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Study: Transgender Workers Face Obstacles to Inclusion
Despite areas of progress, transgender people still face pervasive discrimination at work, study shows

By Dave Zielinski  6/29/2011
 

Transgender people have long faced significant obstacles in the workplace but a comprehensive study suggests the breadth of those challenges might be more daunting than ever, despite evidence that more companies are implementing nondiscrimination policies around gender identity and offering transgender-inclusive medical benefits.

The study, Injustice at Every Turn, was conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and included responses from 6,450 participants from the United States and its territories. Among its more sobering findings is that transgender people had double the rate of unemployment of the general population and reported high rates of workplace abuse and discrimination.

The research shows that apart from growing adoption of transgender-friendly policies and practices among some employers, transgender people still face significant challenges in the workplace that warrant the attention of human resource leaders. For example, according to the employment chapter of the study:

50 percent of respondents reported being harassed at work.

45 percent said they were repeatedly referred to by the wrong pronoun.

26 percent said they lost their job because they were transgender or gender nonconforming.

22 percent said they were denied access to the appropriate bathrooms.

20 percent said they were removed from direct contact with a company’s clients because of being transgender.

“Discrimination is unfortunately the norm for transgender job applicants and those who have jobs and transition at work,” said Lisa Mottet, co-author of the study and a transgender civil rights project director at the NGLTF. “Too often transgender people are harassed or even fired, and a large majority attempt to avoid discrimination by hiding who they are or by delaying gender transition at work.”

Gaining Employment: A Hurdle

Donna Rose, a transgender woman who consults and trains on workplace transgender issues, said despite progress in the policy and benefits arena—as well as the fact that at the time of this writing 15 states have laws protecting the employment rights of transgender citizens—the biggest obstacle remains getting hired.

“The problem for many of us is chronic unemployment, including people with a long history of successful careers who transition in midlife, but who lose jobs because they don’t work in states with nondiscrimination statutes,” Rose said. “There have been improvements in terms of trans-inclusive corporate policies and medical benefits coverage, but the reality is none of that helps until you have a job.”

The consequences of being shut out of the workplace were detailed in the study. Some 16 percent of respondents reported having to engage in the “underground economy” for financial survival, including drug sales and prostitution.

Yet apart from a need to comply with state statutes or take a human rights stance, there are compelling business reasons to create more trans-inclusive workplaces, say other transgender experts. Vanessa Sheridan, an Apple Valley, Minn.-based transgender woman who is a consultant and corporate trainer on the topic, said more accepting business environments send a strong message to co-workers and “free up the psychic baggage” so that talented transgender employees can perform better on the job.

“One thing I’ve seen happen in many organizations is people saying, ‘If this organization cares enough about my transgender co-worker to be supportive of them, then they’ll likely be supportive of me, too,’” Sheridan said. “That has benefits for overall morale and productivity.” 

Trans-Inclusive Policies and Benefits Grow

When it comes to nondiscriminatory policies, diversity training and medical benefits coverage, it’s clear that more large companies are taking notice of transgender employees—and the likelihood there will soon be more in their ranks. According to the 2011 Corporate Equality Index (CEI), an annual report that rates companies on their treatment of gay and transgender employees, 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies now include “gender identity” as a protected class in their nondiscrimination policies, and 41 percent offer at least one transgender-inclusive health-related benefit. 

“In the year 2000 there were only three Fortune 500 companies that had transgender-inclusive employee policies,” Sheridan said, citing CEI data. “Now almost half of them do, and they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t think it was good for business.”

AT&T Corp. has modified its nondiscrimination policies and diversity training courses to address transgender employees. Gary Fraundorfer, vice president of human resources, said AT&T has used input from an employee resource group (ERG) called League, which represents lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees, in making substantive policy changes for that population.

Those changes include adding a survivor annuity pension benefit, giving LGBT employees a new option to self-identify in the workplace, implementing transgender workplace guidelines and adding medical coverage for those who choose gender reassignment surgery.

“Upon review of our benefits, we found we had some labor contracts where gender reassignment surgery wasn’t offered, and we have since notified unions that we’ll be covering that surgery,” Fraundorfer said. “I’m not sure we would have been aware of the need for some of these changes unless League had brought them to our attention.”

AT&T indicated that it’s important that nondiscriminatory policies go beyond mere words and are backed up by enforcement. Those experiencing or witnessing harassment or violations of EEO policy are encouraged to call a hotline managed by a third-party vendor. “The ERG holds us to this—we investigate every single call to that hotline,” Fraundorfer said.

In addition, the company introduced diversity training called “Subtle Bias” to address more insidious forms of harassment, said Belinda Grant-Anderson, vice president of workforce development and diversity. “What we’ve found is that many times it isn’t overt discrimination or behavior that is experienced by transgender people; it is more subtle things that people do to cause others to feel uncomfortable,” she said.

Financial services company Ameriprise is another company that’s felt compelled to implement nondiscrimination policies that address gender identity as well as expand medical benefits to include gender reassignment surgery, said Laurie Trousil, manager of diversity and inclusion. 

The company’s “SafePlace” diversity training, developed by an ERG called the Pride Network, strives to help employees walk in the shoes of LGBT employees. “It is in-depth training that includes everything from definitions, to telling stories of how people came out, to what it’s like to be transgender in the workplace,” Trousil said.

Hope Despite the Hurdles

Despite the considerable challenges detailed in the Injustice at Every Turn study, it’s clear that a growing number of organizations and diversity leaders are seeing the business benefits of modifying policies, upgrading training and expanding benefits to address transgender employees. 

Sheridan believes the next frontier requires that companies go beyond written policies to take steps to ensure their hallways and cubicles are more accepting and tolerant places.

“It’s about behavior and not beliefs,” Sheridan said. “It has to be about creating a climate where others are treated with respect and professionalism, regardless of what you might believe about their personal status. Disrespect and animosity based on someone’s gender identity is simply counterproductive to productivity and profitability in the workplace, and I think more organizations are recognizing that.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis, Minn.

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