What It's Like to Be a Transwoman in a Male-Dominated Field

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Dean Speaking at University

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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
April 15, 2024 at 4:32PM UTC

She'd always asked herself, "When does Erica get to live?" 

For years, she'd seriously considered transitioning from Eric to Erica, but she never quite felt ready to see it all the way through — until she told herself, "I might die and never live as Erica." 

Erica (whose full name we'll keep concealed to protect her identity) began her final attempt at transitioning, which would result in her moving forward, in 2011; her social transition came to fruition by 2012. But she didn't just decide to finally do it one day and stick with it — the decision was a lot more nuanced than that. In order to achieve her full transition, she left her job at a Catholic university, moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco's Bay Area, and split up with her wife after more than 30 years of marriage. Erica then became a transwoman working in a male-dominated job and, some years later, she's still battling alleged employment discrimination despite all her efforts.

Of course, she's not the only trans person to face discrimination — though that's no surprise.

LGBTQ discrimination is rife.

Approximately 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender, according to the William's Institute. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC)'s 2018 Corporate Equality Index delves into how trans workers are treated and the annual ranking that assesses companies’ LGBTQ-inclusive practices and policies suggests that, to date, 459 major employers have added guidelines designed to support transgender employees while transitioning. In addition, a record 609 businesses got perfect scores from the HRC, up 18 percent from the 517 employers that did so last year.
But there's a lot of work to be done. LGBTQ workers in the U.S. still find it harder to get hired than the general population, with unemployment rates running two to three times higher for transgender workers, in particular, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Erica, for example, was looking to evade discrimination when she began searching for a new job, but it seems as though she couldn't quite escape it.
"At the time I made my final decision to transition, I obtained assistance from qualified medical providers and a gender psychologist," Erica, now 67, says. "It became obvious in my work with them that I could not stay at the Catholic university, where I had been professor and chair of healthcare management. It was operated by a conservative religious order of nuns, and the university could not even offer support publicly to LGBTQ students out of fear that their very conservative alumnae and the ArchDiocese might object to such culural changes and, as a result, withdraw support."

Discrimination affects LGBTQ persons in the workplace.

So, in consultation with her advisors, Erica decided to apply for a new job at a university in the Bay Area, where she was hired as the chair of the doctoral program in clinical psychology. She believed that colleagues who were also psychologists would be more accepting of her than her former colleagues who were professors of management — and, in her experience, that rang true.

"I was living full time as a woman, Erica, in every area of my life wtih all the challenges of changing everything about me in a complete transformation: legal, medical, social, vocational etc.," she explains, noting that she had the highest profile and the most challenging positions at the university while undergoing her medical transition, including surgeries. "I was accepted well by my psychologist colleagues and welcomed into the company of other women, and I was largely treated well by peers, with a few bigoted exceptions."

But all the administrators at the university at her level or above were men, and, according to Erica, she was one day abruptly relieved by one of them. Erica says she knew the man didn't like her based on extraneous comments he'd made her gender identity, and she felt strongly that he was transphobic. After being summoned into his office, she learned she was being demoted and that her pay was to be cut by $20,000 a year, effective immediately. Erica also alleges that, following this conversation, she was "systematically excluded from faculty meetings, denied teaching assignments and, in many other ways, retaliated against." She was not assigned to a program or department, either, something she claims has never happened to another faculty member in the history of the university. So, she doubted where she existed in the university community and says it felt like she was "put into exile."

The EEOC still has a lot of work to do.

Today, Erica has an open complaint with the The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is still doing an investigation into her ongoing three years of alleged employment discrimination, she says. The EEOC often has to step in for cases like these, as discrimination against the trans community is still so widespread, something that trans activist Lily Zheng confirmed. The coauthor of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination (with coauthor, Alison Ash Fogarty, PhD.), Zheng has identified multiple forms of discrimination in her book full of interviews with trans individuals.
"There’s such a wide range of discrimination experiences that it’s hard to know where to start," Zheng says. "Some of the people we heard stories from spoke about having their trans status shared with others without their permission. Others were denied jobs or fired explicitly because they were trans — one trans woman was told that headhunters 'wouldn’t touch her' because they were instructed to avoid candidates with 'deficiencies.' Those who were visibly gender-nonconforming shared stories of overt harassment and hostility: One person received rape and death threats. Another, who worked as a teacher, was confronted by parents and accused of trying to brainwash their children. Almost every person talked about microaggressions: sidelong glances, micromanaging, 'accidental' misgendering and other little things that cumulatively created a hostile workplace."

Many LGBTQ feel forced to hide their identities at work.

Zheng adds that, to escape this discrimination, many of the people she'd interviewed chose to hide their trans identities in the workplace. But unlike Erica who says she faced deliberate discrimination, the costs of this strategy fall squarely on the trans person’s emotional and mental well-being.
Zheng knows what the emotional and mental stress toll feels like herself, as a queer and trans Asian-American person, which she says feels a lot like constantly living between worlds.
"In high school, the students who had the easiest time accepting me were the white LGBTQ+ students — the conflict I was experiencing with my family led me to reject the Asian-American side of me, which felt like a necessary tradeoff to have my queer and trans identities validated," she explains. "However, by college I began feeling like my white LGBTQ+ peers couldn’t begin to understand my Chinese-American background. That sense of cultural homelessness — that I belonged in neither Asian-American spaces nor LGBTQ+ spaces — is still one that I struggle with today."
She adds she's been misgendered in every single workplace at which she's ever worked.
"In one workplace, it was a slip of the tongue by a manager that I might not have noticed had it not happened again 10 minutes later... and again 10 minutes after that," she says. "In another workplace, it was from a coworker who spent three times as much time apologizing as he did misgendering me. This isn’t to say that either of these coworkers had malicious intentions — quite the opposite. But neither of them were equipped to deal with a trans employee, and their learning experience was my discrimination experience."
For people who identify as neither men nor women, including gender-fluid people who may identify as both at some point or another, Zheng says that discrimination typically takes the form of gender policing. And gender policing means that others in the workplace pressure trans and gender-diverse people to change the way they look or act to conform with the gender binary. Of course, when someone needs to balance authenticity with the need to keep a job, it isn't healthy for the employee or the company.
"Those who choose authenticity must deal with prejudice and discrimination that restricts their job opportunities, while those who choose their jobs must deal with the frustration, anxiety, and other mental health challenges that come from suppressing an important part of themselves," Zheng explains. "When organizations are unable to create inclusive environments for their trans and gender-diverse employees, lose-lose choices become the norm."
In Erica's case, for example, authenticity was the path. Erica chose to undergo her transformation while working and, ultimately, faced workplace discrimination because of it. But the only other choice for trans people like Erica to pretend to be people they're not to appease their coworkers and managers leads to no better outcomes.
We need workplaces to be able to truthfully say they're trans-inclusive. And in order to do that, Zheng says they need to effectively support employees whose needs vary/change over time through policy; empower and respect self-expression, boundary-setting, and individual needs; and evolve in response to changing social, cultural, economic, and political conditions in a way that is transparent and integrates employee feedback.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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