Want to Create a Trans-Inclusive company? Invest in These 2 Things.
Whether you're a leader or an entry-level employee, we all have a part to play in creating trans inclusion in the workplace.
Adapted from Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination (Praeger, May 2018).
Even as pop culture and mass media feature more and more transgender representation, the workplace remains a hotbed of discrimination. In a 2015 study, 30 percent of trans people reported being fired, denied a promotion or otherwise mistreated in the workplace due to their trans identity, and 77 percent reported hiding their trans identity or quitting jobs in response.
In our journey to uncover the explanations behind trans discrimination, we explored dozens of industries and talked to trans people spanning race, age, gender identity and work experience. The stories we heard made it clear to us that addressing trans discrimination requires two things: culture and leadership.
The unhireable executive
Alex (she/her) had been looking for employment for the entirety of the two years she had lived in the Bay Area. A former executive of a multinational corporation, the trans woman we met described to us how her subtle experiments with a more feminine appearance went south when her manager responded with confusion and concern. When a coworker came out in her workplace as transgender, Alex watched as that coworker's career dead-ended due to constant discrimination.
Alex quit her job and moved to San Francisco. Months later, when she began her new job hunt, Alex learned that her executive-level experience could not have prepared her for interviewing while trans. As the months passed with no offers, her frustration with what had to be trans discrimination grew. A meeting with an old colleague confirmed her fears: "Don't bother going through any recruiters because they're not going to touch you," he said. "If they present a candidate that has any deficiencies, it reflects on them as a recruiter." When we last spoke with Alex, she was still job-hunting.
Jessie (no pronouns), a nonbinary trans Latinx person ("Latinx" is a gender-neutral complement to Latina/Latino), didn't become a freelancer by choice. As an out trans person writing for a Spanish newspaper, Jessie faced probing stares, misgendering with he/him pronouns and other brief but exhausting encounters in the workplace. Jessie went, as many employees seeking help at work do, to HR. It wouldn't be the last time. Over the next few months, Jessie would speak to HR again and again, while the uncomfortable interactions and misgendering continued. Finally, Jessie decided to act independently, and began insisting to coworkers, "I want she/her pronouns."
The retaliation was swift and harsh: increased scrutiny, micromanaging and a heavier workload. "They were obviously just looking for any excuse they could think of [to get rid of me]," Jessie explained, and it worked. Jessie quit the job and, after a long stint of unemployment, began working as a freelance writer. After hearing this story, we wondered out loud if Jessie had considered filing a complaint. "I was concerned about possible consequences elsewhere ... sometimes if you file a complaint with one employer, all the people in the same field or the same industry can hear about it." The answer was no.
Doing it right
When the client looked at Robin (she/her) and said, "What is its problem today?" before walking away, Robin felt a sense of exhaustion. As the first and only out trans woman in her union, Robin bore the brunt of ignorant and prejudiced comments from coworkers and clients like this one every day. In her work as an audio technician, transitioning on the job had led to pay cuts and decreased opportunities, but Robin had persevered despite the financial challenges. This client would be ignored.
"Hey!" came a voice. It was Robin's supervisor for the assignment. As Robin would later learn, this supervisor called out the client for his treatment of Robin and made it clear that his behavior would not be tolerated. He would not be a return client. "That makes me feel really good, when [bosses] support you like that," Robin said afterward. And that wasn't all. As Robin shared, "[At this workplace] I don't get called by my old name, I very rarely get misgendered, and if I do, it's not by anybody on the staff." Robin felt doubly supported by a manager willing to fight for her and a workplace environment that included her. Inclusion left a strong impression on her.
Culture and leadership
Your workplace can empower people of all genders to bring their authentic selves to work by harnessing the power of culture and leadership. How? Start with these three steps:
1. Create a timeline for improvement. Survey the current state of inclusion in the workplace and take note of strengths and areas for growth. Work with trans employees to set ambitious but achievable milestones toward a more inclusive workplace.
2. Invest in and train trans-inclusive executives and managers. Make inclusion a priority among your hiring and leadership development criteria and train leadership to set a positive example.
3. Work together with your colleagues to create an inclusive company culture. Develop, implement and normalize inclusive behaviors; build an environment where employees trust in each other; and make it safe to make mistakes in good faith. Trans inclusivity is a value, not an endpoint.
Whether you're a leader or an entry-level employee, we all have a part to play in creating trans inclusion in the workplace. When we work together, we can create organizations that reflect our inclusive values and improve the experience of work for all of us.
Alison Ash Fogarty, PhD, is a sociologist, sex and intimacy coach and sexual empowerment educator. She is the founder of TurnON.love. Her work has been published in the American Journal of Sociology and Gender & Society. Lily Zheng is an organizational consultant, executive coach and design researcher who works with people and organizations to transform positive intentions into positive impacts.