I couldn’t help but stare, mouth agape, while my brain processed the words I’d just heard from a higher-up in my company. “That was before, things have changed now,” the vice president of the company had said in a meeting to discuss my employment performance.
“Your old boss cut you a break because he felt bad that you were a nice guy going through a divorce, but the free pass is over.”
I had asked why I had been written up three times in three months despite the fact that I had never had a written warning before I transitioned and my current boss agreed that my work performance had improved with my transition. I couldn’t help but feel as if it was impossible to meet shifting expectations, a work dynamic that far too many trans women experience when we transition.
Trans women, in particular, are in a unique position to see exactly how sexist dynamics in the workplace tend to play out. Cis women have long spoken of the fact they had to be twice as effective as their male counterparts to get recognition for their work, and I was aware of this fact before my own transition.
But experiencing it for myself is a completely different proposition altogether. Many trans women have trouble making the immediate adjustment needed to respond to how their gender, and subsequently, their capabilities as employees are perceived.
It’s a critical balance to get correct when trans women are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population because of transphobia in hiring processes.
Karen, a 40-year-old trans woman from Wales who transitioned on the job 3 years ago, notes in an interview that before transitioning she was “good enough” but not a top performer at her job. Though Karen notes that her transition went really smoothly, recently feels as if she’s being edged out.
“It’s tough because for the most part my transition’s been managed pretty well, that first year there was lots of understanding when I was in the teenagery throes of second puberty, but now that things have settled a bit I’m finding that doing the job in the way I always did before isn’t enough anymore.”
Intuitively, this is workplace sexism in action. As trans women move further and further into their own transitions and coworkers and supervisors get used to the new female appearance, the same old sexist assumptions and attitudes slowly set in.
“It’s been made clear that supporting my transition was being seen as an investment with a specific expected return. I’ve literally been told ‘We’ve supported you and now expect to start seeing something back,’” Karen said, noting that she narrowly survived her last evaluation despite no drop in performance.
As a result of her performance review, Karen missed out on a Christmas bonus for the first time in her career with her employer. Trans women have to face an additional factor when their job is customer facing. That is what happened with Millie from Ottawa in her job as an over-the-phone collections agent.
She describes herself as quiet and soft-spoken and took a customer-centered approach to collections by finding ways to work with debtors to find reasonable repayment plans. These traits translated very well to her job before she transitioned and she always exceeded her performance standards.
After she transitioned, Millie says that her performance stats went down because it was taking her longer to work through her scripts.“I was constantly being interrupted and talked over by the debtors. I also experienced more hang-ups, more appeals to speak to a manager, much more profanity, and overall secured fewer payment arrangements.”
Whether or not those calls were due to sexism or transphobia is hard to say. It’s a mistake to think that trans women who don’t pass, either over the phone or in person, have male privilege in the workplace.
Culturally, people perceived as assigned male at birth (AMAB) who present as female are the butt of constant ridicule. It stems from misogynist notions that women and femininity are inherently inferior, thus making AMAB people who present that way “delusional” or a joke to be mocked. This social dynamic carries over into the workplace as well.
Employers need to be aware of how sexism works when it comes from supervisors, co-workers, and customers alike. Trans women who were perceived as assertive before transitioning often get saddled with the label “bitchy” or accused of being too pushy after their transition.
In Millie’s instance, her bosses failed to take into account how sexism would be introduced into her everyday interactions with debtors. “My work reviews went from ‘excellent customer service’ to ‘communication skills need work’, being told I was too passive, too forgiving, giving too much leeway. I hadn’t changed a damn thing about my work performance, mind you.”
As a result, Millie’s hours were cut and she eventually found herself without a job and deep into debt, a situation which significantly delayed her transition. This is an all-too-common experience for trans women who transition on the job—all because their workplaces failed to account how systemic sexism affects employees.
As trans acceptance furthers in our society, workplace transitions will become more and more commonplace.
It’s not enough for employers to process smooth transitions for their employees, they must adjust their employee evaluation systems to account for systemic sexism or risk losing their trans employees in the long run.
Katelyn Burns is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. Katelyn is a freelance journalist and trans woman. She has previous bylines for The Washington Post, The Establishment, and VICE, among others. She lives in Maine with her two young children. Read her other articles here.