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In January this year, the Financial Times reported on the results of a disturbing survey from the LGBT+ charity Stonewall. The UK survey found that half of trans people — those whose gender is not the same as their biological sex at birth — have been so afraid of discrimination at work that they have hidden their identity. One in eight had been physically attacked by colleagues or customers.
Debbie, a shop worker in the US who is gender-fluid — in other words, with a gender identity that can shift — can relate to this kind of hostility.
Debbie’s request that colleagues use “they” and “them” as personal pronouns met a hostile reception: Debbie’s manager “treated my gender identity as if it were no different than a teenager going through a Goth phase”.
“There are still plenty of coworkers who continue to misgender me and don’t correct [this] because it is not taken seriously and neither am I,” said Debbie in emailed answers to questions.
Such stories are not rare, and come against a bleak career outlook for trans people: their rate of unemployment (15 per cent) was three times higher than that of the general population, according to a 2016 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality. Poverty and homelessness were also much higher among trans people. But, as the problem has climbed up political agendas and become the next frontier in the fight for equality, the corporate world has started to respond.
In 2016, the consultancy EY launched a guide to support its trans employees, which Anjeli Patel, 31, a trans woman who works in EY’s people advisory practice, appreciated. Her experience of talking about being trans in job interviews is perhaps reflective of changing attitudes.
When going for jobs before EY, Ms Patel decided to “not talk about it; let’s not mention it; I hope they won’t notice”. But “people were trying to figure me out rather than listening to what I was saying”. If the subject did come up, interviewers could be intrusive or even crude.
Ms Patel says: “Some of the questions I was asked [included], ‘How much time are you going to need off?’ ‘Is everything “done”?’ This is a professional interview; how do you think it’s acceptable to be asking me those things?”
When she was interviewed by EY, she trusted that the firm’s professed tolerance was borne out in practice and decided to “lay my cards on the table . . . and be as transparent and honest as I can be”.
This has worked out well for Ms Patel, who is on this year’s FT/OUTstanding list of LGBT+ future leaders.
Antonia Belcher, a trans woman who runs a building consultancy, is in the early stages of launching a trans business advisory group to highlight and encourage the presence of trans people in the workplace.
“We feel at present that there is too much talk and not enough walk by businesses and their command structures,” Ms Belcher says. “If you are a young trans person yet to find work . . . the forefront of your mental debate is, ‘will I ever be employed’?” Supporting trans people at work needs to be “completely natural”, she says, and it works for businesses too, as trans people will then be able to “work freely without fear, and give that business their undivided loyalty and talent, without having to hide their true selves”.
LGBT+ organisations are granting trans rights in the workplace greater seriousness as campaigners also step up the pressure. In 2018, for the first time, an organisation could only be listed in the top 100 Stonewall Workplace Equality Index if it had “demonstrated [its] commitment to trans equality”.
Stonewall considered factors such as whether the organisation provided support to transitioning individuals; whether employees could be registered as non-binary (people whose gender identity does not sit comfortably with “man” or “woman”); and whether senior leaders were clear in their support for trans equality.
Darren Towers, executive director at Stonewall, says it is a mistake for companies to think they have no trans workers. He says: “In some large organisations they might assume they have no trans employees but until they start talking about why trans inclusion is important, that might not become obvious.”
Claire McCartney, diversity and inclusion adviser at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, notes that organisations have started paying more attention to trans issues, perhaps driven by cases in the media. Ms McCartney says that all of an organisation’s systems and processes should be “geared to being inclusive” across the many kinds of diversity that businesses need to focus on, both to attract talent and to better understand its customers. She adds: “If you’re a smaller organisation, it might be resource-intensive, but there’s lots of free information and guidance out there.”
A study published last year by Acas, a UK public body that mediates between employers and employees, found that, in the view of trans employees, corporate “good practice was . . . action that goes above and beyond what is enshrined in law”. This could include updating “personal data related to previous names or personal identifiers” and avoiding so-called “deadnaming” — the use of a trans person’s birth name when they have adopted a new one.
Acas also recommended that companies consult unions. “Unions — and their reps — make a real difference to trans people’s experiences at work, standing up for workers facing discrimination or misunderstandings, and ensuring workplaces are safe and welcoming for everyone,” says Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the UK’s Trades Union Congress. In many other parts of the world, trans people face frequent violence and have few protections in the workplace. Within the EU, a 2015 survey found that while most western Europeans were comfortable working with trans people, high levels of discomfort prevailed across eastern, central and south-eastern Europe.
Progress, then, is uneven. But as Ms Patel says: “I think a lot of trans people are starting to find their voice now and there’s a lot of understanding, and if there’s not an understanding there’s a willingness to understand.”
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