Workplace and University: The Transgender Experience

What is it like being a transgender person in the labour market and in academia nowadays? How do people perceive transgender people? Are they discriminated or are they accepted and supported by the people who surround them?

Trans people can face stigma and hostility at their workplace. Indeed, people have certain expectations of what men and women should look like and behave which makes them acceptable to them. Since gender norms are deeply rooted in our tradition and culture, it is extremely difficult to change them.

This is why some transgender people may behave in such a way as to avoid mistreatment by adopting certain solutions: sometimes, they hide their gender identity, delay their transition, avoid insisting on people using their correct pronouns when addressing them, or simply quit their jobs.

According to Harvard Business Review, 67% of the people interviewed in a transgender survey, reported negative work experiences, and nearly a quarter of them faced mistreatment based on their gender identity. For example, in order to keep their job, some of them were compelled to introduce themselves as belonging to the sex assigned them at birth. In one of Harvard’s investigations, 47% of the participants experienced discriminatory behaviour on a daily basis at work.
Naturally, this stigma and discrimination create serious damage to transgender people, and they can also lead to higher rates of absenteeism and undermine motivation both at work and in private life. Trans people can feel hopeless and isolated which may lead them to face serious mental health issues.

Situations vary depending on countries, cultures and different industries. Indeed, some workplaces provide free and safe environments for people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, some individuals are luckier than others because they may receive support and help from their family and friends.

Indeed, during the process of gender transitioning individuals are at their most fragile. Trans people deserve the support of their community, their friends and colleagues when facing it. They may need financial help with healthcare costs, but also moral support. When they feel ready, they can confide with other people, allowing them to ask questions.

Furthermore, some companies have adopted trans-inclusive policies. Some basic measures that can improve transgender people’s experience in the workplace, for example, are the institution of gender-neutral bathrooms, gender-neutral dress codes, and courses to educate workers about gender identity. Moreover, another way to show respect to trans, gender-fluid, and non-binary employees is to use their correct names and pronouns when addressing them. Misgendering is common and may often be unintentional. However, an effort should be made to use the correct names and pronouns because it shows a person that they are cared for and valued.

Managers and leaders contribute the most to the creation of a safe environment for each employee. This is why it is important for them not to refuse trans people’s applications on the basis of their gender identity and help the team to accept diversity at work.

Daniela Noel, a 33-year-old transgender rights activist based in Genoa, tells us more about the challenges faced by transgender people both at work and in academia. Indeed, she is a transgender woman who works as a freelance graphic designer and is also studying for a Master in Design at Genoa University.

Would you say that your gender identity has precluded you from obtaining some work opportunities? Do you think that there’s still this kind of discrimination in job employment?

Yes. This summer after the first quarantine, I was looking for a job. Basically, I sent the first fifty CVs saying that I was transgender. I also said that I was willing to supply medical documents in case they needed them. I wanted to be transparent and honest. Then, after having sent these CVs, I started to think that maybe it was better if I didn’t say that. I sent more CVs without mentioning that I was transgender, and I began to receive replies, both positive and negative. I had two job interviews. The first one was for a job as a sales assistant. I am a graphic designer but, at that time I was unable to find a job in my field. I tried to find something else and that is why I applied for a sales assistant. However, this is a job based on appearance, and not a back-office job. I don’t want to judge anyone but I think the employer didn’t choose me because I’m a transgender person. The interviewer was really friendly but, in the end, she didn’t even allow me to have a second interview with the boss of the business. I have a degree and I can speak three languages (Italian, English and Spanish). Also, I’ve had many job experiences around the world, so normally people call me when I apply for a job. This last interview was during the COVID crisis so I can’t say that it was entirely because of my gender identity that I didn’t get the job.

I think there still is this kind of discrimination. I cannot talk from my own experience but, for sure, I know of some friends of mine who experienced it.

Recently, I made a live for Genova Liguria Pride’s YouTube Channel and we talked about this situation. There is for sure a lot of this type of discrimination at work, especially if you do not have a good cis passing (when a transgender person is perceived as cisgender instead of the sex they were assigned at birth).

Do you think your university colleagues sometimes treat you differently than cisgender people?

I started uni only two months ago and, since then, I have found that everyone respects me. Because I have a good cis passing, some of my colleagues didn’t realise that I was a transgender woman also because during lessons I speak in a higher pitched voice. I fake it because I don’t want them to realise I’m transgender. For example, one of my colleagues texted me on Instagram to ask me something about my job. I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t realise that this girl who texted me was a colleague from university. When I realised that, I was glad to see that she was friendly and behaved naturally around me. She knew I was a transgender woman because on Instagram I do activism as a transgender girl. Also, some of my professors from my bachelor degree follow me on social media, and they are proud and happy about me. None of them said anything about it and none of them treated me differently. All of them were very supportive and respectful. I think that they believe in me and they are helping me to pursue my career. I think that when you are in a high-level education environment like universities and academies it is different. I don’t want to judge others and say that people in universities are more open and less ignorant than others. However, people that study are, normally, not always, more open to accepting diversity and embracing something that they don’t know.

Have you felt the support of your friends and family in your career and in your studies? If not, do you think that your path could have been more enjoyable if they had supported you?

Of course. My situation is particular because I have started university again now at the age of thirty-three because I would like to become a university professor. I talked to my family about it and they were supportive. In the beginning, they thought that I was too old and that I should have been independent. However, their concerns had nothing to do with my transition. After discussing it, they accepted. In November, I also found a part-time job in my field as a graphic designer. Since September, I have been living with my parents because of COVID and also because of my transition. Because I was struggling to find a job, they supported me. As I said, there is nothing negative about my university journey related to my transition and I received support from my friends and family. Some of my friends originally struggled with my situation but they have come to terms with it now. I had to “remove” two of my friends from my life because they were transphobic. They were attempting to cis-normalise me, so I had to end my friendships with them.

What could be improved, both in your workplace and at your university, in order to make you feel included? 

I am really lucky because my workplace is an online communication and influencer agency where I work as a freelance graphic designer. One of the influencers that my agency works with is a transgender boy. My agency employs young people (I think I am the oldest). They employed me knowing that I was transgender. They hired me because I am good at my job, despite the fact that I am transgender. There is nothing that I would do to improve my workplace because I feel blessed that I found the right place for me.

Italian universities give you the possibility to have your chosen name, even before the official change of your legal documents, on your badge and online. This opportunity is called “Alias Career”. That is really good, but they should be a bit faster in this procedure. That is the only thing that I would improve. Maybe I would also do some training, both at university and in the workplace, about gender expression and explaining identity and gender diversity. I would also include one tied to understanding differences based on race.

What advice would you give to transgender people on how to face discrimination in the workplace and in academia?

I don’t really know. I am living my situation day by day. For sure, I would tell them to be patient. This is what I am struggling with the most. I developed patience thanks to my activism because I have to deal with a lot of people who are ignorant about it, not in a negative way but in the sense that they want to learn more and improve themselves. Being patient is important especially for transgender binary people because it is both a medical and legal journey. That can be tough. Transgender non-binary people don’t feel the same dysphoria as we do. Unlike us, they don’t necessarily change their bodies and their documents. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. The only advice I can give is to be patient, especially in the workplace, while in academia I think there are more people who feel ready to accept you.

And what advice would you give to cisgender people on how to treat transgender people with respect for their identity? 

Ask. It’s the only thing that I can say to them. The problem that I have with people is that they don’t ask and they pretend to know something they don’t experience in their life. Often, they know nothing. It is arrogant to think that we already know everything about someone we don’t know. I experienced the same when I was volunteering in Asia. I had to ask to learn about the culture of the place. When I was working in London, I had to ask many questions because I wasn’t used to working and living abroad. Sometimes, you just need to ask. Ask and you’ll get the answers you need. Also, you have to respect the answers. When you receive a reply with which you aren’t comfortable, you can’t reject it. You have to ask and accept things that maybe you can’t understand, because you don’t feel their struggle. You shouldn’t judge others and think that your truth is the only truth.

Daniela’s story and experience show that things are slowly improving for transgender people, both binary and non-binary. Although the challenges they still have to face are many and tough, our generation and future ones need to continue to work for equality. Mistreatment and discrimination are still too common in our society, but stories like Daniela’s let us understand that people are capable of breaking down barriers and accepting differences. After all, how can differences between us be perceived as negative? Our paths towards self-knowledge are different, but each of them must be valued. It is what makes us unique, and, fortunately, it appears people are beginning to understand it.

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