Joining the boys’ club

Transgender professional shares insights into workplace gender roles
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/20/2014

When Chris Edwards started his advertising career, it was in a male-dominated department.

In his early 20s at the time, Edwards was presenting as a woman then and while ad agencies are filled with women, his creative department wasn’t, he said.

"Working in an ad agency is very different than working in a corporate (environment) or a law firm. It’s very laid back," he said. "But the creative departments in ad agencies are very male-dominated."

Edwards enjoyed the working environment there — he met a lot of other young people, socialized after work, appreciated the casual dress code. He never ran up against gender discrimination while working as a woman — but he never quite felt comfortable.

"I didn’t feel I was mistreated, I didn’t have any problems... it was more me being uncomfortable in my own skin, and sort of laying low," he said. "In meetings, I was very reserved. I’d do the work, but I wouldn’t speak up very much — and if I did, it would be to ask questions, not to really take a stand on my work. I didn’t feel confident. But that could also be because I was junior — I was just learning and just starting out, and I was more in observational mode. So there were a couple variables at play."

In 1995, Edwards prepared for his transition period and let his advertising firm know he would soon be presenting as a man.

"I didn’t just come right out in a tie… I gave people time to get used to it, and then it wasn’t until that September that I started taking hormones," he said.

As a man, Edwards started noticing differences in the way he approached his work.

"After a few months on the hormones, (I) really noticed the difference... I was more confident, I was more aggressive — not in a mean way but just in that ‘I’m going to speak up for myself and be a go-getter’ (way)," he said.

"I think it was that I finally felt comfortable. The hormones were helping me, although they did make me less patient. Before, I would maybe go gently around issues — sort of dance around things a little bit — and then I found myself just being more direct, saying what I meant."

A couple of female co-workers felt Edwards wasn’t quite as patient as he used to be, he said.

"When they’d ask me questions, they’d want to talk and I’d give them solutions — like a typical male response, instead of just listening like I used to. So that translated into my working behaviour as well. And I think what started happening is I’d speak up more in meetings, I’d say what I thought, and people were listening," he said.

"I was now two years, almost three years into the job, so I did have experience now and I was commanding more respect… I ended up getting put on new business pitches, which was an honour at the time, I was getting better assignments, I got promoted… It wasn’t necessarily my perception (that I was getting) better treatment — I just thought I was doing a good job. (But sometimes) other people made assumptions."

One of the guys

Edwards, who has an upcoming memoir about his experiences, saw his career blossom after he began working as a man — though there were a number of other factors at play such as tenure, experience and confidence.

It’s not uncommon for transgender men to begin experiencing advantages in the workplace once they complete their transition, according to Kristen Schilt, assistant professor at the University of Chicago and author of Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality, an interview-based study of the experiences of trans men in the workplace.

"One of the sort of ‘sticking points’ about research on why women continue to not do as well as men in the workplace in general... comes down to attitudes about immeasurable differences," she said. "And with transgender workers who were transitioning and staying in the same job, I realized I would really be able to look at people who have the same human capital, the same job training, the same personalities, and all they do is change gender."

Experiences differed dramatically — many trans men Schilt interviewed faced terrible discrimination in the workplace. But others — especially those who were heterosexual, educated, tall and white — began experiencing some advantages, she found.

"They reported a greater sense of authority. So people would ask them less frequently to defend their opinion. If they stated something, people would just sort of accept that — particularly men — and weren’t constantly saying, ‘Well, how do you know that?’ or ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ So greater authority, greater reward for the work that they were doing."

Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford University in California, is one example. Barres identified and published as Barbara until his mid-40s, when he transitioned. A colleague who didn’t realize that Barbara’s and Ben’s work was one and the same made a comment that Barres recounted in a 2006 paper in Nature: "Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say, ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’"

A subject in Schilt’s study recalled, "When I was a woman, no matter how many facts I had, people were like, ‘Are you sure about that?’ It’s so strange not to have to defend your positions."

Those who had worked as women in blue-collar jobs found they could do less work and get more positive feedback when working as men, said Schilt.

"Some found themselves in jobs that they felt they would not have had if they had been working as women," he said.

"Some of them would say, ‘In 1985, women weren’t really being hired in construction… And being able to work as a man, I was able to get different kinds of workplace experiences and made more money than I would have working as a woman.’"

Perception-based

But not all trans men had advantages or positive experiences once they presented as male. Access to those "male advantages" seemed to be tempered by factors such as race, height and sexual orientation, said Schilt.

"So trans men who were tall, who were white and who were heterosexual reported having more access to these kinds of benefits," she said. "Which was true for cisgender men as well, so men who are not transgender. We know it’s not just working as a man that gives you benefits — it’s a particular kind of man."

It’s important to note that other people’s perceptions and assumptions around gender roles are a significant factor, said Edwards — after his transition, he started noticing a lot more of the gender assumptions that were being made.

At one point, he received a promotion to a senior-level role, but it hadn’t been announced yet.

"I was in an interior office and there was a girl who was maybe a year or two ahead of me in experience, and there was a window office that opened up," he said. "She figured she would be next in line — but it went to me. And she started saying, ‘Oh, now he’s a guy so, of course, give the window office to the guy.’ What she didn’t know was I was promoted and they hadn’t announced it yet… and that’s why I got it.

"That’s the jump people made: ‘Oh yeah, he’s a guy so, sure, give him special treatment...’ I wasn’t seeing it, but perhaps the women working there were seeing it."

Edwards also started to become more cognizant of situations that might make female colleagues uncomfortable, he said.

"The creative departments in ad agencies tend to be boys’ clubs because it is more male-dominated… I was accepted into this club now and guys talk a certain way. And in advertising, there’s a lot of swearing, a lot of jokes that are probably inappropriate.

"So what I did notice was that I had more empathy that in a creative meeting of 10 people, there might be one woman in the room. And how does she feel if these comments or things are being said that are inappropriate? So I would notice that, I’d be more on alert."

Another thing he noticed was a tendency for women to usually be the note-takers in meetings — even women at senior levels.

Edwards never got the impression that the agency was discriminatory, he said. But if you ask women, "they might notice things differently."

Lessons for employers

So what can employers learn from the insights trans men bring around gender in the workplace?

"One is, as much as people don’t like to think of themselves as biased, (my study) really shows that people hold a lot of ideas about gender — what they expect, what kinds of jobs people are hired for, what they’re seen as good at or not good at, and that makes a big difference in a worker’s trajectory," said Schilt.

"Many of the trans men I interviewed would say because they’d had the experience of working as both women and men… they could see very clearly how men sort of passed over women who were just as qualified. And they were able to kind of call it out and say, ‘Hey, this woman’s been working here for a long time, maybe she should have this position.’ But their sense was that it wasn’t something that most cisgender men would notice on their own."

The other important point is that unfair biases are not limited to women in the workplace.

"Many transgender people also face discrimination," said Schilt.

"Getting authority and competence doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t also face forms of discrimination… many times, transgender people are working in very precarious environments. And what I found was the way (to) really make those environments better for transgender workers really does come from people in HR, and people who are managers.

"How those people handle the transition really shapes people’s experiences."