I was twenty-three when I nervously walked into my Manager’s office to tell him that I was going to commence the process of transition from female to male. Having a conversation for the purposes of disclosing deeply personal information to a supervisor is always going to be an anxiety inducing process – however 12 years ago, with the law affording me no discrimination protection, and no policy in existence at my place of employment regarding transgender employees, my anxiety was considerably heightened. What I was about to say could cost me job. Even if it didn’t cost me job, it could potentially be the start of a really difficult period of work, having to grapple with non-acceptance, intolerance, judgement or discrimination.
Fortunately, as described in my recent interview on the Diversity Council Australia’s Art of Inclusion podcast, that meeting went well and so did the subsequent experience of transitioning at work. It wasn’t that my Manager had a policy or procedure to follow, or even that he had had experience supporting a person transitioning in the workplace before – he was simply a good human, and good manager – one who was prepared to admit what he didn’t know, listen to and work closely with me, and ensure that I was safe and supported at work as I transitioned.
In the more than ten years since I transitioned at work, much has changed, and unfortunately, much has stayed the same.
The challenges transgender people face
When I commenced the process of transition, no one had heard of now-household names like Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner. They just didn’t exist as people yet. Overall community awareness and understanding of the existence of transgender and diverse people, and what our needs and experiences are, was extremely low. This lack of knowledge and visibility was reflected right across all areas of law, policy and practice. In Australia at both the Federal and many State and Territory levels, there was no legal protection against discrimination for transgender people. Correcting legal documents – such as birth certificates and passports – to reflect a person’s correct sex was extremely difficult, if not impossible, and in many places remains so to this day. And few workplaces had supportive, or indeed any, policies or processes in place to support an employee undergoing the process of transition, or who may identify outside of the binary of male and female.
Faced with this, many people who transitioned saw no other option than to simply quit their jobs, transition, and then seek new employment as their true self once that process was complete. This could be hugely disruptive and difficult. Transition is not always an easy process, and nor is it inexpensive. With the loss of income, routine, self-confidence and social connection that work brings for many of us, the process of transition can become much harder. Seeking to return to employment later, without being able to reference one’s previous work history and experience without “outing” oneself, could be extremely challenging, if not impossible. Too many transgender people ended up unemployed, or working in roles that did not reflect their skills and experience – a situation that unfortunately, persists for too many today.
Leaving aside for one moment the often devastating effects this can have on an individual, at about the same time that I started transitioning, some of the biggest companies in America and across the globe also began to recognise that there were corporate consequences that came from a failure to support transgender employees in the workplace.
Many of these consequences were related to risk. A series of high profile law suits in the late 90s in America had begun to indicate to the corporate sector that discrimination was no longer viewed as acceptable, and hefty financial and reputational penalties could arise from a failure to support and treat fairly transgender employees. Many Fortune 500 companies – particularly those in the tech sector – also began to realise that they were losing highly skilled, highly experienced talent not only from their own organisations, but their sector more broadly, as transgender people left their work so that they could transition, and often did not return.
What has been done so far to help transgender people?
The corporate sector acted. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index whilst only 3% of Fortune 500 companies had instituted a gender identity non-discrimination policy in 2002, that number rapidly grew to 66% by 2015, and now sits at 83% in 2018. Whilst many governments in advanced economies dragged (and still drag) their feet on protecting and supporting transgender and gender diverse people, many corporations – led by early-movers including AT&T, Apple, Cisco, Ernst & Young, Coca-Cola and Chevron – have forged ahead, filling the gap by providing nondiscrimination protections, transition guidelines and, in some cases, healthcare benefits to their transgender employees.
This proactive and supportive response from employers has delivered considerable benefits, far beyond simply the amelioration of potential risk. Over and over again workplace surveys have found that employees at all levels are both attracted to joining, and motivated to stay with, organisations that demonstrate themselves to be proactively inclusive and embracing of diversity. A 2017 study by accounting firm Deloitte found that 72% of its 1300 American study participants would consider leaving their current employer for one that was more inclusive, with nearly a quarter of respondents having actually done so. Likewise, DCA’s own research here in Australia – the [email protected] Index – found that 75% of Australians support, or strongly support their organisation taking action to create a workplace which is diverse and inclusive, and that inclusive, diverse workplaces correlated with significantly higher job satisfaction, and employee retention, as well as reduced incidents of harassment and discrimination.
For those who are the direct beneficiaries of workplace non-discrimination and inclusion policies, the benefits are clear in their greater performance, productivity, innovation and job satisfaction. For transgender and gender diverse people in particular, the experience of being accepted, supported and included in the workplace could conceivably drive benefits far beyond the workplace – contributing to a person’s sense of social acceptance and belonging, which is critical for reducing the risks of depression, anxiety and suicide which can often be the outcome for individuals exposed to ongoing discrimination and exclusion.
Given the clear benefits to both employers and employees – both transgender and non-transgender alike – of proactive workplace approaches to supporting transgender and gender diverse workers, it would be reasonable to therefore expect that the situation within Australian workplaces would look very different to how it did when I walked into my Manager’s office over a decade. In reality, assessment of the current status of Australian workplaces is mixed.
In 2015, findings from Pride in Diversity’s Australian Workplace Equality Index revealed that approximately three quarters of the gender diverse employees surveyed felt that their organisation was fully supportive of gender diverse employees and more than four-fifths of respondents also had confidence that their current manager would address transphobic behavior. However the same survey also found that 40% of respondents were unaware of whether their organisation had inclusive policies specifically in relation to transgender people, and 12% of respondents had actively considered leaving their current place of work due to the way they had been treated in the past year.
Likewise, for the most part Australian law at the State and Territory level has been reformed to prohibit harassment and discrimination on the basis of a person’s gender identity or expression. One of the exceptions to this positive story is, sadly, my home state of Western Australia where the Equal Opportunity Act’s extremely outdated language of “gender history” means that people in the process of transitioning, or who are gender diverse receive no discrimination protection under the law. And in spite of legal changes, the lived reality for many transgender and gender diverse Australians is that they continue to experience discrimination and harassment, including in the workplace. Whilst there are few empirical studies related to transgender and gender diverse people and employment in Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission found in 2008 that transgender and gender diverse people had an unemployment rate that was more than double the rate of the national average at the time, and anecdotal reports are abundant regarding the challenges that transgender and gender diverse people continue face in the workplace. There is clearly more work to do.
The starting place is with awareness, knowledge and understanding
As stated at the outset, when I first transitioned it was in a world that hadn’t yet heard of Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner. Whilst it’s now been almost fifty years since the Stonewall riots first exploded the demand for gay and lesbian rights into public view, and gay and lesbian people have becoming increasingly visible in the media, arts, and even in politics, it’s considerably more difficult to find positive – if any – representations of transgender and gender diverse people across any of these same spaces, leaving aside the two (just two!) notable exceptions referenced already in this article. There has never been an out transgender or gender diverse person elected to an Australian Parliament, and out transgender people are few and far between in positions of power in any sphere.
There are good reasons for this lack of visibility – the general level of ignorance, and therefore prejudice amongst Australian society about transgender and gender diverse people remains high – recent attacks on the Safe Schools program and some of the arguments made during the Australian Marriage Postal Survey period give vivid and horrible example of this. To be out as a transgender or gender diverse person puts you in the firing line – of community opinion and commentary, and potentially out of your job. And there is no possibility of “going back in” once a person has come out as transgender – sexual attraction may arguably change, but it’s impossible to retract disclosing that you are, or were transgender. As a consequence many transgender people elect for very understandable and important reasons not to be out, and many gender diverse people modify their ways of presenting and talking about themselves when in the workplace and other public settings.
Early in my transition 12 years ago, I ended up on the front page of our State newspaper – my partner at the time was a politician, and so there was no hiding the obvious changes in her partner (me) and it came with considerable media and public interest. It was daunting to be so publicly visible whilst I was still on my own journey of coming into and working out myself. Visibility came with a reasonable side serve of public vitriol at times, and I have had to make my peace with the fact that for the rest of my life, anyone who ever Googles me – perhaps if they’re doing their background research before offering me a job – will quickly, and without my having any agency or involvement in the matter – know that I am a transman. But that visibility has also resulted in parents of young trans people approaching me to say that they felt more optimistic about the future for their young person, after being able to see that I was thriving. Likewise, my visibility has created opportunities for advocacy, conversations, presentations, training and workshops – including with employers – that have helped to increase knowledge, and drive tangible change in law, policy and practice that has benefitted transgender and gender diverse Australians. Slowly, the numbers of transgender and gender diverse people who are out, visible and doing this type of work are increasing – and in my adopted home State of Victoria the work of TransGender Victoria , the Zoe Belle Gender Collective and consultant Jeremy Wiggins are particularly stand out when it comes to working with employers to effect change.
As well, organisations such as DCA and Pride in Diversity are actively working with employers to create more inclusive workplaces for transgender and gender diverse people, whilst some governments – the current Victorian State Government in particular – have been working to ensure that government workplaces are also safe, supportive and inclusive.
If you are a transgender or gender diverse person reading this article, take heart knowing that the world we live and work in is slowly becoming a more accepting and inclusive place and that if you wish to do so, it is possible to both an authentic, and successful life.
If you’re not a transgender or gender diverse person, then you have work to do. If you don’t know much about the issues, get educated. Get educated and then help educate your peers. Advocate for change in your workplaces and, if you’re a leader, then understand that you have a professional and ethical responsibility to model inclusive practice and drive change. There are no down-sides to inclusive, supportive workplaces. They’re good for individuals – be they clients, employees, management or shareholders – and they’re good for business. But they don’t happen by accident either, and it is down to each and every one of us to play our part in creating them.
Aram Hosie is a transgender rights advocate, executive, and the former partner of Australian Senator Louise Pratt