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Workplace sexism, a trans view

  • Posted on July 31, 2014 at 12:50 pm

I really do hesitate to write this at all. Not because workplace sexism isn’t important, but because so much has already been said. Today I was prompted by a Guardian article: ‘10 sexist scenarios women face at work – and men don’t’ to pass comment that in just two years at work as a woman I too have felt workplace sexism. But more: that having been taken for a man at work for so many years, I also know how men are ‘when no woman is present’. When I’ve shared this observation with other transitioned working women, they’ve smiled, understanding what I mean. We see things that men don’t notice in each other’s behaviours, and we see differently from women who have never had this perspective.

This came up following a recent failed job interview (I don’t say unfair of itself), so let’s start back there. But first …

Privilege and workplace sexism

I want first to clear this little hurdle of privilege. I get challenged, as do most women with a trans history, by the statement, even the accusation, that because we were brought up as boys, with the assumptions of a dominant, manly future, we have the privileged status of never having been the underdogs, and have been handed on a plate certain advantages, de facto, by virtue of maleness. Never were we offered a reduced career choice, assumed to be just future mums and home-makers. Never did we get offered the same job on a lower scale for being female, or be passed over for promotion because we were of child-bearing age. Never were we the pretty things there primarily for the benefit of men. We were assumed to be the future captains of industry, the careerists, breadwinners, leaders, never discriminated against as women always have been.

Of course this is how men have been privileged. But to take any advantage, you do have to play the game. I’m sure I did gain some advantage, though many of my female fellow university graduates have done far better in their careers than I have. Maybe it’s because they never felt they didn’t belong. Maybe they were stronger than I at challenging the sexist game. I never found a comfortable way of living up to male employment expectations. Much of my privilege was empty, a tool I didn’t even now how to use. Lesbian friends speak of the additional stigma of growing up and coming out, as if I had no problems growing up ‘to be a boy’ who wasn’t also stigmatised or bullied for being different, for wanting to be different, or for not conforming to stereotype.

Sometimes women with trans histories get slaughtered twice: for not being a proper man, and for not being a proper woman. There’s little worse than being designated not real on all bases.

So don’t lay on the cis white male privilege too thick, because it’s a meme that’s easily trotted out to keep ‘us’ out of ‘your’ spaces (whoever you are), as if we are imposters or invaders.

The failed job interview feedback

So I applied for a job; a promotion to a post I really felt I could do. Let me be clear, I am not contesting anything that took place here. What I did after being told I had been unsuccessful, however, was to ask to check back: my reason was that I was aware that my career drives and ambitions may have changed. My style may have too. I had presented a 30-year career that suited me very closely with the job. But it was the CV of a male who had always been in management work, presented by a woman who had not been observed in management at all. Further, I had presented after two years of transition in this workplace, the first of which had been quietly difficult (for personal reasons, and as I shall describe below), and this may have given a less flattering impression of my real capabilities.

The main reason I failed the interview, I was told, was my lack of ‘soft skills’. As a male manager these had never been challenged in my 30 years of work. If anything I was too soft, not assertive enough. Interesting. I felt this job needed a bit of a kick, because time is of the essence and things, I felt, were a touch too laid back. Colleagues have subsequently agreed. I did wonder whether, not consciously, the same interview by me as a man would have elicited the same response as by a woman about to undergo surgery. I don’t know, my interviewers would never consciously have felt this, and I am not contesting their opinion, though I did say I felt it unfair.

Here is a very interesting piece of research on how men and women fare: The one word men never see in their performance review. Are you ‘abrasive’ because you are a woman?

But I did discuss how I had felt as a woman at work. Their response (both women) was to ensure I had not felt discrimination or prejudice (mainly as trans, I would imagine). That has not been a problem, but I did point out that as a woman, I had felt sexist diminishment in this workplace. For them, that’s just regrettable but normal. You acknowledge it, put up with it, and leave it, unless it is beyond a certain undefined boundary. No, it isn’t stark, it’s just things like:

  • giving the best answer to a problem straight away, and it’s ignored – until a man gives a similar answer and gets instant recognition
  • providing a solution and just being looked through like you’re not there
  • always being last to be greeted
  • bemusement that you should actually know about something technical, as a woman
  • simply not being asked because you couldn’t possibly have a valid opinion, or be able to carry something forward, even your own ideas
  • being accepted as being able to do a task, but not a project, because that requires a man.

That may sound as if I’ve had a bad experience of sexual discrimination, but I haven’t really. Just a few memorable instances where the assumption has been absolutely clear: women don’t know these things, I’ll ask someone else. To cap this one, the appointment was made. I presented my big project (which I proposed, initiated, designed, developed, built, populated, rolled out, and trained) to our top people, and to the new person. It’s ground breaking, transforming the way some people work, and with potential to make a big difference, and I presented its progress, impact and potential. Fantastic! And the chairman turned round to my new colleague and said: ‘Well, that’s why we brought you in. To really take this forward!’

I quietly seethed.

So what has changed? My not being a man? Or being transsexual, or simply being a woman? [I want to write about this difference issue very soon, so watch out for more in-depth stuff.] I do know that I would not have been treated as above had I not transitioned, because I never was in the previous 30 years of employment! I do not think that I am discriminated against for being transsexual as such, but there are a few observations.

And how about this for further observations about the trans perspective (MtoF and FtoM): Why Aren’t Women Advancing At Work? Ask a Transgender Person? Please ignore the blatantly transphobic comments at the end.


There were times, working as the only woman in an otherwise male office, when I distinctly felt regarded as not quite a woman, or rather, when the humour was testosterone-edged and sexist, as an honorary man. I am quite certain that, although unspoken, ‘she’ll understand, she used to be a man’ made some things acceptable, whereas had I ‘just been a woman’ they would not. I loudly and clearly objected to a conversation about a female colleague one day, because it had gone way beyond the acceptable. It was rude, abusive, sexist and personal, and I challenged it head on. The conversation would never have happened in earshot of any other woman than me.

What this leads me on to is the observation that transsexual people see both sides in a way single-binary/cis people do not. Every woman knows male belittling, and that ‘it goes with the territory. Every man knows this goes on to some degree, and that very few men ever challenge it, partly because if you stay away from the edge you won’t fall off. So we all see it; we read about it being sexist, and that we need to improve. But how many people really do see both (a) women interacting when no man is present, and (b) men interacting when no woman is present? Only a trans person.

It is illuminating. There is always a sense in which a trans person is not regarded as ‘really’ anything, where (post-transition) female cliques remain excluding and (pre-transition) male cabals have not included the atypical male, but you do get to know a lot more about what women think about men but would never tell them, and vice versa. There is, between them, a layer of accommodation: ‘let’s face it, men/women are just like that’. And whether it’s about Mars or Venus, rigid or flexible, it isn’t simply an acknowledgement that men and woman are different, but an acceptance that the way they treat each other isn’t going to change.

This is where we could launch firmly into feminist territory, but the truth is that few women at work directly challenge male attitudes. I might say (have said): ‘I feel I do know enough about this to fulfil that task’ to counter the suggestion that it needs a man. But would I directly say: ‘I feel you are assuming I can’t do this because I’m a woman’? Not likely, because the man would most probably get defensive, deny it and still refuse me the opportunity, whereas to just assert that ‘I can’ offers a let-out. I think an awful lot remains unspoken in the workplace about ongoing assumed male supremacy.

I do accept (hence my request for interview feedback) that male and female approaches to getting things done are different. We do work in different ways, have different styles, work with teams differently, have different degrees of self-assuredness. I also accept that my personal style is a blended one. I am very intuitive, highly illustrative in my leadership, quite assertive when I know the right answer to a problem, I can be quite direct, but I prefer to share the load and work with a team. That’s probably a male/female blend that’s both innate and socialised, and from both sides of transition.

But the bottom line for me, is that this is an accepted state of dis-honouring women. We call it mild, We live with it. It isn’t like it used to be. Thank god the groping years are over.

Gender roots

Skating over the feminist/equality issues, there is the fundamental reality that society has been built, constructed, developed and maintained to a male paradigm. The commercial world often seems to work best when run on male attributes. Build a diesel engine, and you have to run it on diesel. If I’m offering a can of petrol, I’m implying that you need to change the engine. You own the engine? You say it works well, why change it? I turn and walk away with my fuel. The one who turns up next with the appropriate fuel gets the ride. And with everyone standing round looking after a diesel engine that ensures a regular supply of diesel-oriented goods, things aren’t about to change.

I’m just not sure I can go on bringing diesel to the workplace. Maybe I do have a blend, which works, but not optimally. But my fuel has as much energy as yours, it’s just that I don’t feel really enabled to use it to its best advantage right now.

I work in a place where the ‘brains’ are all men, and the paperwork is largely dealt with my women. Men mostly do the making, women mostly do the admin. Not all workplaces are like this, though my last, for all its raison d’être and senior female figures, still felt very sexist. I’m not sure what the answer is, but having seen both sides from the inside, there must be something more useful to say.

Is my ‘can’ good enough?