Alasdair is a product consultant at Chemistry, who works hard for diversity and inclusion. In this blog he writes about the difficulties of gender transitioning at work.
What are the risks of being authentic at work today?
Veronica Taylor, a PA at a law firm, recently asked a number of her colleagues to gather by her desk so she could explain the changes they would see in her over the coming weeks. Veronica was nervous about what her colleagues would think. Now in her early thirties, she had decided to go through gender realignment, involving taking oestrogen pills and living as a woman. Taylor’s teammates listened intently as she described that the person they knew as a man called Robert would soon become a woman named Veronica.
“I have always known that I was born a different gender and that eventually I would change. I did it when I was older and in a professional job” she says.
Being transgender and making the transitioning journey have become more prevalent in popular culture and seen more positively by many in recent months. Throughout 2015 people like Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Chelsea Manning spoke openly and frankly about their transitions, shining a spotlight on the topic. Public appreciation of trans women has soared.
With the likes of Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden recently coming out in support of transgenderism, being trans is seen as more acceptable now.
But we should be careful not to confuse visibility with more progressive attitudes in society and in the workplace.
According to recent estimates, around 700,000 Americans identify as transgender, while the Gender, Identity, Research and Education Society (GIRES) state that 1% of UK population are gender non-conforming to some degree. That number is on the rise with people revealing their trans status rising by 20% every year. This is progress.
Living an authentic life is not unique to the transgender community, but to fulfill it many trans people feel compelled to share who they are in order to build closer and genuine relationships with people around them. Nowhere is this more evident than at work, where in the UK we spend more than 25% of our lives. That’s a long time to keep your identity hidden, but it’s much longer if you’re the victim of discrimination.
The steps that Veronica took to engage her colleagues can be a little too far for many transgender people. Some are too uncomfortable, and feel they don’t possess the mental strength to overcome challenges from clients or colleagues.
These fears are not unfounded. Only last month the TUC’s general secretary stated “LGBT workers are two and a half times more likely to face workplace bullying and discrimination.” Stonewall, an LGBT advocacy group, found that in 2015, 350,000 people experienced bullying from their colleagues because of their sexual orientation. This paints a dark picture of inclusion in the workplace. Coming out as trans risks some people not understanding, and many relationships being permanently changed.
There are policies in place to protect transgender people and to encourage them to come out and feel comfortable at work. Under the UK’s Gender Recognition Act of 2004 and the 2010 Equality Act, discrimination on the basis of gender identity is officially recognised as illegal. Many large companies are starting to implement zero-tolerance approaches to discrimination. But those policies are not always reflective of the day-to-day reality for many trans people at work.
In the end, Veronica decided that fighting against discrimination would be too much for her. She left her job and became self-employed. Veronica prioritized the uncertainty of being self-employed over staying in what could become toxic environment for her. She did this despite the policy in place to reduce trans discrimination. Such self-discrimination can’t be an easy choice, but for those with resources behind them it can be an option.
The same can’t be said for everyone. In 2011 the National Centre for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, found that trans people were twice as likely to be unemployed as members of the general population. For many becoming unemployed is just not an option and they must carve an existence for themselves in a potentially discriminatory work environment.
Charlotte, a 42-year-old marketing manager, has observed that since transitioning 2 years ago her professional life has changed drastically. Working in a male dominated environment she has found that her contributions are ignored, she is not involved in key discussions and not given thorough training. She is given menial, low-profile work even though she is just as capable and qualified as her peers.
This blatant discrimination can pass unnoticed by many and it’s indicative of a problem that many organisations face, despite having inclusive policies: that the actions of employees do not reflect what’s expected of them and the aspirations of the organization are not enforced effectively.
As long as this continues, people like Charlotte and Veronica will continue to feel marginalised or forced to leave from roles they’re perfect for. The challenge organisations face is how to turn hope and aspiration into reality for their transgender employees; how to look after those who don’t have the luxury of becoming self-employed, and how to be resilient and battle through discriminatory behaviour.
If you want to hear more from Alasdair listen to him talk about parental leave on our podcast here, or download our eBook on how to hire the right people, regardless of age, gender, race or anything else.
The T in LGBT