrimination is a choice many lesbians may willingly make in order to follow their chosen career path when the reinforcement values for continued employment are significant. Informal discrimination is a more personal assault, and the constant exposure to such discrimination and hostility toward lesbians significantly lowers reinforcement values, specifically the emotional benefits and the relational benefits of a particular job (Driscoll et al., 1996; Waldo, 1999).


Discrimination may occur well before a lesbian enters the job market. She may be precluded from developing particular abilities and skills that would allow her to enter a particular field. Viewed as a measure of potential, not actual, achievement, ability is defined in TWA as both an indicator of aptitude and a predictor of future behavior and performance (Dawis, 1994). Abilities precede skill development and, therefore, do not directly lead to achievement or to an individual's realization of their potential. Self-efficacy, defined as a person's belief in his or her ability to accomplish a given task, may greatly affect the process by which ability becomes skill. Gender stereotypes often keep individuals of both genders from fully exploring and developing their abilities. Morrow et al. (1996) expressed concern regarding the effect that such barriers as stereotyping, gender role expectations, and peer pressure may have for lesbians and gay men as a factor in their career development. The authors further sugges ted that the negative messages received from parents or teachers in response to non-gender-stereotypical interests may inhibit the development of interests as well as foreclose skill development.

Lesbians may face negation of their interests and abilities early in the career development process. Biases that exist toward lesbians in their career development may be evidenced when a lesbian client seeks career counseling from a nonaffirming career counselor (Fassinger, 1996) who may not support her interests in nontraditional careers. The sense of being different and the unpleasant associations with this perception (both for lesbians and for others) may lead these individuals to hold negative outcome expectations when they engage in behaviors that would reflect being different. Lesbians who disclose their sexual identity may be steered away from positions in which they would work with children (e.g., school teacher, child care worker) or from choosing a career that would reinforce typical lesbian stereotypes. Most models of career development highlight the importance that others have on the career development of an individual. Regardless of interests or abilities, oftentimes it is the interaction with ot hers, or the interference by others, that guides the vocational choice and, thus, the career path of lesbians who disclose their sexual orientation.

Unlike many minority groups, lesbians can often choose between identifying as a sexual minority or remaining invisible on the job. Lesbians must carefully evaluate the implications of this decision, and TWA provides a strong framework to do this, using the components of career satisfaction, person--environment correspondence, reinforcement values, and abilities. Career satisfaction may be both enhanced and diminished by coming out on the job (Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Ellis & Riggle, 1996). Although discrimination and harassment are less likely to occur if an individual remains closeted, which would seemingly support the claim of greater person--environment correspondence, lesbians may believe that their deception sacrifices fit with their environment. Lesbians must carefully assess the reinforcement values attached to coming out or remaining invisible. Even in the early stages of career development, lesbians may be judged and censured for their interests and abilities. Career counseling with lesbians, using TW A, would allow for individual exploration and facilitation of choices consonant with each woman's individual needs and preferences.

Case Study

A case example is provided to illustrate career counseling with a lesbian client within the framework of TWA. A discussion of the client and her presenting issues is followed by a discussion of the treatment plan and the outcome of the interventions.

Presenting Career Concerns

Lisa, a 31-year-old lesbian, was a computer programmer with a regional bank. After graduating from college, Lisa worked as a programmer for a small, family-owned business where she was open about her lesbianism. When the company went out of business, she chose to work as a contract programmer at short-term jobs. As a contract programmer, she never believed that it was necessary to develop close relationships with coworkers. However, her initial short-term assignment at the bank became a permanent position, with consideration for promotion to systems analyst within 6 months. Lisa enjoyed the opportunity to work at the prestigious company and had begun building relationships with her fellow employees. She felt unanticipated relief at being back in a permanent, full-time position. The benefits at the bank were excellent, her coworkers intelligent and enjoyable, and the job fit her abilities. Nonetheless, she did not feel as happy as she thought she would in this new position, and frequently isolated herself from her coworkers. Lisa entered career counseling because she felt dissatisfaction with what she believed should have been a highly satisfying career move.


In working with Lisa, the counselor used the framework of TWA to explore the concerns that Lisa might have regarding her work environment and career development. The counselor encouraged Lisa to talk about what she had valued in other jobs and what brought her satisfaction. In doing this, the counselor attempted to ascertain Lisa's needs for satisfaction in areas including compensation, authority, independence, advancement, work relationships, and recognition. As she responded, Lisa began to talk about the aspects of her present position and past jobs that brought her the most satisfaction.

The counselor and Lisa then explored the importance and degree of person--environment correspondence she felt in working at the bank. The counselor invited Lisa to discuss relationships with coworkers and supervisors, company policies, climate of the environment, as well as any other facets of the workplace with which she interacted.

Lisa explained that although she liked her current coworkers and they seemed to like her, they had tried to arrange dates for her with men. Lisa wanted to be honest with her coworkers but was reluctant to disclose that she was a lesbian. She was concerned about discrimination, specifically, lack of job advancement and more subtle issues surrounding her relationships with her coworkers.

The counselor encouraged Lisa to explore her unique needs as a lesbian within a heterosexual paradigm by asking her to discuss how she saw herself within the context of her new job and the ways in which her employers valued her. Lisa was given a list of reinforcement values and asked to rank order them. The counselor and Lisa reviewed her responses, which helped her to understand the meaning of the relative values of the reinforcers she found in her job. This helped her clarify which ones were most necessary for her overall satisfaction with her career.

The counselor encouraged Lisa to talk about the costs and benefits she saw in coming out at her workplace so that she could identify new reinforcers that might lead to enhanced satisfaction. Lisa believed that she would be a role model for other women, which was something that mattered to her. In addition, she expressed the desire to have conversations with coworkers that required no mental editing before she spoke.

Lisa believed that by hiding her identity, she had arrived at a point where she no longer felt comfortable with her coworkers. She could not see this situation changing unless she came out, although she knew there would be some people whose attitudes toward her were likely to change in negative ways.

The counselor encouraged Lisa to begin thinking about how she might handle such incidents so that she might be better prepared and feel less vulnerable. She encouraged Lisa to investigate lesbian professional organizations so that she would have others to talk to regarding some of her concerns. The counselor affirmed the benefits of being connected to organizations such as this, both for professional and relational benefits.


In their final session, Lisa was asked to reflect on what she had learned about herself, her new job, and her career. Lisa came to realize that her work as a programmer held the strongest value for her as a reinforcer. Lisa's work allowed her to solve problems, work independently, and take on greater responsibilities. She also believed that security on the job had grown in value for her after her earlier job loss. She valued the financial compensation and the opportunities for advancement at the bank. Finally, Lisa explained that a sense of belonging at her place of employment had a very strong reinforcement value for her and that this was currently missing. For Lisa, being open about her identity was an important factor in her sense of fitting in. Earlier in counseling, she had discussed her satisfaction with her coworkers, the financial rewards, and the job itself. Although these reinforcers were in place, Lisa's sense of satisfaction achievement was precluded. For Lisa, pretending to fit in as a presumed heterosexual diminished her sense of belonging, and thus reduced her sense of person--environment correspondence. Lisa was able to realize how being out on the job might increase her sense of belonging, possibly enhance person--environment correspondence, and ultimately lead to a. greater sense of satisfaction in her career.

Lisa determined that being open about her lesbianism was an important factor in her satisfaction achievement, and in achieving a strong person--environment correspondence. This brought Lisa to a decision to begin coming out to her new coworkers, initially choosing one or two people in whom to confide.

The counselor offered Lisa affirmation for her willingness to honestly evaluate the elements necessary for her optimal career satisfaction and acknowledged her courage in making these new choices. Career counseling had helped Lisa determine essential reinforcers for her career satisfaction and for optimal person--environment correspondence. Lisa was thus able to better integrate her personal identity with her career identity, which she believed would improve her job performance and give her a greater sense of belonging.

Implications for Counselors

It is important for career counselors to understand that lesbians face specific challenges in achieving career satisfaction. Lesbians in the workforce, whether they are closeted, out, or just coming into a new identity, are faced with an array of sometimes daunting tasks (Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Driscoll et al., 1996). Previously congruent relationships and environments may collapse or strengthen if a woman chooses to come out. Career counselors who are working with self-identified lesbian clients should be aware of the barriers that lesbians may face in career development and in the interface with their employment setting (Ellis & Riggle, 1996). Acknowledging the existence of these obstacles, rather than minimizing them, is imperative.

Counselors should have a basic understanding of the process of sexual identity formation to better understand the client and to understand its impact on the client's work, work relationships, reinforcement values, satisfaction, and other important areas of interface with the work environment (Boatwright et al., 1996; Croteau & Hedstrom, 1993; Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Elliott, 1993; Fassinger, 1996; Morgan & Brown, 1991). The counselor should be prepared to assist the client in her quest to weigh the values of disclosure and nondisclosure. A lesbian client level of outness as well as her comfort level should be assessed, and the client should be encouraged to consider the potential benefits as well as the potential costs associated with outness on the job. Achieving career satisfaction as a lesbian goes beyond simply finding "the right job" and includes learning how to manage sexual identity and discrimination within the workplace. Counselors should avoid offering unrealistic reassurances that things will event ually improve with time or effort. Counselors must be aware of the reality that once lesbians reveal their sexual identity, coworkers and employers may permanently alter their opinions of an employee.

Counselors who desire to be competent in working with lesbian clients should familiarize themselves with local lesbian and gay news publications, professional organizations for lesbian and gay employees, local lesbian and gay telephone resource centers, and bookstores with adequate selections of lesbian materials. Successful career counseling would ideally provide lesbian clients with (a) encouragement to explore a variety of potential occupations without regard to gender stereotypes, (b) honest discussion of identity management and discrimination and its relationship to rein-forcers and career satisfaction, and (c) referrals to external resources that may provide ongoing support.


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Thank You

A special thank you to those editorial board members leaving the board: Paul Hartung, Edward Levinson, Richard Noeth, Aneneosa A. G. Okocha, Mark Pope, and Robbie Steward. The quality of any journal is largely dependent upon the work of the editorial board members. These editorial board members have served The Career Development Quarterly with distinction. I am deeply grateful for their contributions.

Spencer Niles

Suzanne Degges-White and Marie F. Shoffner, Department of Counseling and Educational Development, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Suzanne Degges-White, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 228 Curry Building, Box 26170, Greensboro, NC 27402-6170 (e-mail:
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Author:Shoffner, Marie F.
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Date:Sep 1, 2002
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