Brooke Brimo is an Honours Political Science student at McGill University. In her Feminist and Social Justice Studies class, she researched discrimination against transgender people in American workplaces. She was inspired by the story of Ginger Chien, a transgender device architect at AT&T. This company is at the forefront of social change, yet even the most progressive organizations have room for improvement. This is a summary of Brooke’s research paper.
Transgender people’s rights at work have recently come under threat. The Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace, no longer protects against discrimination based on gender identity or transgender status.
In light of this, top-ranked businesses have implemented an unprecedented number of transgender-inclusive affirmative action initiatives. 83% of the Fortune 500 now have gender identity non-discrimination policies, 55% offer inclusive healthcare coverage, and 450 major businesses have transition guidelines, dramatic increases from previous years.
Although changes in company policy can greatly improve transgender employees’ quality of life, they are insufficient to eliminate prejudice when they are not accompanied by changes in workplace culture, and in the ideas and beliefs that employees hold.
Some Important Terms Explained
Male and female anatomical characteristics.
The internal feeling of being male or female.
Those whose gender identity and biological sex match.
Those whose gender identity and biological sex do not match. To align their external with their internal self, they may choose to change their name, dress differently, take hormones, or have surgery.
The deeply held assumption that cisgender people are “normal” and transgender people are “abnormal.” Many of us may unintentionally think this way, since transgender issues only recently entered mainstream consciousness. We must challenge this assumption.
What Workplace Discrimination Looks Like for Transgender Workers
Most workplaces are not neutral settings that reward workers on merit alone. Two forms of inequality exist: an organizational chain of command and a hierarchy of social privilege. Employees’ position within the social structure (for example, in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation) helps or hinders their advancement in the workplace structure.
Since “transgender” is a broad term, there is no universal transgender workplace experience. According to Kristen Schilt, trans men generally report increased perceptions of authority and competence relative to their female counterparts, fewer unwanted sexual advances, access to male-dominated social circles, and greater opportunities for career advancement.
Trans women, however, are treated with less respect, given fewer opportunities for advancement, and expected to take on a different role within the gendered division of labor. Ginger Chien writes: “Being mostly successful at ‘passing’ as female… comes at the cost of dignity. I worked hard to exit the box of male conformity — only to land in another box.”
Chien also states that “There are countless forms of exclusion, rejection and danger unique to transgender people. I have been treated in demeaning ways as a woman, harassed and accosted for being transgender, and now see myself being written out of society by new laws.”
Transgender employees’ human dignity is often threatened. Having to dress in a way that is at odds with their gender identity or being forced to use the wrong bathroom is detrimental to their self-esteem. Their physical safety is often threatened too. They are at heightened risk of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Dignity threats can be mitigated through changes in company policy, and physical threats can, in theory, be dealt with through legal means. However, subtler forms of prejudice are not legally actionable, ranging from offensive jokes to social exclusion among colleagues.
Although their objective may be to advance workplace equity, LGBT employee support groups can inadvertently threaten transgender people. The commonality between people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender is less a shared identity than a shared difference relative to what is considered “normal.”
LGBT groups may neglect transgender concerns due to their relatively small numbers within the group. The cisgender members may even be prejudiced against transgender people. Employee support groups must be sure to support all employees in order to be effective.
Take the Ethical Praxis Approach
Should workplaces pursue diversity for profit or for ethics? The business case argues that diversity results in greater employee retention, fewer lawsuits, higher quality staff, and better generation of ideas, increasing overall profit. The ethical case argues that it is wrong to pursue diversity based on commercial self-interest; diversity should be the primary goal.
Carl Rhodes proposes “ethical praxis” as a compromise between the business case and the ethical case. This approach prioritizes justice while also appealing to business concerns, and focuses on concrete action that offers equitable protection, benefits, and opportunities to marginalized employees .
For example, diversity is a fundamental part of AT&T’s mission, and the company’s inclusive workplace culture gives it a strategic edge by fostering innovation. The ampersand in the company’s name symbolizes this commitment: “The ampersand… is a basic symbol of connection. Yet the dynamics that transform individual differences into shared strengths are much more complex.”
AT&T achieved real gains for the broader community by participating in over 50 community outreach initiatives in 2016, including LGBT hiring events and panel discussions highlighting transgender workplace issues.
AT&T’s chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson acknowledges that although the company has been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion initiatives for decades, difficult dialogue is required to additionally combat prejudice: “I’m not asking you to be tolerant of each other… Being tolerant requires nothing from you but to be quiet and not make waves, holding tightly to your views and judgments without being challenged. Do not ‘tolerate’ each other. Work hard, move into uncomfortable territory and understand each other.”
Ultimately, our society’s conceptualization of gender, which categorizes every person into one of two restrictive boxes, is harmful and antiquated. Transgender people, just like cisgender people, have valuable ideas, talents, and ambitions. Yet, they face unthinkable obstacles on a daily basis, simply for not conforming to the socially constructed rules of gender.
Achieving a transgender-inclusive workplace requires more than changes in company policy. It requires changes in ideas. To ensure an inclusive atmosphere, every employee must be willing to listen to and respect others’ points of view and experiences, even those that may be unfamiliar or difficult to understand. Reconsider your deeply-held beliefs about these gender issues and challenge your colleagues to do the same. Most importantly, recognize that every person is worthy of dignity.