According to a UCLA study, there are now about 700,000 transgender people in the United States. While social acceptance of both the LGBTQ and transgender communities has increased significantly within the last decade, many still face discrimination in the workplace. Having been employed as both men and women, transgender people are in the unique position of being able to describe the differences in the way people are treated based on their gender.
Getting the Job
A survey conducted in 2011 revealed that the unemployment rate of transgender people is twice that of the general population and that they are four times as likely to live in poverty.
Advancing at work begins with getting the job, and the discriminatory factors that women face in the workplace often begin with the job application. In addition to gender, women face other potential obstacles to being hired such as age, race, and parenthood.
Transgender women report that not only have they lost the high-paying jobs they held as men upon announcing their intentions to transition, but that the jobs they were able to get as women often offered significantly less pay. Jennifer Chavez had 40 years of experience in the auto industry as a man. After her transition, the loss of her job, and applying for more than 300 jobs, she finally found one that paid only half of her previous salary as a man.
Inequality in the Workplace
Many transgender women report experiencing inequality in the workplace. These transgender women talked about taking a lot more time and care in thinking about their outfits and in putting on make-up. While research shows that women excel at leadership, especially managing team diversity, they aren’t rewarded with promotions because male executives tend to view compromise as weakness.
Conversely, sociologist Kristen Schilt found that of 54 transgender men she interviewed, many reported being promoted far more quickly, and more often, than when they were women. Others reported that they also received more praise after their transitions, and that managerial positions were always awarded to men within their companies.
Nature and Nurture
Many sociologists argue that gender is largely a social construct. Society has a set of strict rules about what constitutes “feminine” and “masculine”. Those rules are applied to appearance, mannerisms, and behavior, and people are encouraged to make sure that everyone conforms to them. The consequences of non-conformity include social rejection in the form of judgment, ridicule, and rejection. One of the harshest forms of social rejection is employment discrimination.
Society’s gender rules are based on a set of premises which may or may not be true. For example, one of those premises is that men are more logical than women. That premise is illustrated by the concern of a transgender computer programmer whose boss was concerned that after his transition to a woman, he would no longer be able to program as well. The differences in brain structure caused by the hormonal differences between men and women are still not fully understood, but transgender people are making some valuable contributions towards changing that.
Testosterone levels are one of those differences. In a series of interviews with transgender men, many reported that after receiving testosterone treatments, they felt both more confident and more aggressive. One study showed that testosterone therapy resulted in changes in brain structure, specifically the part of the brain associated with verbal fluency. Conversely, transgender women receiving estrogen treatments also experience such changes.
Rather than escaping the gender rules people are expected to follow, transgender people are often expected to adhere to them more strictly. One of the rules of femininity is that women must be pleasant to look at. One transgender man expressed relief at having that pressure removed, saying “As a female, I felt I had to smile all the time, just to be accepted. As a male, I don’t feel a sense of having to be pleasant to look at”. However, appearance is still a factor in job discrimination for both men and women, with tall white men enjoying the most economic advantages.
Transgender men socialized as female described many other ways in which they were treated differently after becoming men. They found that they were criticized less and enjoyed greater respect and authority, but that they now felt feared by women. They also found justification for that fear as they were now in the position to experience hearing their female colleagues belittled, called names, and sexualized by their bosses and other male co-workers. One transgender man was quoted as saying “I miss not being seen as a threat.”
Like all women, transgender women face the doubly difficult task of adhering to social standards of femininity while simultaneously displaying enough traits considered masculine to command respect in the workplace. Just as gender, a combination of hormones and social conditioning, can now be changed, so too can the social rules surrounding gender. Only when those rules have changed will women have equal advancement opportunities in the workplace. Fortunately, a greater number of people are working towards that change than ever before.