A Window into Workplace Sexism: The Experience of Transgender Individuals

A friend recently sent me a news article entitled “Why Aren’t Women Advancing At Work? Ask a Transgender Person,” written by Jessica Nordell and published on New Republic. The unique and enlightening experiences of a small minority really gave me pause. While sexism and inequality in the workplace has been a recurring and often contentious point of discussion, some attention has been given to the lived experiences of transgender individuals, particularly those who transitioned from female to male. Interviews conducted with a number of transgender individuals shed light on these work place experiences that many deem sexist.

Qualities unappreciated as a woman (e.g. assertiveness, ambition, etc) were highly valued in a man. What was once considered aggressive was now a wonderful “making-things-happen” attitude towards work. One transgender man explained that someone unfamiliar with his story, with whom he was speaking, informed him that his sister’s presentation was dull, but his was light-years better. His “sister” was actually him, prior to his gender change. What struck me is that a transgender individual’s experience is much like an experimental study in that confounding variables, such as differences in personality traits, values, skill sets, and abilities are removed from the equation. Not only were the studied transgender individuals perceived and valued differently by their colleagues and employers, but they were also treated differently. Another man recalled his prior female self being interrupted frequently by others during meetings, and his questions were frequently considered to indicate a lack of expertise rather than an educated attempt at dialogue. As a man, he noticed a distinct change. Now, he was being taken seriously and treated with respect- without interruption or skepticism. He was now someone worth listening to. He explained, “Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

As displayed in research that identifies gender differences, men and women frequently have different means on a bell curve. We can frequently conclude that cis men and cis women differ in certain ways (in physical strength, norms on objective personality measures, etc) because of these differences in means. It doesn’t bother me to say this. However, this reality does not account for variant treatment in social settings that have little to do with these mean differences. There is a definite, undeniable problem when characteristics that are considered qualities in one gender are devalued in the other. It’s a problem that one gender has something to prove when the other does not. I truly believe that our society is quick to forget that men and women share countless qualities that are appropriate and suitable in an array of social settings.

 - Written by Nina Silander

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