There's been a significant shift in the way transgender issues are treated in the last decade, with major corporations offering help and services to transitioning employees – but there's still so much to be done to ensure their equality.

This story is from Transgender in the Workplace, an episode Business Daily on BBC World Service. It was produced by Laurence Knight, with presenter Manuela Saragosa. To listen to more episodes, click here. Adapted by Helene Schumacher. 

While many no longer regard gender as a strictly binary issue, there can still be a lot of stigma attached to changing your gender identity at work. Awareness has certainly grown, but there are still challenges when it comes to transgender issues in the workplace.

President Trump has recently signed a memorandum banning some transgender people from serving in the US military. And according to a survey conducted by National Public Radio (NPR) in the US, more than half of transgender teachers face harassment or discrimination at work.

So, in this context, what is it like coming out as transgender at work? And what are the guidelines for employers in relation to transgender employees?

Claire Birkenshaw transitioned from a man to a woman while she was headteacher in a secondary school in the north of England. She recalls her life before she transitioned: "on the surface…I was quite happy, quite gregarious, but inside there was this inner turmoil about who I was, ever since childhood. It was one thing in my life that I wasn't being honest about."

Her greatest concern once she had made the decision to change her gender identity was "rejection from everybody”. “I was quite petrified because I knew that once I'd told people then there was no way to get that back; that's it. It's out for good then," she says.

As it turned out, Birkenshaw’s experience in transitioning was mainly positive, but she recognises too that others needed time to adjust. "Like anything, there are some people that take it within their stride. For some other people, it just presents more challenges,” she says. “Whilst I'm going through transition, other people have to go through that transition emotionally and psychologically as well. But the general treatment of me was with dignity and respect."

One [student] came up to me and said ‘good morning, miss’, and I just said, ‘you are the first person in history to call me miss’

Birkenshaw says she had to “dig deep” for confidence when facing her colleagues and the students, but that “the young people were really, really amazing. One came up to me and said ‘good morning, miss’, and I just said, ‘you are the first person in history to call me miss.’”

Following her transition, Birkenshaw received support from unexpected people. She fondly remembers former students who contacted her to say, “we're really, really proud of you”. Even people she had never met felt compelled to get in touch. Someone wrote into the school, saying they had read about Birkenshaw in the newspaper and just wanted to say “well done”.

Fundamentally, for Birkenshaw, her ability to do her job as headteacher was unchanged by transitioning. "The core skills you've got and how you then work with people, and your knowledge is still exactly the same,” she says.

One difference she has noticed since transitioning, however, is that she’s “slightly more emotional” than before. But as she explains, the reasons for this are complicated and multi-layered. Birkenshaw doesn’t know “whether it is now because you are… allowed to show your emotions… whether hormones have an effect”, or “whether it's just a release of suppressed emotions” after “a lifetime of suppressing your identity and then allowing your true identity to then come out”.

From Birkenshaw’s perspective, things have changed for the better in the last 15 years, given the visibility of trans people and the increased availability of information on trans issues. She also points to the impact of the internet as it allows someone who is changing their gender identity to see that “people go through transition across the globe. And that makes a huge difference, to realise that it's not just you. It's not you on your own."

So what guidance is there for employers with transgender people on their payroll? And what are the practical difficulties transgender people can face at work?

Beck Bailey of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in the US, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, reveals that there has been more progress than we might think among big US and multinational corporations in supporting transgender employees.

Bailey says the most surprising story “is that corporate America has done a lot of work to support their transgender and gender non-conforming workers.” In 2002, the HRC set up an index of policies, practices and benefits, allowing them to track progress over time. Bailey says, “When we began our survey in 2002, just 5% of companies had explicit non-discrimination protections, and today 97% of our participating companies have those protections."

So what does an inclusive human resources policy look like in the modern workplace?

The first and most fundamental thing to put in place is a non-discrimination, anti-harassment policy

“The first and most fundamental thing to put in place is a non-discrimination, anti-harassment policy.” Bailey says “from there, they want to build up things like equal benefits."

For example, a more inclusive HR policy might mean a transgender person should be able to access their ongoing hormone replacement therapy through company-provided healthcare ­– or they're not getting equal benefits with non-transgender colleagues.

There has been a significant shift in this area. Among the companies monitored in the HRC survey, in 2002, "zero companies reported fully inclusive transgender healthcare, and today we have 79%."

And there are also ways a company can support those transitioning at work, from facilitating them changing their name across the company directory, or enabling them to express their gender according to the dress code that makes sense.

For Bailey, education and training are key, as are “dialogue and conversation that opens up people to understanding transgender colleagues and even transgender customers."

What, in Bailey’s view, has driven this change? "Corporate America and multi-national employers around the world really understand that diversity and inclusion are good for business, to attract [and] retain the very best workforce," he says.

Even if they pass as a transgender person, transgender women face the same kind of sexism and misogyny that cisgender women face

One consequence of businesses being more open to diversity is a larger pool from which to recruit, but it can also reflect favourably on a company in prospective employees’ eyes. "There are people who are not members of our [transgender] community who are seeing these kinds of policies as a bellwether indicator of that company's overall commitment to being a welcoming place to work," Bailey says.

With corporate culture still predominantly male-dominated, women can find it hard to climb the ladder, but the same challenges exist for transgender people too. “There's a lot of bias around transgender people,” says Bailey. “Even if they pass as a transgender person, transgender women face the same kind of sexism and misogyny that cisgender women face."

Conversely, some transgender people who pass as male "find new access, particularly if they're white, to that male privilege that didn't have prior to transitioning."

While the prospect of transitioning in the workplace is easier and employees can expect better support than 30 or 40 years ago, undoubtedly some challenges remain.


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