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Breaking down barriers for women in the workplace

Oct 12 2011

"With economic models straining in every corner of the world, none of us can afford to perpetuate the barriers facing women in the workforce," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the recent APEC Women's Summit in San Francisco.

According to researcher Kristen Schilt, men might have the most to say about those barriers -- in particular, the men who know how women are treated in the workplace from first-hand experience.

Schilt's research explores the world of work as seen through the experiences of transgender men.  Take Thomas, for example.  When Thomas replaced Susan at work, a man working at an associated company told Thomas's boss that it was a good move to fire Susan, due to her incompetence, but that the "new guy" (Thomas) was great.  What the work associate did not realize was that Susan had transitioned to become Thomas at work.

In other words, Susan and the "new guy" were one and the same person with the same skills and abilities.

Speaking to a Stanford audience, Schilt explained that transgender men, or trans men, can expose how gender is "done" in the workplace.  They possess a unique perspective because they have worked as both women and men, sometimes in the same work environment.  This "outsider-within" perspective provides new insights into the persistence of workplace gender inequality.  Specifically the trans man story reveals that the experiences of women and men in the US workforce are not only different, but also hierarchical.  As Schilt describes it, many trans men "negotiate being treated as not just different from women but better than women" at work.

In meticulous in-depth interviews with both transgender employees and their coworkers, Schilt demonstrates how everyday interactions -- whether at the office or on the factory floor -- can unwittingly reproduce gender inequality.

The benefits of being a man at work

Schilt reveals that in the world of work being a man has its own rewards.  Transgender men, or individuals who physically change their appearances and bodies (often using hormones and/or surgeries) to make their male gender identity visible to others, report receiving workplace rewards that they did not get when they worked as women.

Many of the 54 transgender men interviewed by Schilt were surprised by the workplace benefits bestowed upon them as male workers. One trans man was flabbergasted when coworkers snubbed a woman expert, but carefully listened to his comments -- despite the fact that he had "no specialization" in the area under discussion. Another transgender man recalled a meeting where "a woman would make a comment or an observation and be overlooked," but when he spoke up to validate his coworker's idea, he got the credit for making "an excellent point." When in staff meetings or in coversations with coworkers, everyday workplace interactions reaffirmed hierarchical notions of gender.  As one transgender man explained, "I'm right a lot more now."

Two-thirds of the transgender men in Schilt's study experienced workplace rewards in a newfound authority and competnece.  Such rewards created new opportunities and economic gains.  Some trans men were placed on the fast-track for promotions and raises.  When one transgender man earned a promotion within the first few months after his hire, he learned first-hand that "it's the guys that rise through the ranks, and they rise quickly."

The benefits of being a man at work held fast for both professional and blue collar occupations. A transgender man working in a blue collar job noted how his job performance ratings skyrocketed after his transition.  He found the positive evaluations surprising because he was "not doing anything different" at work and, in fact, he "even went part time" prior to the performance reviews.

When job segregation is not "naturally" male or female

Job segregation by gender -- or the assumption that some jobs are better suited for men, while others, for women -- also created new opportunities for transgender men.  One trans man earned a promotion to floor shift manager, a position typically reserved for men, after two months on the job.  He explained that, as a female, he "would have been on the floor [with customers] doing merchandise stuff" rather that working as a manager. Importantly, the floor shift manager position brought rewards far beyond this immediate promotion. Floor shift managers typically have a long-term promotion track, while merchandise jobs are hourly positions without clear opportunities for promotion.

These experiences reveal that employers' assumptions about who can best do a job -- by placing a premium on physical or social attributes -- could be reexamined in light of the trans men's transition.  Having succeeded in both "female" and "male" jobs, trans man bring into question the way we think about who is the best fit for an assignment.

What personal acceptance tells us about structural change

Schilt's study on how gender is "done" in the workplace offers useful insights into how gender inequality might be challenged at work.

Transgender workers' outsider-within perspective illuminates not only the "cultural workings of gender difference but also the social maintenance of gender inequality." In other words, how assumptions of natural gender differences -- or expectations that attach disparate abilities to men and women and attribute them to nature -- perpetuate workplace gender inequality.  The trans men interviewed by Schilt agreed that their unanticipated workplace rewards -- such as more authority and respect -- were "an artibitrary result of looking male."

Changing negative perceptions of gender difference is difficult, even when transgender employees find personal acceptance -- or become "just one of the guys" -- at work. (Recall Thomas' work experiences: as Susan, he was seen as less competent, but as the "new guy," he was great.) In fact, Schilt argues that the acceptance of individual transgender workers can minimize structural changes to gender inequality.  Moreover, it can leave racial hierarchies intact. In general, white and tall trans men -- who best fit the physical description of an ideal male worker -- fare much better at work than transgender men who are short, gender-ambiguous, or from underrepresented racial minority groups.

Is it then true that "the more things change, the more things stay the same?"

The experiences of many transgender employees and their coworkers suggest that "the more things appear to stay the same, the more they actually change." As Schilt points out, "workplaces that support an open gender transition are never the same, even when they appear to be engaging in business as usual." Workplace support for transgender workers sends an important signal to all employees by marking the beginning of a shift in how companies, and their employees, understand natural gender differences.  Schilt's study suggests that the ability to "undo" gender at work -- or redraw gender boundaries to include transgender employees -- can, over time, create a more expansive definition of gender.  When companies and coworkers create workplaces that reconsider the often unexamined assumptions about gender, we begin to erode workplace gender inequality more broadly.


A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.