Transgender Issues in Employment

By Dave Neary

Many employers are changing their Equal Employment Opportunity policies to include gender identity or expression because it makes good business sense to create an inclusive workplace environment – not only for recruiting purposes, but also for internal morale and external relationships with clients and business partners.  It also shows that the employer is taking its diversity initiatives seriously. 
They are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.”

  • John P. Isa, member, Human Rights Campaign Business Council

(Transgender Inclusion In the Workplace, 2nd Edition, Human Rights Campaign Foundation document, p. 21)


Transgendered individuals are employed in a wide variety of industries and professions throughout the world.  As a community, generally considered distinct from the homosexual population but facing similar struggles, transgendered people “face enormous amounts of employment discrimination” (Kirk and Belovics, 2008, p. 29) and this has a direct affect on their career path and career development.
The addition of a T (for transgendered) to LGB(Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual) is “somewhat controversial”. (Chung 2003, p. 79) LGB is argued to be about sexual orientation whereas transgenderism is about sexual identity.  Experts claim that these are two distinct constructs and should not be lumped together.  However, proponents of this type of inclusion argue that transgendered people are an integral part of the LGB community – they are socially, culturally and vocationally connected.  Pepper and Lorah (2008) point out that “information gathered from lesbian and gay research may be useful to the trans (gendered) community because society’s reactions to individuals who cross the boundaries of prescribed gender norms may be similar.” (p. 334)  I will therefore extrapolate from the studies of LGB people in this paper and, where needed, apply the theories to the transgendered community where theory is lacking directly related to the transgendered community.
For the purposes of this paper, I define the following terms:
Transsexual – person whose sexual identity as gender opposite to anatomical sex, i.e. person with male genitalia living as a female, or vice versa.  (Refers to person prior to gender re-assignment surgery)
Transgendered – appearing as, wishing to be considered as, or having undergone surgery to become a member of the opposite sex.
Gender Identity – how a person sees themselves socially:  man, woman or combination of both – often referred to as “gender presentation”.
(Source:   Transgender 101, UC Riverside LGBT Resource Center)
Given that “nearly 70% of transgendered individuals are unemployed or under employed” (Kirk & Belovics, 2008, p. 35), this paper will explore the realities of career choice and career development of the transgendered person.  I will utilize the current literature on the issue, examine career choice issues, and issues related to employment at the actual workplace.  I will relate the experiences of transgendered persons to the Social Cognitive Career Theory of  Lent, Brown and Hackett and Donald Super’s Life Span Theory.  Finally, I will review the implications and interventions for career counsellors when working with this distinct population and the advocacy role a career counsellor may choose to adapt.
Career Choice Issues
In making a choice of a career, transgendered individuals must cope with perceptions of potential discrimination.  Discrimination encountered in previous employment will be especially relevant.
Vocational Choice Strategies: Chung (2001) describes three vocational choice strategies that are relevant to this target population:  “1. Self-Employment, 2. Job Tracking and, 3. Risk-Taking.” (p. 38)  Self-employment refers to working independently or as an employer.  This option gives the transsexual person maximum freedom without the worry of being fired.  Job tracking is a strategy where one works in firms that (a) are owned by (LGB) transgendered persons, (b) employ many (LGB) transgendered people, (c) industries that specifically serve this population or (d) industries that are know to be affirmative to this population.  Job tracking may certainly reduce the risk of discrimination, but there is still the potential for encountering intolerant co-workers.  Finally, risk-taking involves selecting a job from work environments that show various degrees of tolerance.  Preferably, environments that have non-discrimination and domestic partner polices would be best.
Job Search:  The job search process as an integral part of career development poses several challenges for transgendered individuals.  Pepper and Lorah (2008) argue that “changing jobs may make it easier to fully incorporate all aspects of transition because there will be fewer expectations from coworkers.” (p. 335)  These authors note three main problems related to job search, the first being the loss of work history.  It is difficult at best to present proof of work history when one was another gender and therefore to provide evidence is to disclose their transgendered status to potential employers.  A second factor that presents a challenge is the job interview process.  Many transgendered persons struggle with confidence and self-esteem, two factors that are of utmost importance when presenting a poised image to a potential employer.  Thirdly, if an employer asks if the individual has work experience under another name, this presents an ethical dilemma.  They risk losing a potential job due to discrimination and to deny previous experience is considered lying in the interview.  Pepper and Lorah suggest that preparation for these obstacles is key to assisting transgendered individuals in their career choice and job search activities.
Employment Issues
Discrimination in the Workplace: Any type of discrimination in the workplace against any individual is going to have a profound affect on their career development path.  “Coming out” in the workplace for a transgendered person can result in undesirable career consequences.  “For the sake of professional survival and to avoid discrimination, many (LGB) transgendered employees choose to keep their private and professional lives far removed from one another.” (Swain, 1997, p. 79)  This option may or may not work for the transgendered individual, especially if they are in transition or have trouble being able to “pass” as the gender that they present in public.
Discrimination in the workplace occurs in a multi-layered format.  Brown and Ford (1977) discussed two types of discrimination:  access and treatment.  Access refers to discrimination during hiring, such as a denial of job offer or low starting salary and treatment refers to discrimination after the person is hired via promotion or salary increase decisions.  Transgendered individuals frequently encounter both types of discrimination.  Chung (1998) refers to another dimension of discrimination:  direct and indirect.  Direct refers to discrimination practices against individuals who are known or presumed to be (LGB) transgendered.  Indirect discrimination refers to a hostile work atmosphere experienced by the (LGB) transgendered person whose sexual identity is neither known nor presumed to be (LGB) transgendered.  For many transgendered persons, the issue of personal safety at work precludes the focus on career interests.
The types of discrimination faced by transgendered employees clearly have an affect on their career path and career development.  Many face “exclusion from certain types of jobs, such as elementary school teachers and child care workers; physical assault, verbal harassment and abuse, destruction of property, ridicule, trans-phobic jokes, unfair work schedules, workplace sabotage, and restrictions to their careers.” (Kirk & Belovics, 2008, p.32)
Work Adjustment: The issue then becomes now that discrimination has occurred in the workplace, what does one do about it?  Chung’s model suggests four different types of discrimination management strategies:  a) quitting your job, b) remaining in silence about the discrimination, c) seeking social support from friends, family, coworkers or a counsellor, or d) confronting the issue with the perpetrators, supervisors or both.  Clearly, these strategies and the ramifications connected to each would have a profound affect on the career path of the transgendered person.  Also, Kirk and Belovics mention the impact on an individual’s mental state.  The most common psychological conditions resulting from such ill treatment include increased levels of stress and anxiety, depression, loss of confidence and, in some cases, drug and alcohol dependency.
The Bathroom Issue: A very emotion-laden legal issue within (LGB) transgendered communities is the issue of restroom use by transgendered employees.  Transgendered individuals experience anxiety, discomfort and fear on a daily basis when faced with the decision of which bathroom to use.  There are a variety of solutions to this issue, and it reinforces the many issues of discrimination that transgendered people face which once again can affect their career development journey.  Transgendered employees can use the restroom appropriate to their biological gender, use the restroom of the preferred gender but only after having completed transition surgery, or use a unisex restroom if the employer is willing to add this as an accommodation to the needs of the transgendered employee.  All options aside, it would be important to explore this issue in the workplace and brainstorm solutions that may be suitable for the employer while maintaining the transgendered person’s dignity.

Applying Career Theory to Transgendered Employees

Social Cognitive Career Theory: Barry Chung (2001) indicated that for all individuals, vocational choice is influenced by, according to Social Cognitive Career Theory, previous learning experiences, self-efficacy, outcome expectations, interests, goals, and contextual factors like perceived potential discrimination.  For the transgendered employee, the choice process includes self-efficacy for coping with discrimination in the workplace and also outcome expectations for a person’s individual coping strategies in the face of discrimination.

An article by Morrow, Gore and Campbell (1996) is a valid discussion of Social Cognitive Career Theory as it relates to lesbians and gay men, but given similar sets of challenges and conditions, could also be applied to transgendered clients.  Morrow believes that self-efficacy beliefs are formed prior to a person’s identification of sexual orientation (and gender identity).  So for children, traditionality or non-traditionality are likely to be key influences on their career development.  Morrow suggests that being perceived as “different” my lead to either restricted or enhanced opportunities for self-efficacy beliefs.
Young boys and girls may find that parents actively or passively discourage the development of self-efficacy beliefs that are not gender congruent.  Also, a lack of appropriate career models and negative social persuasion may deplete one’s self-efficacy beliefs and forestall or restrict one’s interest in certain careers.  Vicarious learning could occur for children who may later identify as transgender in that they might develop an interest in gender-nonstereotypic models for careers based on exposure.
Morrow et. al. also observed that social and contextual factors may negatively affect interest development in careers for LGB and transgendered people.  In an environment that encourages uniqueness, the transgendered child will develop positive feelings associated with being different and positive outcome expectations for a broader range of activities/career options.  Morrow and her colleagues suggest that “outcome expectations may be more salient than self-efficacy beliefs in the formation of interests.  The crucial question my not be “can I do it?”, but “what will happen if I do?” (Morrow, 1996, p. 141).  This second question is especially relevant for those who might anticipate oppression or discrimination based on gender identity.
Proximal contextual barriers also play a role in the career development of the transgendered client.  During adolescence, the career interests and goals are beginning to crystallize and this is also the period in which many transgendered youth may be lost in confusion regarding their sexual identity.  Often there is a postponement or abandoning of crystallizing interests that might have otherwise become academic or career choices.  The confusion of identity, conflicts with peers or parents and other barriers to forming a sexual identity all work to stall the career development of the transgendered youth.  Many transgendered people report abrupt career shifts during the transitioning phase, a parallel to major shifts in self-identity.  Morrow proposed that in resolving their sexual identity, a transgendered person will likely re-evaluate their basic interests and alter their career goals.
Many transgendered people are hindered in their career development by environmental conditions.  For example, economic oppression can occur for younger transgendered people whose families condemn them and revoke financial support for post-secondary education.  Parents may also not want to support non-gender congruent educational programs.  Due to this reality, many transgendered youth are at risk for poor school grades, dropping out and substance abuse and suicide.  Another factor is stereotyping within and outside the (LGB) transgendered community.  These stereotypes may be a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to the choice of stereotyped careers with little thought given to career interests.
Super’s Life Span Theory: Donald Super has suggested in his Life Span Theory that the career issues of (LGB) transgendered clients are inextricably linked to their personal issues.  This synthesis of issues combines the identity development model of Cass (1979) and the Life Span model of Super (1990).  Cass’s stages of identity development, from identity confusion, comparison, tolerance, acceptance, pride and eventual synthesis are intertwined with the career development stages of growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance and disengagement.
During the growth phase, children are developing their interests, values and beliefs and may ignore gender congruent interests for more stereotypical interests.  House (2004) noted that one client “restricted her career interests by looking for a career with fewer walls and great acceptance of her sexual identity.” (p. 250)  In the exploration stage, individuals who are in a state of identity confusion have been found to have high levels of internalized homo/transphobia.  This early stressor may make one’s career development less salient.  Croteau and Thiel suggest that adult role models are particularly important during the exploration stage.  They suggest that adult role “models show how to balance private and public aspects of self on the job, show confidence with one’s self as a (LGB) transgendered person in a career and challenge stereotypes of appropriate and inappropriate jobs.” (Croteau and Thiel, 1993 p.142)
A newly emerging sexual identity at the establishment stage my lead to the recycling process – a re-exploration of the self and the work environment to find an appropriate career or job in which to implement newly discovered aspects of the self.  Some of the barriers cited by clients at this stage include maintenance of the dual identity, lack of support from peers, a hostile work environment and low self-esteem caused by stigma.
As some transgendered individuals only explore sexual identity in the later stages of life, stressors of identity development during the maintenance stage interfere with career development.  Overt oppression from co-workers can lead to difficulties in advancement or decisions to change jobs or careers.  The disengagement stage involves a reduction of work hours and preparation for retirement.  There is usually greater comfort in this stage with sexual identity.  Individuals are more accustomed to stigmatization and may find attitudes are somewhat more accepting than earlier on in their lives and careers.
Overall, Super’s theory shows that transgendered people progress through a series of life stages and eventually come to accept their sexual identity as a component of their total self-concept.  Identity development is strongly related to the types of careers one considers during the Life Span stages.

Implications and Interventions for Career Counsellors

Client Needs: In a transgendered-positive career counselling environment, clients need to explore their needs, interests and values that “are clearly their own, in contrast to those that reflect external judgments.” (Croteau & Hedstrom, 1993, p. 202)  Clients need to be welcomed and accepted into a  (LGB) trans-affirmative environment.  Like any career counselling client, the transgendered client may need assistance with career planning, self-assessment, career exploration, career decision-making, changing careers or jobs, job search strategies and salary negotiation strategies.  Career option decisions must also consider the risk associated with the choice.  The transgendered client has the same need for resolution of their career concerns, respect, effective representation by the counsellor and promptly returned phone calls (Kirk and Belovics, 2008).  Of upmost importance, the client needs to feel comfortable in the career counselling setting, where the appropriate name and pronoun is used, the intake forms encourage one to record their gender presentation and where there are washrooms that are gender neutral, or failing that, the transgendered person may comfortably use the washroom of choice.
Counsellor Mindset: Counsellors need to examine within themselves their own biases, stereotypes and false assumptions about the transgendered client that presents for service in a counselling environment.  Counsellors must “view their clients and their clients’ concerns as a constellation of factors, including work, career, love and friendships.”  (Pepper and Lorah, 2008, p.331).  It would be useful to assume a client-centered approach with transgendered clients as the issue of trust building would be vitally important.  Assuming the narrative stance of  “informed not knowing” would allow the client the best opportunity to tell their story about career and life.  It would be most beneficial for both counsellor and client to deconstruct the cultural narratives of gender and heterosexism.
Counsellor Interventions: Mark Pope (1995) examined the issue of interventions that career counsellors could put in place with their transgendered clients.  He suggests discussing discrimination interventions, dual-career couples, overcoming internalizedtransphobia with the client and supporting LGBT role models.
Discrimination Interventions: A transgendered client must assess the reality of encountered discrimination in the workplace.  When discriminated against, the transgendered person may benefit from the counsellor knowing the location and size of other transgendered communities should be client wish to change jobs and/or relocate.  Knowledge of relevant employment policies of local businesses and organizations as well as local and federal anti-discrimination laws would also be helpful.  Should the client wish to stay at their job, assistance in how to create an affirming work environment would be helpful.
Dual-Career Couples: The transgendered person in a committed relationship would have to consider how to manage the issue of the partner, and this is an issue from both sides of the relationship.  For example, how does one introduce the partner?  Do you openly acknowledge the relationship at work?  How do you deal with social events?  All these issues are important questions that the counsellor can assist the transgendered person to address.
Internalized Transphobia: Many transgendered clients will present with internalized transphobia, an intense form of self-hatred and self-loathing.  It would be helpful for the counsellor to have a broad understanding of  transphobia and to help the client overcome the messages from society about being “evil, sick and sinful.” (Pope, 1995, p. 195)
Role Models: The counsellor needs to be supportive of (LGB) transgendered role models, especially those that have expanded their career horizons and not necessarily entered the so-called “safe” occupations.  The expansion of career options reduces the career limitations that so many (LGB) transgendered people impose on themselves.
Counsellor Advocacy: Career counsellors need to become advocates for their transgendered clients, for now and for the future, if they are to truly grasp the ideals of an affirmative transgendered workplace.  Whiston (2003) (in O’Neil et. al., 2008, p. 299) notes a “reluctance or inability to see career counselors as change agents who can help not only individuals to change but systems to change as well.”
In Munoz and Thomas’ article (2006), they outline several strategies in organizational settings that a career counsellor or human resource professional can implement that would aid greatly in the mission of creating an affirmative LGBTQ work environment.  These include:  1.  Setting Up the Context, 2.  Preparing for Resistance, 3. Leadership Commitment, 4. Affinity and Resource Groups,  and 5. Continuous Learning.
Setting Up the Context: Career counsellors can advocate in their workplace for anti-discrimination and harassment policies that include gender identity and benefits for same-sex partners.  This would send a strong and clear message that LGBTQ workers are respected and valued.
Preparing for Resistance: One common mistake in advocating for this type of change is to underestimate the existing level of homo/transphobia and heterosexism in the workplace.  Much of the negative attitudes are invisible in many workplaces.  “Taking steps to break this invisibility and legitimize the LGBTQ population and its concerns and needs may unearth fears, bigotry, and hatred that had mostly been underground.” (Munoz & Thomas, 2006, p. 89)  Resistance to trans-positive work policies can be very subtle and create anxiety and confusion for all parties involved.
Leadership Commitment: One other important advocacy task the career counsellor must engage in is gaining commitment and support from the leadership/management of the business or organization.  Without this support, most diversity efforts fail.  Leaders need to be present for and participate in diversity training initiatives.
Affinity and Resource Groups: Affinity or resource groups provide a foundation of support for a variety of workers in many organizations.  For the LGBTQ employee, they provide a safe space for the discussion of their identity and its role in their working life.  A career counsellor could launch an affinity group for LGBTQ workers and/or clients and see the following value added benefits:

  • Creating a more equitable and safe work environment
  • Increasing awareness and education of all employees about sexual orientation/identity as a workplace issue.
  • Increasing the retention of LGBTQ employees and clients
  • Increasing recruitment of LGBTQ employees and clients in the community.
  • Including sexual orientation/identity in relevant personnel polices
  • Providing a network that supports the professional development of LGBTQ employees and clients.

(Munoz and Thomas, 2006, p. 91)
Continuous Learning: The addition of diversity training for staff and clients is significant as it legitimizes the concerns of LGBTQ employees and clients in organizations, sensitizes the organization to the issues and provides staff and clients with the skills to create an inclusive and affirmative work environment.  Often the members of the affinity groups take the lead in training initiatives or will provide guests for a speaker’s bureau.  Along with continuous learning there should be continuous monitoring of the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion efforts.  This can be done through focus groups, individual conversations and incidents reported.


“…our lives are proof that sex and gender (identity) are much more complex than a delivery room doctor’s glance at genitals can determine, more variegated than pink or blue birth caps.” (Feinberg, 1998, p. 5)  When considered through  the lens of work and employment, the experiences and career trajectory of transsexual individuals is at the least, complex, and certainly by many, misunderstood.  Although there appears to be some recent defining research on this minority group of the larger LGBQ population, much more work needs to be done to provide career support and career counsellor competence in this area of counselling.  As career counsellors have worked diligently to meet the needs of lesbian women and gay men, newcomers to Canada, and identify the skills and needs of the foreign-trained professionals, the onus is now on those same counsellors to train and learn all they can about the transgendered population so that when a transgendered client approaches them for career guidance and support, they will be treated fairly, equally and respectfully.
The many challenges faced by transgendered individuals in the workplace may seem insurmountable, and the decision to “tell” or not is paramount.  “It is normal to want or hope for positive reactions from the people you tell, but that may not happen immediately.  The person you come out to may feel surprised, honored, uncomfortable, scared, unsure how to react, supportive, skeptical, relieved, curious, angry or uncertain what to do or say next.” (Coming Out As Transgender, p. 15)  Whatever the reaction, the coming out can have a profound affect on the life and career of the transgendered person.  Businesses, organizations and ultimately, career counsellors, have a duty to be informed, prepared and to educate for the creation of trans-affirmative workplaces.



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