Episode 42: The outsider within: transgender in the workplace

June 15, 2014

"As a male creative director I started to notice differences in the way women were treated. But when I was a woman I didn’t really notice, and I figured, oh well, it’s probably because I’m junior – maybe that’s why I’m being treated that way.” - Chris Edwards

"One of the guys applied for this high tech job as a woman, didn’t get the job, re-applied three months later after he transitioned, with a different name, and then got hired." - Kristen Schilt

21 minutes.

Kristen SchiltSociologist Kristen Schilt spent years researching transgender men's experiences at work. What does that have to do with women and the workplace? A lot, it turns out. After all, these guys began their working lives presenting themselves as female. Then they transitioned, and suddenly, work was a whole different place. Despite having the same abilities, they now had more authority. Colleagues assumed they were more competent. Sometimes they even landed jobs they couldn't get before.


Chris EdwardsFurther reading: Kristen Schilt is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. The Clayman Institute for Gender Research has more on her research on transgender men here.

Chris Edwards is an award-winning advertising creative director and author of the upcoming memoir, Balls. He also writes about transgender issues for The Huffington Post.

I found out about Kristen's work through Anne Loehr, a leadership coach in Washington, DC. She writes about the workplace for The Huffington Post.



Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, what can we learn about attitudes to women in the workplace from people who have experienced work as both genders?                 

“As a creative director and as a male creative director I started to notice differences in the way women were treated. But when I was a woman I didn’t really notice, and I figured, oh well, it’s probably because I’m junior – maybe that’s why I’m being treated that way.”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

Kristen Schilt is a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, and her research focuses on all things gender-related. About a decade ago she began studying how transgender men fare in the workplace. So that is men who had been born in a female body - the rest of the world saw them as female - but they had never identified as female. They’d ended up transitioning - usually in their twenties, thirties or forties. Often this meant starting a series of operations and taking hormones as well as dressing like men. They came back to work presenting as male, with a new name and different appearance.

Kristen’s book based on her research is called Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Inequality.

And these guys had fascinating tales to tell of their experiences at work. They were the same person, with the same abilities they had when the outside world saw them as women – but their workplace experiences were quite different.  

First, I asked Kristen why she’d decided to focus on this particular group to begin with.

“You know in terms of if you just take, like, the idea of this binary of male and female, male tends to be something that carries more reward. And as a sociologist I had noticed that we typically study what happens when people go down in status. In general that’s a focus in sociology. And I wanted to see what might happen when people are moving to a category that other people might see as having more value…”

The category labeled male. Which, let’s face it, most of the world still sees as having more value…

“I mean I think the point that makes this clear is in my current research I’ve been doing lot of research with transgender women. Several people have told me that when they announced at their workplace they were becoming women, that men have actually said to them ‘why would you want to be a second class citizen?”

So it’s clear to her that ‘male’ is still society’s default setting – the most desirable state to occupy, particularly if you’re white. And she wanted to find out what happened when you began life as the less favored sex, then transitioned to live as a man.

Kristen Schilt talked to 54 guys. The majority were white. Half of the men had quit their old jobs, transitioned, then gone back to a new workplace where no one knew they used live as women.  The other half had transitioned while at their job – with at least the nominal support of their workplace. And these men did a variety of things – a third were in blue-collar jobs, a third were in service or retail positions and the other third were in professional jobs like lawyer or technologist.

AM-T: “So to open up a large conversation, what did these men’s experiences in the workplace reveal about attitudes to women in the workplace, first of all? I know some of them were quite surprised by what they experienced.”

“Yeah, I think many of them…they would often say to me you know when I was living as a woman it’s not like I didn’t know misogyny existed, I just never realized the depth of it. So their sense was when they were in a roomful of men where they were being perceived as someone who’d been raised male his whole life, men said very different things about women than they had ever heard when living as women. Some said, ‘All my friends were guys, but this is a whole different level.’ And I think one of the things that was sort of surprising to the guys who got jobs where no one knew they were trans, was the extent to which employers would say things like oh, I’m so glad we hired you, a woman could never do this kind of job. Stereotypical things, like women aren’t good drivers, or women can’t carry heavy things. So there was just a lot of statement of, ‘This is something we all know that men can do that women can’t do.’ Also, noticing just how often men were sort of blind to women’s abilities. So several of them talked about, like I felt like I was being asked if I wanted to be promoted over a woman who had been there longer who was just as good as I was. So many of them would go out of their way as men to say, ‘Well, what about this woman, too?’ To try to point that out, because they were, like, men don’t even notice women’s abilities.”

Talking of which, I asked Kristen to tell a story that really jumped out at me from her book that seems to prove just how deep this kind of unconscious bias goes.

There’s a guy in the book called Thomas. He had begun life as Susan.

“Right, so he was a lawyer and everyone in his law firm knew that he had transitioned, and his boss, who was a woman, told him that a lawyer at a related firm told her he was so glad they had fired Susan, who he’d found to be very incompetent, but that he really loved this new guy Thomas…and that he didn’t realize that they were the same person.”

So apparently, Susan?  So bad at her job. Thomas? Amazing. And Thomas is far from  the only transgender guy who’s had an experience like that.

“I start the book off with Ben Barres…a Stanford University professor in the sciences, and he in 2006 wrote this very influential piece in the journal Nature about being a trans man in the sciences. And he tells a similar story where shortly after he went through his transition he heard a faculty member say, ‘Ben Barres gave great seminar today, but then his work is so much better than his sister’s.’”

Again, unbeknownst to that critic, Ben Barres and his so-called sister were one and the same.

There were other experiences too, less positive ones. A black trans-guy in Kristen’s study said he’d gone from being perceived as an obnoxious black woman to a black man who was looked on as dangerous. He was sometimes stopped in his car as he drove through white neighborhoods on his way to or from work. That had never happened to him before.

Then there was the trans guy who had been a radical lesbian as a female, and was using to bandying about words like ‘dyke’ at the office – he continued to do that after his transition, but then he was given a strict talking to by his boss about his use of homophobic language.

These guys said it was so weird: they were the same person inside but they had to get used to the outside world seeing them totally differently as men – and landing them with new stereotypes and new rules to follow.

AM-T: “And yet, I think most of your participants felt that they gained in the workplace from this transition, right? Can you talk about what they felt that they gained?”

“Sure, so I would say about two thirds of them saw what they viewed as positive changes. One thing they noticed a lot was getting more authority for their ideas. People would often say, I don’t have to back up the claims I’m making, people listen to me more. One of the guys who transitioned in a female dominated workplace – he transitioned, he got a new job, no one knew he was trans. He’d say, sometimes in these meetings I’m the only man, and when I start talking sometimes all the women just get really quiet and look at me, and at first he couldn’t work out what was happening…and then he realized oh, this is, like, what it feels like to have authority [laughs] – and so it was disconcerting for many of them.

So I think authority was a big thing. And assumed competence – so they’d say, it’s this idea that I must know how to do things. Several of them had ‘masculine knowledge’ about things like construction or building while they were living as women but it was never really validated…and then having that same knowledge, knowledge about cars, or something like that, was much more validated when they were living as men.

In rarer cases guys who got jobs as men when no one knew they were trans felt they got economic gains that they wouldn’t have gotten before. Whether it was because they got hired in a lucrative blue-collar job, where there were just not that many women, where they thought no one would have hired me, in this case - or like in a high tech firm where they were like, look there’s hardly any women here. I’m not sure if you read this part, but one of the guys applied for this high tech job as a woman, didn’t get the job, re-applied three months later after he transitioned with a different name and then got hired.

That’s right. He applied for the same job, but this time he had a male name, made it to the interview stage, and got the job.

He couldn’t guarantee the same people had read the application but his credentials hadn’t changed. And his sense was having worked in this high-tech field, just checking the ‘m’ and having this masculine name on the file made him seem potentially more appropriate for those kinds of jobs.”

On the other hand, I had to bring something up – something I heard from the person you’ll hear from in the second half of the show. He began life in a female body and some of the positive changes he experienced at work after he transitioned – he puts them down to the fact that he was just so delighted to finally be himself, and he had more confidence as a result…

AM-T: “I mean could potentially some of the upsides that accrued to these guys have come not because people were perceiving them as ‘a man’ but because they were simply exuding more confidence?”

“And you know this is something I’ve thought about a lot because people ask me this question a lot – I feel like my caution about this is that transgender women face a lot more discrimination in the workplace, and they often are very, very happy they’ve transitioned and have a similar feeling of I finally get to be who I am. It’s that other people don’t want that to happen, right, and so I think having confidence is one thing, and it’s great, but you have to have other people support that for you. And I think, at least my research suggests that while many trans men face a lot of discrimination, when you compare their experiences to transgender women they are more likely to get at least some kind of nominal support in the workplace that allows them to take advantage of that confidence and happiness.”

That’s not to say all the guys she studied had positive experiences. There was plenty of discrimination at work – lots of rude questions, some outright hostility, and some instances of being passed over for promotion. We’re going to hear more from Kristen in the next show, when we’ll also hear more about transgender women’s experiences at work.

But for now, we’re going to meet Chris Edwards. He’s a trans guy living in Boston. He told me he knew from when he was tiny that he was not a girl – even if he looked like one. He had two sisters and to the outside world his was a family of girls – but not to him. He tried to tell his grandmother when he was four that he wasn’t a girl but she shushed him – indulgently, but still, he says, it was the beginning of him realizing that he had to pretend. And so he did. All through his childhood and teenage years, through college and into the workplace.

And his first foray into the workplace he says – more than 20 years ago now – was driven in part by the discomfort he felt about his appearance…

“A lot of things that had to bear in what job I took was…what did I have to wear on the job.”

Skirts and heels – Chris couldn’t deal with that. It was too uncomfortable, too fake.

He did not enjoy his time interning at a law firm where dressing up was part of the requirement. But another of his internships was in advertising. Now his dad had always worked in the business so Chris was familiar with it in theory, but had never tried it. Ultimately he ended up taking an entry-level job at his dad’s ad agency in Boston.

But after two years of work, even in jeans and T-shirts, he decided he couldn’t live any longer as a woman. He was desperately unhappy and wanted to transition – start having operations, taking hormones. He was planning to quit, move out of state and start life afresh where no one knew him. He talked to a therapist about it, and she said, look, you’re going to need a support network – stay where your friends are.

“So after talking with her for a bit I’m like OK, you know what, you’re right. I should probably stay in Massachusetts and do it, it’s going to get out anyway, I’ll just look for a new job. And she said, well why do you need to find a new job…and I was like, are you kidding me? Are you living in fantasy land? I’m going to stay in this job? All I could think about was my poor dad and how I’m going to humiliate him, and just my own courage to do it.”

But unlike a lot of transgender people, Chris had a very supportive family. Even his dad – CEO of this ad agency – said look, if this is what you want, stay here, we’ll  support you.

OK, so his family was on board, but then it was time to tell his firm about his plans.

“So my dad and I sat in this board meeting with pretty much, I think there were about 8 middle aged, white conservative males at the table and I explained to them what I was going through. It was awkward, they didn’t know what to do, they were looking down at their empty coffee cups suddenly finding them very interesting…

It was tense and it was awkward, but at the end of it one of the board members asked what they could do to help make my transition easier. Which I thought was very nice and way more than I expected. And I finally took a breath.”

After that breath, he said well, after the transition, he would not be using the ladies room any more – he’d be using the men’s room.

“And it was like, what? And I couldn’t believe after everything I just said that it was the men’s room that was the biggest deal. And honestly that ended up being the only thing that really people talked about just because of the way that I handled it, that was a big deal. So what I said was listen, I won’t use either bathroom for two weeks and give people enough time to adjust to the news and be prepared. So every time I had to pee I went out the building to the Rebecca’s cafe that had a unisex bathroom.”

But things did settle down, he says, he was accepted into the men’s bathroom. It helped that he made a lot of jokes about the whole experience to put people at ease, and that he was working in a more laid back environment than, say, a bank. He was hugely relieved he’d made this decision.

“I was just happier, more confident. I was more easy going I think about things and as I began taking the testosterone injections, that’s when I really started to notice a difference in my behavior. And emotionally, aside from being happier and more comfortable in my own skin, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional changes. And I actually didn’t notice them right away. It was friends of mine that pointed it out. A lot of my friends were girls because that’s how I grew up. Two of my best friends at work were female. One of them tends to talk a lot, and we were on our way to dinner somewhere and I asked her if her sister was meeting us at the restaurant.  And ten minutes later she’s still talking and I still don’t know if her sister’s joining us and I said well, is she coming or not? Can I have the answer please? And she said, you know, you used to like my stories and listen to me and now, I’ve noticed you’ve been less patient and I think it’s that damn testosterone you’re taking.”

That testosterone, she said – it was making the old Chris more like a typical man.

“And we talked about and I had noticed it too once she said it. I didn’t put two and two together, but I definitely was less patient. I was more curt and to the point. I was speaking up more in meetings because I was more confident in myself. But it definitely, the most noticeable change was impatience and getting to the point.”

And some of his old, more typically female traits were slipping away.

“I wasn’t worried so much about how I came across. So I used to couch things and be um, very sensitive about oh, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and I’m going to very soft to approach things and dance around the issues and that kind of thing. And I stopped doing it. I was more blunt, I don’t think I was rude but I was definitely more assertive and I would just say what I thought.”

One more thing he says – as his friend indicated, in the past, he was known for being a good listener. After his transition he says he became a solver.

“So I’d listen to a point and then just give them a solution. Which is a stereotypically male thing to do.  And I would just be like OK, why don’t you just do this? And they’d be like, I’m not asking you I just want you to empathize and listen to me. So I definitely do that more, but hopefully I don’t patronize.”

Something else he began to become aware of now he was living as a man was that men got a better deal at work.

“As a creative director and as a male creative director I started to notice differences in the ways women were treated. But when I was a woman I didn’t really notice. And I figured it’s probably because I’m junior, you know, maybe that’s why I’m being treated that way. But I was noticing in meetings if there was a brainstorm session, if there’s a female creative in the room she’s supposed to take the notes…which I could not believe. And even at a higher level, if there’s 3 creative directors in a room and one of them’s female, she’s supposed to take the notes.”      

That’s called office housework, by the way, and women often end up doing it.

Occasionally his status became a point of contention. And this is something Kristen Schilt also found with her research. When something happens at work either the trans person or their colleagues start to second-guess the reasons behind it…

“When I got a window office, someone was passed over, I got the window office, it was like, of course, he’s a guy, he gets the window office. When in fact I had just been promoted but the announcement hadn’t gone out yet, and that’s why I got the window office.”

Into which he settled quite well. He knows he is one of the lucky few who got through his transition with very little trauma in the workplace. And he feels life at work is easier as a man. His says your identity is your sole being.

“I feel that I am who I am, and I can sympathize with women, because I’ve been there, half my life – I’m 45 and I spent 23 years as a female and the rest of it male and I can sympathize, and I can see now what it’s like whereas I couldn’t see before. It isn’t till you’re in different shoes that you can see that.”

Chris Edwards. He still works in advertising and he’s just finished a memoir…it’s called Balls.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

I want to give a shout-out to Anne Loehr this week. Anne’s a leadership coach in Washington DC and it was through her blog that I first found out about Kristen Schilt’s work several months ago. Anne also writes about the workplace for the Huffington Post. I’ll post a link to her site at TheBroadExperience.com.

Next time on the show…more on gender, sexuality and the workplace. What if you’re looking for a job, but you don’t conform to a womanly stereotype?

“You walk in the room and you feel automatically crossed off the list. Someone is surprised at how you appear, they’re kind of taken aback, the interview’s really short, they don’t really ask you a lot of questions, you feel kind of rushed in and out, like, this is really not an option.”

That’s next time.

In the meantime, if you like what you hear please chip in with a review on iTunes – it really does help the show come to more people’s attention. And please share the show on social media if you’re on there – word of mouth helps a lot. You’ll find me on Twitter at @AshleyMilneTyte – without the hyphen.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.