The Other Side of the Rainbow: Social Support and Career Decision Making Self-Efficacy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Persons

By Martina Preston-Sternberg and Monica Solinas-Saunders

When researching articles for graduate school, I happened upon an article with disturbing findings.  The article found that 90% of lesbians who participated in the qualitative study felt they lagged behind their heterosexual counterparts in career development.  Further, the study found 60% of the participants either quit college or abandoned their career while going through the "coming out" process. My first thought as a career counselor was "What can we do to help our GLBT clients go through the coming out process while staying in college or continuing on their career path?"  I investigated further and found that research on gay men had similar findings. In fact, some of the research with gay men found that these men chose careers based on whether or not they would be accepted as gay in their career choice.  An interesting note: counseling was one of the careers in which gay men felt more accepted and therefore pursued. Other research (Hetherington, 1991) suggested a "bottleneck hypothesis" in which people have a finite amount of psychological resources - when those resources are focused on sexual orientation identity, there is little energy or resources left to focus on career development.

Determined to find out why 90% of GLBT students felt behind and 60% of GLBT persons reported quitting college or their career when going through the coming out process, I designed my Ph.D. dissertation around finding a reason for this, advocating for GLBT students, increasing awareness and education, and helping counselors by giving them insight into the issue and tools for helping GLBT students feel support, stay in college, and graduate or continue on their career path.  I used a mixed method analysis and conducted quantitative research which focused on the perception of social support and career decision making self-efficacy by using a control group of heterosexual as well as GLBT participants.  This research investigated perceived social support from family, significant others, heterosexual friends, and GLBT friends. I went on to conduct a qualitative study to hear the stories of GLBT persons and to find out what we could do as counselors to support this invisible minority of students on our campuses.

So What Did I Find?

Through my research and investigation I discovered: 

  • Heterosexuals perceived more social support and had higher rates of career decision making self-efficacy.
  • Bisexuals perceived significantly less social support and had significantly lower rates of career decision making self-efficacy, followed by lesbians and then gay men.
  • The stories that participants shared with me told the same saga of lack of social support: when coming out to family and friends, participants recounted stories of being kicked out of the family home, being homeless, having financial support to attend college ripped away, and having children taken away. On the job, participants shared accounts of being physically assaulted, taunted, and even fired.
  • I thought it was telling that only one person went to a counselor and it wasn't for guidance, help, support in incorporating a GLBT sexual orientation into an already developed self identity, for guidance in whether to stay in school or stay in their career, or how to write a resume that either highlighted or downplayed his or her membership in a GLBT fraternity or organization in college, but it was for a suicide attempt.

How Can A Career Counselor Be Helpful?

What can we do as counselors to let our GLBT students or clients know that we are supportive and want to help?  Ask yourself: 

  • Have I attended GLBT sensitivity training or sought education to increase my awareness on the issues facing the GLBT population?
  • Do I have a placard on my website or my door that lets the GLBT population know I am supportive (an Allys placard, a Safe Space sticker)?
  • Have I asked myself whether or not I am accepting and supportive of GLBT persons? If not, talking with a peer counselor or a counselor supervisor to work through my own issues is a good first step.
  • Am I an advocate to GLBT issues? Am I a member of any GLBT counseling organizations so I can stay on top of the latest issues, research and literature?
  • As a career counselor, have I adapted my resume writing, interview skills, and other career education and counseling resources for my GLBT clients (books & articles about the job search for GLBT persons)?
  • Do I know the employers who are GLBT friendly, who have domestic partner benefits? Do I know the states that do not allow employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation?
  • Do I use gender specific language in my counseling? Do I assume my clients are heterosexual and therefore ask a female about her husband instead of her partner or significant other?
  • Do I allow staff members to use language or post cartoons that may be hurtful or offensive to GLBT persons (or ANY person)?
  • Do I advertise my services in the local GLBT phone book or other local GLBT magazine, journal, website?
  • Is the media in my office diverse enough to include all clientele (artwork, magazines, books, etc.)?
  • Have I sought out Alpha Lambda Tau (gay fraternity) or other GLBT groups on campus and found out what their needs are, then created GLBT specific workshops that address the needs of the GLBT population?


Many of us chose to be career counselors because we want to make a difference in the lives of our clients or students.  Career counselors can make a significant difference in helping GLBT clients feel they are not lagging behind their heterosexual counterparts in career development by taking some steps in increasing our awareness of GLBT issues and then creating a safe and supportive atmosphere that allows GLBT persons to know they have our support and that we are there to help.  Simple steps like these can assist GLBT clients to deal successfully with career development challenges.

Martina Sternberg-Preston will host a roundtable discussion at the NCDA Conference in St. Louis on Wednesday, July 1, 2009, at 3:20 PM entitled A Multi-Method Analysis of Social Support and Career Self-Efficacy Among Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Persons.



Martina Preston-Sternberg is a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas at San Antonio and is the assistant director of The Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University and teaches Psychology at Ivy Tech Community College.  She has an M. Ed. in counseling and LPC-I, LMHC, NCC certifications.  She can be reached by telephone at (765) 977-2181 or by e-mail at msternbe@purdue.edu.

Monica Solinas-Saunders has a Ph.D. in Sociology and is a research scientist at The Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University.  She can be reached at monica@purdue.edu.

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