Why you still have no (out) trans people at your company

Trans people are often pressured to stay in the closet at work.
Trans people are often pressured to stay in the closet at work.
Image: REUTERS/Nicky Loh
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Many well-meaning companies around the world have begun taking steps to make their workplaces inclusive for transgender people, or people who identify as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth. But where are the transgender employees? Why is the unemployment rate among trans communities three times higher than the unemployment rate in the U.S. population? Why, despite the growing visibility of transgender people in popular culture and mass media, do only 9% of people age 45 and older report knowing or working with a transgender person?

At Stanford University, as part of a research project, we dove deeply into the stories of 25 transgender people in the labor market to learn more about how and why workplace discrimination occurred. The patterns we found in our data suggest that companies are pushing transgender workers out of the workplace—and dissuading transgender workers in the closet from coming out in the first place.

From hiring to firing

The discrimination experiences reported by our participants echoed more broadly other  findings of research on transgender workplace discrimination. In this research we documented in extensive detail the prevalence of discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression, the chilling effect of implicit prejudice on trans employees’ authenticity at work, the stress of transition in hostile work environments and the compounded discrimination experiences faced by gender-nonconforming trans people and trans people of color.

At all points in the employment process, from recruiting to hiring to termination, trans people who we interviewed were severely disadvantaged by discriminatory biases and practices. One trans woman we spoke to described how she was told, “Don’t bother going through any recruiters because they’re not going to touch you. If they present a candidate that has any deficiencies it reflects on them as a recruiter.” Another described how, when they began correcting coworkers after having their pronouns misgendered, their managers suddenly increased their workload until they were forced to resign.

Almost every person interviewed described how small aspects of their gender expression, like the pitch of their voice, the length of their hair, or the type of clothing they wore to work affected how their coworkers and supervisors would treat them. The trend was clear: the more people’s appearance deviated from what was “normal” in the workplace, the more harassment and discrimination they received.

Trans employees facing this kind of pervasive workplace discrimination had a clear choice: either compromise their authenticity in the workplace to “fit in” enough to avoid discrimination, or maintain their authenticity in defiance of discrimination until their inevitable firing.

Those who remain often hide their trans identities, choosing employment at the cost of their mental health, emotional well-being, and happiness. As one interviewee remarked about hiding a trans identity, “short term impact: very little because I can maintain at work. I’ve learned how to do that. Long term impact: increasing levels of stress and increasing levels of discomfort with the job. I haven’t been in it long enough to reach a point where I would say ‘I don’t want to go into work today,’ but I can see that being a possibility.”

It is this exact lose-lose dynamic, compounded by housing discrimination, lack of access to health care, and low levels of family support, that results in the higher rates of unemployment and poverty in the trans community (29% of trans people who live under the poverty line). The pressure of living with the reality of economic discrimination is but one of the factors contributing to the rate at which trans people attempt suicide (41%) or suffer from depression or anxiety (50% and 44%, respectively).

What Employers Can Do

Employers play a critical role in ending the cycle of workplace discrimination and stratification. How?

  • Partner with external organizations and initiatives to create inclusive outreach and hiring practices. Work with interviewers and recruiters to challenge their assumptions around appearance, behavior, and competence.
  • Act with the assumption that your organization already has trans people in it, even if you can’t see them. Model gender-inclusive behavior and language and highlight trans-friendly initiatives and practices, even if it doesn’t look like there are trans employees who can benefit from them.
  • Create programs and systems to help retain top trans talent. Investing in mentorship programs, employee resource groups, and knowledgeable HR departments allows trans people to feel a sense of psychological safety and perform to their full potential at work.

We found that when supportive employers succeeded in implementing these practices, trans employees reported feeling more comfortable and happier on the job. They were more productive and more likely to both stay in the organization and give back to the initiatives that helped support them. When employers can buck the pull of vicious cycles and create positive systems for trans employees, they can create value on top of value for their organizations.