What Could Transgender Experience Tell Us About Workplace Gender Roles?

Women face many obstacles in the workplace. Perhaps most challenging is a very structured hierarchical system that was not built with them in mind. Kristen Schilt thought the best way to understand these barriers was to hear from those who have experienced both worlds -- those who are transgender.
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One of the major workplace trends being discussed on my blog lately is the fact that women are leaving the workplace to work independently. Many women are realizing that they can achieve more by consulting or creating start-ups. Despite being equally (or more) educated and experienced as their male peers, 2012 statistics show that women held 14.3 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies and are still paid only three-quarters of what their male colleagues are paid.

Women face many obstacles in the workplace -- lower pay, less access to leadership positions, higher expectations for those with children and more. Perhaps most challenging is a very structured hierarchical system that was not built with them in mind. But trying to understand what women actually experience beyond the statistics can be difficult, even for the women themselves.

Transgender Workers Who Have Worked as Both Women and Men Interviewed

That's what makes Kristen Schilt's study, as featured on the Stanford University blog, so fascinating. She thought the best way to understand the reality about the barriers women face was to hear it from those who have experienced both worlds -- those who are transgender. Her subjects have worked as both women and men, and sometimes in the same environment. She meticulously interviewed transgender employees and their coworkers, and her findings are definitely worth discussion.

Men Are Not Only Treated Differently at Work, But Better

One particularly eye-opening story comes from a respondent named Thomas. Thomas used to be Susan before he transitioned. When he became Thomas to his coworkers, he maintained his old position, but clients were told that Susan was no longer with the company. A man at an associated company told Thomas' boss that he was happy Susan had been let go because she was incompetent, while the "new guy" Thomas was not. This man did not realize he was talking about the exact same employee. How many women are being viewed as incompetent simply because they are women? This stark example of inequality speaks to the often-invisible obstacles women face in the workplace.

Increased Workplace Rewards

Respondents reported receiving accelerated rewards, promotions and congratulations as transgender men. They reported suddenly having more, "excellent points" and "good ideas."

Assumed Authority or Expertise

Transgender men, who are physically/genetically female at birth, but identify as male, reported having sudden new authority with their new gender. One respondent spoke about coworkers snubbing a woman who was an expert on the subject being discussed while carefully listening to him, despite his complete lack of expertise. Another transgender man watched women's ideas get ignored in meetings. He tried to make their ideas known by repeating them to the group and would then get the credit for the idea that he was simply restating. Before she even spoke, her idea was already assumed to be a poor one and no one listened. When he spoke, it was assumed that he knew what he was talking about and had something valuable to offer. Women facing this barrier in the workplace can chose to fight tooth and nail, watch the dynamics knowingly and try to navigate them the best they can or get out! If it's impossible to win a game maybe it's time to play a new game.

Assumptions About Who Can Do the Best Job in Particular Roles Has Ramifications

The idea that some jobs are better suited for men created new opportunities for subjects who transitioned to men. For example, one subject quickly earned a promotion while working as a floor shift manager, a position typically held by men, whereas women were typically on the floor with customers and handling merchandising. Merchandising roles don't have a long-term promotional track and remain hourly, while the more "male" roles have a very defined path of promotion and rewards.

According to Schilt's study, the trans population's acceptance into the workplace often mimics the acceptance of non-trans males. If a trans male is tall, masculine and white, he will afford more opportunities than a trans male who is short, gender ambiguous and non-white. These inequalities remain. In fact, accepting transgender people in the workplace has little impact on progress with gender inequality at all. As long as you look and act the part of white male, you fall right in line with the hierarchical inequality without making waves.

However, one can hope that over time, the growing acceptance of transgender employees may help to "undo" gender definitions at work by expanding the definition of gender. That will lead to more questions about what influence gender actually has on employee performance and roles. One could hope that blurring the lines of gender could potentially help wipe them away entirely, but that will take asking lot of hard questions, complete policy overhauls and ample time for adjustment and integration.

Watch professor Kristen Schilt speak on transgender men and the persistence of gender inequality here.

Schilt's study provides ample evidence to back up the increasing number of women who are deciding to leave the workplace to create their own success.

I'd love to know personal experiences of women or transgender employees that mimic or contradict those mentioned above. Maintaining an active dialogue about workplace issues can not only help build awareness, but lead to creative strategies and proposed solutions for change.

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