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date: 29 March 2020

The Antecedents and Outcomes of Heteronormativity in Organizations

Summary and Keywords

Despite the term being coined in the early 1990s, heteronormativity is a longstanding and enduring hierarchical social system that identifies heterosexuality as the standard sexuality and normalizes gender-specific behaviors and roles for men, women, and transgender and non-binary individuals. As a system, it defines and enforces beliefs and practices about what is ‘normal’ in everyday life. Although there are many factors that shape heteronormative beliefs and attitudes, religion, the government, education, and workplaces are the principal macro-level factors that normalize and institutionalize heteronormative beliefs and attitudes. These institutions contribute an outsize influence on the perpetuation of heteronormativity in society because these institutions create and inculcate the norms and standards of what are and are not acceptable values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in our society. As such, in order to create effective interventions to eliminate the negative outcomes of heteronormativity, particular attention should be paid to each of these institutions. Parents, relatives, and other adults contribute to the normalization and institutionalization of heteronormativity at the individual- or micro-level. Although some people benefit from the system of heteronormativity (mainly heterosexual cisgender conforming men), much of the research on heteronormativity focuses on the negative outcomes. Heteronormativity is responsible for a host of pernicious outcomes such as lower self-esteem, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment, and greater rates of suicide ideation, verbal and physical abuse, and workplace mistreatment and discrimination. Future research should investigate identify effective micro- and macro-level interventions that could mitigate or eliminate the negative effects of heteronormativity.

Keywords: identity, LGBTQ, bias, heterosexism, heteronormativity, homosexuality, sexuality, discrimination


Despite the omnipresence of heterosexuality within our society and organizations, the institutionalized normalization of heterosexuality simultaneously makes it go unnoticed. Although lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) leaders, activists, and scholars from the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement have long challenged this singular omnipresence (Holmes, 2006; Rubin, 1997; Warner, 1991), the term heteronormativity was only coined in 1991, by Michael Warner (Herz & Johansson, 2015). Since that time, heteronormativity has specifically been the subject of study in a broad array of disciplines such as gender, cultural, LGBTQ, educational, and organizational studies (Bendl, Fleischmann, & Walenta, 2008; Herz & Johansson, 2015; Jackson, 2006; Toomey, McGuire, & Russell, 2012).

Despite referencing heteronormativity several times in his article, Warner (1991) did not provide a succinct definition of the term. Subsequently, other scholars (Jackson, 2006; Oswald, Blume, & Marks, 2011) have provided numerous definitions of heteronormativity, with most of them coalescing around the concept that as an ideological social structure, “heteronormativity is a societal hierarchical system that privileges and sanctions individuals based on presumed binaries of gender and sexuality; as a system it defines and enforces beliefs and practices about what is ‘normal’ in everyday life” (Toomey, McGuire, & Russell, 2012, p. 188). As such, heteronormativity not only presupposes heterosexuality as the “standard” and “superior” sexual orientation, it also characterizes the gender-specific behaviors in which people are expected to conform (Jagose, 1996). Specifically, men and women are taught to engage in complementary behaviors that are gender-scripted because eventually they are supposed to become romantic partners, with the man being the head of household (Jackson, 2006). As a result, people who do not identify as heterosexual or conform to expected male/female gender norms are often denigrated and discriminated against, and at worst, physically assaulted or murdered (Kentlyn, 2007; Pichler & Holmes, 2017).

It is important to note, however, that although LGBTQ people are often centered as those most negatively affected by heteronormativity, gender and non-gender conforming heterosexual people are also negatively impacted by heteronormativity in consequential ways (Jackson, 2006). For example, a married, heterosexual working mother and stay-at-home dad couple who are criticized and mocked by family and friends for not living up to their beliefs of what a woman, wife, or mother and man, husband, or dad should do are also experiencing the negative consequences of heteronormativity. Some of these consequences may include threats to their self-esteem, ambition, and marital stability. This is the case because the gender binary that assigns specific hierarchical roles and responsibilities between men and women is the system that buttresses heteronormativity. Along these lines, feminist scholars have extensively argued that heteronormativity also fuels patriarchy, female oppression, and restricted gender expression (Jackson, 2006; Rubin, 1997). For example, scholars have noted how women are often subjected to rigid standards of beauty and their value is often perceived in terms of their attractiveness, accessibility, and utility to men (Jackson, 2006; Rubin, 1997).

The purpose of this article is to take a comprehensive approach to understanding heteronormativity by uncovering its antecedents and outcomes. In order to do this, one must first interrogate the origin of heteronormativity in society. A review of the literature suggests that religious, governmental, educational, and workplace institutions are most responsible for shaping societal attitudes about sexual orientation and gender norms, and thus are the principal culprits in the socialization and institutionalization of heteronormativity (D’Emilio, 1992; Katz, 1995; Kitzinger, 2005; Martin, 2009). As such, in order to create effective interventions to eliminate the negative outcomes of heteronormativity, particular attention should be paid to each of these institutions. Martin (2009, p. 193) states that “socialization can be understood as a process through which children make meaning from the many pieces of culture they absorb.” Institutionalization is the process through which standards, norms, and behaviors are internalized and/or codified as legitimate (Zucker, 1977). This article ends with an examination of the personal and career-related outcomes of heteronormativity and some practical implications for organizations.

Religion and Heteronormativity

Over 80% of the world’s population identifies with a religion, with projections of those who are unaffiliated with a religion (e.g., atheists, agnostics, etc.) expected to decrease from 16% to 13% of the world’s total population by 2060 (Hackett & Stonawski, 2017). Whether the religion is ancient or modern, religious leaders indoctrinate their followers with a set of rites, rituals, folklore, doctrine, and organizing principles that they use to make sense of their and other people’s place in the world (Radcliffe-Brown, 1945). In this vein, religion has birthed the most enduring system of hierarchy and social order in the world (Radcliffe-Brown, 1945). As evidence of religion’s enduring influence, research has shown that when polling locations are located inside of religious institutions (e.g., churches, mosques, temples, etc.), people are more likely to vote for anti-LGBTQ laws owing to the considerable, oftentimes unconscious, priming effects that religion can have on people (LaBouff, Rowatt, Johson, & Finkle, 2012). Although religious customs and traditions have changed over time, religious doctrines have often determined who is permitted to engage in romantic relationships and marry. For example, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Abrahamic religions) outlawed sodomy, considering it sinful behavior, whereas some denominations within Hinduism held no such views and have long recognized a third gender (e.g., hijra) outside of the male–female binary (Hwahng & Lin, 2009; Kentlyn, 2007).1 Moreover, some denominations of the Abrahamic religions (e.g., Reformed Judaism, the United Church of Christ, some Episcopal churches) now accept homosexuality as a natural sexual orientation and transgender male and female as natural gender identities and permit same-sex relationships (Ng, 2013; Schulte & Battle, 2004; van Loggerenberg, 2015; Whitley, 2009). Despite the progressive inclusion by some religious denominations, the centuries-old indoctrination of heteronormativity grounded in religious values and beliefs still wields enormous influence over people’s attitudes and beliefs regarding the propriety of same-sex relationships and traditional gender roles and identities.

Considering the varying degrees to which people endorse religious ideologies, Allport (1954) acknowledged that religious beliefs coincidentally increase some people’s prejudices and reduce those of others. That is, religious beliefs can be the source of negative and positive attitudes towards a group of people, customs, or policies. Whereas research has found that people with a “quest” orientation toward religion—those who are comfortable asking and seeking answers to philosophical and religious questions—show greater acceptance of LGBTQ people and reject heteronormative ideals (Batson, Schoenrade, & Pych, 1985; Batson & Ventis, 1982), right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), religious fundamentalism (RF), and religiosity have consistently predicted people’s endorsement of heteronormativity and anti-LGBTQ attitudes (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992; Herek, 1987). Altemeyer and Hunsberger (1992) explained that high-RWA individuals more easily submit to and accept those in power and power structures (authoritarian submission), endorse negative attitudes towards those identified as out-group members and/or deviants (authoritarian aggression), and readily endorse established social norms and traditions (conventionalism)—although they will often make exceptions when they are self-interested. RF is defined as “a style of belief that is characterized by a militant belief system, a sense of one absolute truth, and a sense of a special relationship with God” (Laythe, Finkel, Bringle, & Kirkpatrick, 2002, p. 654). Religiosity is defined generally as one’s orientation, zeal, and adherence towards the tenets of one’s religion (Weaver & Agle, 2002). People high in RF and religiosity often interpret religious texts and their pronouncements literally when they can be used to support their values, beliefs, and attitudes (Laythe et al., 2002). Although RWA, RF, and religiosity are distinct constructs, they are highly correlated with each other and each is related to negative attitudes toward LGBTQ people and policies, with correlations ranging from .56 to .64 for RWA, .41 to .56 for RF, and .24 to .43 for religiosity, which are large effect sizes for RWA and RF and moderate to large effect sizes for religiosity (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992; Horvath & Ryan, 2003; Laythe et al., 2002; Whitley, 2009). Therefore, although general religious beliefs and values provide the foundation for heteronormativity, there is much individual variation in the endorsement of heteronormativity, with those who are high in RWA, RF, and religiosity being most likely to endorse heteronormativity. Similar to religion, the government is influential in shaping people’s endorsement of heteronormativity; thus, I will review its role in institutionalizing heteronormativity in the next section.

Government and Heteronormativity

Governments play a large role in institutionalizing the norms and standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior in societies (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). This is accomplished through the agencies and institutions that the government establishes to serve its citizens, the methods used to instill patriotism among its citizenry, the living standards, role models, and incentives that the government provides its citizens, and the laws that governments pass to regulate their citizenry (Berry, Fording, Ringquist, Hanson, & Klarner, 2010; Bjornskov, Dreher, & Fischer, 2007; Helliwell & Huang, 2008; Okulicz-Kozaryn, Holmes, & Avery, 2014). Because government socialization occurs at various levels (e.g., national, state, and local), nearly all citizens share some national norms and standards, but there is some variation in norms and standards at state and local levels. For example, Massachusetts was the first state in the United States to allow same-sex couples to marry. Although same-sex marriage became permissible and changed the norms and standards in Massachusetts in 2004, norms and standards around same-sex marriage did not change for the entire country until June 26, 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage with their ruling in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. However, it is important to note that even though laws may change, that does not mean that all citizens’ beliefs and attitudes subsequently change to align with the new laws.

Although few purely theocratic governments remain in the world, most countries have laws that are influenced, at least to some degree, by religion (Ghumman, Ryan, Barclay, & Markel, 2013; Lyons, Wessel, Ghumman, Ryan, & Kim, 2014; Radcliffe-Brown, 1945; Tracey, 2012). As a result, citizens have often adopted heteronormative beliefs because their governments established religiously inspired laws that prohibited LGBTQ people from marrying someone of the same gender and proscribed specific roles to men and women in society. Unsurprisingly, legal challenges to heteronormativity are quite recent, as it was only in the 21st century that same-sex marriage became permissible anywhere in the world, with the Netherlands becoming the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001. Same-sex marriage was still illegal in most countries in the world as of 2019, with some even making same-sex relationships punishable by jail time or death (e.g., Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia; Duncan, 2017). Though Argentina and Denmark are considered world leaders in this area, civil rights for transgender people remain elusive in most countries in the world (Hackett & Stonawski, 2017). Furthermore, in nearly every country, women still have significant disadvantages compared with men that can often be traced back to government-sanctioned discrimination. For example, governments have passed laws prohibiting women from working outside the home, voting, owning property, driving, and receiving inheritances (Ford & Anderson, 2015). According to a World Bank report, “104 economies still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs, 59 economies have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, and in 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working” (World Bank Group, 2018, p. 2). Considering these points, it is understandable why citizens view heterosexuality and male–female gender roles and identities as the only acceptable identities (i.e., endorse heteronormativity), because their governments have socialized them since birth to view these norms and standards as the only acceptable behavior. Citizens who reject heteronormativity typically do not start at this position but rather evolve to this position (Homan et al., 2008; Ku, Wang, & Galinsky, 2015; Mahajan et al., 2011; Morrison, Morrison, & Franklin, 2009). In view of the government’s role in establishing and regulating a country’s educational system, it is no surprise that educational institutions are next in line in shaping people’s attitudes and beliefs regarding heteronormativity.

Education and Heteronormativity

Although the type, quality, standards, level, attendance requirements, and management of educational institutions vary around the world, every country has some form of an educational system to teach and socialize its citizenry. Even the most desolate citizens in developing countries who have no access to formal education are still impacted by the norms and standards of behavior that are inculcated by educational institutions through their interactions with others and media representations. The first educational institutions that socialize heteronormative ideals in people are daycares and elementary/primary schools (parochial, private, public, familial, communal, etc.) (Danby, 1998; Martin, 1998, 2009).

In their books on gender socialization in elementary schools, Best (1983) and Thorne (1993) outlined how school personnel teach and normalize heteronormative ideals and values to children through the formal and informal curricula (e.g., lessons, books, songs, videos, folklore, etc.), children’s games (e.g., chase-and-kiss, playing house, etc.), school traditions and customs (e.g., dances, Valentine’s exchanges, etc.), and gender regulation (e.g., policing children’s attire, play preferences, mannerisms, etc.). Indeed, Best found that as early as second grade children talk about having opposite-sex boyfriends and girlfriends and this heteronormative discourse is nearly always praised and validated by parents and school personnel. Heteronormativity is also extended to the animal kingdom in popular children’s fiction books taught and read in daycares and primary schools. For example, The Berenstain Bears, which was first published in 1962, is a series in which the main characters are a married dad and mom bear family with children. Specific titles in the series with heteronormative storylines include Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, No Girls Allowed, and Mama’s New Job.

Additionally, children’s educational and entertainment media reinforce heteronormativity, particularly in movies geared towards girls (Martin & Kazyak, 2009). In their study investigating the 20 G-rated movies that grossed more than $100 million in the United States from 1990 to 2005 (e.g., Finding Nemo, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc.), Martin and Kazyak found that despite the movies’ G-rating, which is supposed to signal an absence of sexual content, these children’s films were replete with heteronormative content. Specifically, they identified that most of the movies had a hetero-romantic love storyline where heterosexuality was “exceptional, magical, [and had] transformative power” (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, etc.) (Martin & Kazyak, 2009, p. 323). In the remaining few movies that did not fit this category, heterosexuality was reinforced in minor ways such as showing male characters affectionately gazing at female characters (Martin & Kazyak, 2009). Children often view these movies repeatedly, and unsurprisingly, Crawley, Anderson, Wilder, Williams, and Santomero (1999) found that children internalize lessons more after repeated viewings of media (e.g., movies, television, computer programs, etc.). Furthermore, Kelley, Buckingham, and Davies (1999) found that children as young as six begin to integrate the sexual content they learn from media into their identity and conversations with their peers. In fact, research has found that by age nine, children can be heard using homophobic slurs or gestures to taunt other kids who engage in gender non-conforming behaviors in schools and summer camps. Additional research of family-focused films (rated G, PG, or PG-13) uncovered the disproportionately lower number of speaking roles given to female (29%) versus male characters (71%) and highlighted that 24% of the female characters were shown in sexually provocative clothing, reinforcing heteronormative gender hierarchical ideals and standards (Smith & Choueiti, 2010). Taken together, this research highlights the enormous role that educational (and entertainment) institutions play in institutionalizing heteronormativity and how early and incessantly children are socialized into heteronormative cultures (McGuffey & Rich, 1999).

Workplaces and Heteronormativity

Considering the heteronormative socialization that takes place in educational institutions, it is unsurprising that heteronormativity also extends to workplaces. In fact, each of the previously reviewed entities—religion, government, and education—also serve as workplaces for numerous individuals, thus their interconnectedness easily reinforces heteronormativity across several domains in our society. Workplaces often normalize and reward heteronormativity through the policies and practices they enact and the customs and traditions they support and celebrate (Colgan & Rumens, 2015; Kollen, 2016; Pichler, 2007, 2012; Rumens & Kerfoot, 2009). Williams and Giuffre (2011, p. 552) noted that:

Studies found that heteronormativity is institutionalized in the workplace in the following ways: (1) through benefits policies that recognize and privilege nuclear family arrangements with clearly demarcated gender roles; (2) through the ritualized celebration of heterosexual norms (dating, engagements, marriages); (3) through informal joking, gossip, and flirtations among co-workers and clients that assume heterosexuality and disparage alternative sexual expressions; and (4) through the division of labor that reinforces stereotypes about gender and sexuality.

With respect to the fourth point, although substantial progress has been made, there are still some industries and jobs (e.g., medicine, technology, elementary education, etc.) where occupational gender segregation is quite prevalent (Bidwell, Briscoe, Fernandez-Mateo, & Sterling, 2013; Reskin, McBrier, & Kmec, 1999; Tilcsik, Anteby, & Knight, 2015). This pattern of people of some social identity groups being overrepresented (or underrepresented) in certain job roles reinforces people’s expectations and perpetuates inequality and heteronormativity (Chan & Anteby, 2016). The U.S. presidency serves as a perfect example of how heteronormativity and occupational gender segregation interact to impact different groups of people. Although there were women who ran for president before her, Hillary Clinton recently became the first serious contender for the office. Unfortunately, she still faced enormous levels of sexism throughout her campaign, as voters vehemently voiced their opinions that women were not suited to be president (Anderson, 2002; Ratliff, Redford, Conway, & Smith, 2018). Interestingly, although Cory Booker is a man, several political pundits have already highlighted the challenges he would face due to his single status (notwithstanding his race and speculation regarding his sexual orientation) if he chose to run for the presidency (Atkins, 2013; Romano, 2013). Conforming to the heteronormative standards, Booker announced that he was in a relationship shortly before he formally announced that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination on February 1, 2019 (Buck, 2019). The conversations around Clinton’s and Booker’s fitness to hold the job as president highlight another example of how heteronormativity also negatively impacts cisgender heterosexual men and women. The heteronormative pattern of nearly always electing heterosexual married (white) men to the presidency automatically disadvantages individuals who are not members of that identity group (Goff, 2013).

Although employees in most workplaces are not in jobs that are as public as the U.S. presidency, the heteronormativity that is perpetrated in workplaces are just as visible and powerful. This is the case because one’s job is the principal manner in which most people financially support themselves and their families, so workplace norms and values play an enormous role in shaping people’s attitudes (Leana & Meuris, 2015). Thus, when workplaces mostly hire men or women for certain jobs, this creates the status quo in society and the idea that men and women are inherently appropriate or inappropriate for certain jobs or roles (Reskin et al., 1999). Furthermore, workplaces send strong signals of what they value through the policies and practices they offer and promote (Olsen & Martins, 2016). For example, only offering maternity leave or flexible work arrangements for mothers reinforces the idea that it is a mother’s job to raise children and a father’s job to work. In fact, research suggests that even in organizations that provide paternity leave, some fathers refuse to take it because of the stigma associated with men taking time off from work to raise children and the real or perceived career-limiting outcomes men believe they would face if they took paternity leave (Halverson, 2003; Rudman & Mescher, 2013). Likewise, when workplaces do not have pro-LGBTQ policies and/or anti-discrimination policies that include LGBTQ employees, these practices reinforce the idea that LGBTQ people do not deserve equal employment opportunities and protections (Williams & Giuffre, 2011). An absence of these policies and protections leave LGBTQ employees vulnerable to experiencing workplace mistreatment with few avenues for formal recourses. For instance, in their study examining LGBQ employees’ experiences with workplace harassment, Rabelo and Cortina (2013) found that most of their participants (76%) were harassed. Interestingly, when harassment occurred, LGBQ employees were subjected to heterosexist and gender harassment concurrently (Rabelo & Cortina, 2013). This study offers further evidence that heteronormative (and not simply sexist or heterosexist) attitudes perpetuate these malevolent behaviors and the outsized role that workplaces play in shaping people’s attitudes and beliefs about heteronormativity.

Parents and Heteronormativity

The previous sections outlined how the four principal macro-level factors—religion, government, education, and workplaces—normalize and institutionalize heteronormativity, which explains the widespread endorsement of heteronormativity among the population. However, there are also micro-level factors, namely parents, relatives, and other adults, who also perpetuate heteronormative values and beliefs through their interpersonal interactions with children. Certainly, heteronormative ideals are instilled in children even if they do not attend daycares or any formal schools through the education and socializing that parents, relatives, and other caregivers provide children.

To better understand this process, Martin (2009) designed a study that uncovered how heteronormativity is normalized and reproduced in society at the individual level. After analyzing data collected on more than 600 mothers of children between the ages of three and six in the United States, Martin found that mothers always first assume that their children are heterosexual and only describe heterosexual romantic and adult relationships, thus rendering invisible LGBTQ people and relationships to their children. When mothers were presented with the possibility that their children are not heterosexual, Martin found that they typically engaged in one of three strategies: preparing for the possibility of homosexuality, hoping for the best, and parenting for prevention. Martin described that the majority of the mothers used the latter two strategies, where the former entailed the mothers simply wishing their children would grow up to be heterosexual by enacting subtle heteronormative reinforcing behaviors, whereas the latter entailed the mothers actively trying to “make” their children heterosexual through active heteronormative reinforcement, role modeling, and openly disparaging, often on the basis of religious values, any non-heterosexual identity and gender non-conforming behaviors. Only 6% of the mothers adopted the preparing for the possibility of homosexuality strategy, which entailed making positive comments about LGBTQ individuals and introducing their children to LGBTQ people either in person or through stories so that their children would know that they would be accepted if they were not heterosexual or cisgender.

Interestingly, Martin (2009) found that mothers wondered more about their sons’ than their daughters’ possible non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming behaviors, frequently referencing suspicions when their sons desired to play with dolls or said that they liked dresses. Thus, although heteronormativity prescribes specific gender role norms, girls are given more latitude than boys to violate them before parents (and people more generally) wonder if children are transgender or not heterosexual (Martin, 1998, 2009; Thorne, 1993). While Martin’s (2009) study only investigated mothers’ roles in socializing their children to endorse heteronormativity, mothers are not solely responsible for heteronormative socialization. Other researchers have pointed out that the media, childhood peers, and other adults also contribute to the socialization of heteronormativity in children, and that fathers, even more than mothers, typically teach their children to adopt heteronormative values and beliefs (Kane, 2006; Martin, 1998, 2005, 2009). The fact that fathers more adamantly instill heteronormative values in their children than do mothers is in line with several studies that find that men generally hold more homophobic and heterosexist values and beliefs than women (Jenkins, Lambert, & Baker, 2007; Lewis, 2003). Men are also much more likely than women to use homophobic slurs and to physically assault and murder non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people (Alden & Parker, 2005; Herek, 1990; Herek & Berrill, 1992). In the previous sections, I examined the macro- and micro-level factors that normalize and institutionalize heteronormativity. In the following sections, I will examine the outcomes of heteronormativity.

Outcomes and Heteronormativity

In their article, Berlant and Warner (1998, p. 548) wrote that heteronormativity encompasses “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent—that is, organized as a sexuality—but also privileged.” As a result, people who are heterosexual—particularly cisgender men—benefit from this system. Notwithstanding the benefits, it is worth restating that heteronormativity also negatively impacts heterosexual cisgender people, particularly women, through the norms, role expectations, and barriers that the system of heteronormativity institutionalizes (Jackson, 2006; Kentlyn, 2007; Martin, 2009). For example, Rivera (2017) found that academic search committees at a Research-1 university systematically disfavored heterosexual women academics who were married to men who were academics or who had other high-status jobs, assuming that the women were not “movable” because their husbands’ careers would be prioritized. Heterosexual male academics married to women who were academics or who had other high-status jobs did not face these career penalties (Rivera, 2017). Despite the fact that some groups benefit from heteronormativity, scholars typically focus on the groups who experience negative outcomes attributable to heteronormativity (Herz & Johansson, 2015; Kollen, 2016). In the following sections, I will continue this tradition and focus on the negative outcomes of heteronormativity, particularly as they relate to the LGBTQ community.

Since people are socialized into heteronormative cultures from birth, a significant body of research has uncovered the self-esteem and identity issues that non-heterosexual children and adults experience. Adverse experiences include societal and familial rejection, feelings of being alone in the world, and enduring verbal harassment and physical and sexual violence (Pichler, 2012; Savin-Williams, 1994). These issues manifest most alarmingly in the suicide attempt rate among LGBTQ individuals. The Trevor Project (2018), a non-profit organization founded to provide crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to the LGBTQ community, reports that suicide ideation is three times higher and the suicide attempt rate is five times higher among LGB youth than heterosexual youth, LGB youth are five times more likely to need medical attention following their suicide attempts than heterosexual youth, and 40% of transgender adults reported attempting suicide, with over 90% of the attempts occurring before the age of 25. Although we cannot be certain since sexual orientation is often not recorded when individuals commit suicide, research suggests that despite their increased attempts, LGBTQ youth do not disproportionately commit suicide vis-à-vis their heterosexual counterparts (Haas et al., 2011).

As mentioned earlier, heteronormativity is responsible for mistreatment such as bullying, which children experience as early as elementary school. Indeed, research suggests that LGBTQ and gender non-conforming children experience bullying at a significantly higher rate than their heterosexual and gender conforming peers (Berlan, Corliss, Field, Goodman, & Austin, 2010; Friedman et al., 2011). DesRoches and Sweet (2007) estimated that LGBTQ children hear approximately eight anti-LGBTQ insults daily, with a third of them coming from school personnel and the balance from other adults and peers. In their meta-analysis, Friedman and colleagues (2011, p. 1481) reported that, on average, LGBTQ children were “3.8, 1.2, 1.7, and 2.4 times more likely to experience sexual abuse, parental physical abuse, or assault at school or to miss school through fear, respectively” than their heterosexual counterparts. Unfortunately, this mistreatment continues into adulthood, as LGBTQ and gender non-conforming adults experience greater rates of harassment, assault, and discrimination than their heterosexual and gender conforming counterparts (Bailey, Wallace, & Wright, 2013; Holmes, Whitman, Campbell, & Johnson, 2016; Kentlyn, 2007; Tilcsik, 2011). Indeed, endorsing heteronormativity and holding homophobic beliefs are positively related to engaging in hate crimes against and victimizing LGBTQ individuals (Alden & Parker, 2005; Cowan, Heiple, Marquez, Khatchadourian, & McNevin, 2005; Herek & Berrill, 1992).

In terms of specific career outcomes, heteronormativity is partially responsible for occupational sex segregation. In their two nationally representative surveys, Tilcsik et al. (2015) found that not only were gay men more likely to work in female-dominated industries and lesbians were more likely to work in male-dominated industries than their male and female counterparts respectively, but gay men and lesbians were also more likely to be in occupations that afforded them a high degree of task interdependence or required greater social perceptiveness, or both, suggesting that identity safety and self-preservation factor prominently in the career choices that gay and lesbian employees make (Holmes et al., 2016). In his multi-state audit study, Tilcsik (2011) found that although there were regional differences (e.g., there were no statistically significant differences in the callback rate for fictitious gay applicants in California, New York, Nevada, and Pennsylvania whereas callback rates were significantly lower for gay applicants in Texas, Ohio, and Florida), on average, gay applicants would have to apply to approximately five more jobs than their heterosexual counterparts to receive similar callback rates, indicating that the job search process is likely longer, more laborious, and requires more resources for gay applicants. Additionally, Tilcsik found that discrimination against the gay applicants was most prevalent when the job ads listed stereotypically masculine traits (e.g., assertiveness, aggressiveness, decisiveness, ambition), suggesting that decision-makers were at least partially endorsing heteronormative stereotypes. These findings are consistent with Pichler, Varma, and Bruce’s (2010) research that found that discrimination against heterosexual, gay, and lesbian applicants occurred on the basis of fit with the gendered nature of the job (i.e., gay men and heterosexual women were discriminated against for a sales manager job, whereas heterosexual men and lesbian women were discriminated against for a nursing job). Unsurprisingly, numerous research studies suggest women and LGBTQ people face greater workplace mistreatment and discrimination than their male and heterosexual counterparts respectively, which negatively impacts their job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job performance ratings, job engagement, and promotion opportunities (Badgett, Lau, Sears, & Ho, 2007; Bailey et al., 2013; Croteau, 1996; Eagly, Makhijani, & Klonsky, 1992; Parnell, Lease, & Green, 2012; Pichler & Holmes, 2017; Ragins & Cornwell, 2001). From the findings of these robust research studies, we can conclude that the effects of heteronormativity are quite pernicious and intractable.


As a societal hierarchical system, heteronormativity impacts everyone and greatly influences how we interact and the expectations we have when we interact with others (Toomey et al., 2012). This work examined the antecedents and outcomes of heteronormativity. Specifically, this article identified the principal micro-level (i.e., parents and other adults) and macro-level (i.e., religion, government, education, and workplaces) factors that shape, normalize, and institutionalize heteronormativity. Subsequently, this article highlighted the outcomes of heteronormativity. Although heterosexual gender conforming men primarily benefit from heteronormativity, they can face some negative effects of heteronormativity as well. Unsurprisingly, women, LGBTQ, and gender non-conforming people frequently suffer the most adverse outcomes of heteronormativity. Personal outcomes include, but are not limited to, lower self-esteem, suicide ideation, engaging in self-harming behaviors, and experiencing verbal and physical abuse. Career-related outcomes include, but are not limited to, lower job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and workplace mistreatment and discrimination in employment and promotional opportunities.

Despite the entrenched heteronormativity that pervades much of our society, efforts are being made to upend this oppressive system. As mentioned previously, some religious denominations and institutions are replacing heteronormative dogma with more progressive and inclusive practices and policies (Ng, 2013; Schulte & Battle, 2004; van Loggerenberg, 2015; Whitley, 2009). Likewise, organizational leaders (e.g., governmental, educational, business, etc.) have begun to advocate for initiatives that foster diversity and inclusion, often in an effort to increase productivity, competitiveness, and/or educational attainment (Roberson, Holmes, & Perry, 2017). The first step that organizational leaders can take to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the negative effects of heteronormativity is to create and sustain environments in which non-heterosexual sexual orientations and transgender and non-conforming gender identity expressions are accepted. This can be done by committing to use inclusive signage (e.g., restrooms) and language (e.g., chairperson vs. chairman, asking someone if they have a husband or wife rather than only asking them the opposite one depending on their gender, proactively stating your preferred name and pronouns at the beginning of meetings and asking others what their preferred name and pronouns are), resisting and calling out heteronormative assumptions (e.g., assuming a man is the leader/manager and the woman is the assistant/subordinate), adopting and funding corrective initiatives and practices (e.g., creation of identity-focused pipeline and professional development/retention programs, instituting effective and ongoing diversity and inclusion trainings, hiring/designating an executive-level chief diversity officer, etc.), and role modeling inclusive behavior in organizations (e.g., praise equally and have similar expectations of mothers and fathers regarding work performance/commitment and childcare responsibilities, etc.).

Indeed, culture shifts do not happen quickly and are often difficult (Schneider, Ehrhart, & Macey, 2013), but persistent role modeling and reinforcement are key to eliminating heteronormative identity threats (Holmes et al., 2016). Additionally, organizations can also expand their lobbying efforts to include the elimination of heteronormativity as a goal. For example, PayPal, Dow Chemical, the National Basketball Association (NBA), and Google were just a few of the businesses that openly opposed and criticized North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law (Reilly, 2016). In fact, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ended its boycott of holding its championship series in North Carolina only after the state repealed its restrictive bathroom bill (Tracy, 2017). These coordinated actions suggest that for-profit and non-profit organizations can effectively use their power to enact legislative changes that defeat heteronormative laws at least at the state and local levels.

Interestingly, although the topic is relevant in many research studies, heteronormativity is not always specifically identified in many studies. For example, although heteronormativity is responsible for some of the outcomes that female academics face in Rivera’s (2017) study, the term is conspicuously absent from the keywords and the entire body of her paper. Furthermore, some of the conclusions drawn in this work are based on a synthesis of different scholars’ findings rather than their direct attribution to heteronormativity. This is not meant to be a criticism of Rivera’s or any of the other authors’ work. Rather, this article is simply highlighting that the term is evoked much less often, even when it is relevant, than other related terms such as sexism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and homophobia. An effect of this could be that the literature around heteronormativity may seem significantly underdeveloped. It is hoped that this work helps scholars recognize the interrelatedness of heteronormativity and these other literatures. This may lead to more systemic reviews and robust meta-analyses on the topic of heteronormativity. Finally, although research on the antecedents and outcomes of heteronormativity have greatly increased our understanding of this topic, little is known about how to counteract the negative effects of heteronormativity. Future research should address possible micro- and macro-level interventions that could mitigate the negative effects of heteronormativity to fill this important gap in the literature.


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(1.) Additionally, North American and South and East Asian indigenous cultures have recognized third and fourth genders. See Hwahng and Lin (2009) for more commentary.