We’ve all heard a million excuses for why women aren’t advancing in the workplace. We’re not aggressive enough. We’re too aggressive. We’re just not as competent as the male candidates. We’re not “leaning in” enough. We make lifestyle choices that put us at a disadvantage in the job market. Basically anything but gender discrimination.
It can be difficult to dispense with these excuses and prove discrimination, especially the kind that is often subtle or subconscious. Jessica Nordell points out one place we can look to see very clearly how gender affects workplace dynamics: the experiences of transgender people.
The vastly different experiences men and women have after transitioning basically reinforce everything we’ve always been saying about gender discrimination. Ben Barres talks about his experience after transitioning:
Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his forties. For most of his career, he experienced bias, but didn’t give much weight to it—seeing incidents as discrete events. (When he solved a tough math problem, for example, a professor said, “You must have had your boyfriend solve it.”) When he became Ben, however, he immediately noticed a difference in his everyday experience: “People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, “Ben gave a great seminar today—but then his work is so much better than his sister’s.” (The scientist didn’t know Ben and Barbara were the same person.) “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”
As one would expect, transitioning to female has the opposite result:
What happens when the opposite transformation takes place—when a man becomes a woman? Joan Roughgarden is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Jonathan Roughgarden until her early fifties, and her experience was almost the mirror image of Barres’s. In her words, “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.” In an interview, Roughgarden also noted that if she questioned a mathematical idea, people assumed it was because she didn’t understand it. Other transwomen have found changes not only in perceptions of their ability, but also their personality. In Schilt’s work with transwomen for a forthcoming book, she found that behaviors transwomen had as men were now seen as off-putting. What was once “take-charge” was now “aggressive.” And they had to adapt; the transwomen quickly learned that “being the same way in the world would be detrimental to your career.”
While a small sample of people, these stories offer a fascinating glimpse into what happens when other factors like skills, personality and experience stay constant. Barres points out how difficult it to highlight and tackle this discrimination:
“Until a person has experienced career-harming bias,” wrote Barres in his response to Summers, “they simply don’t believe it exists.” And people tend to think the problem is located elsewhere: “Everyone thinks that there’s bias out there, but ‘I’m not that person,’” says Schilt.
To take this problem head on, recognizing that everyone can potentially be “that person” is critical. It’s not just people who say women should rely on karma to get a raise or who make blatantly sexist jokes around the office. I’ve worked in progressive work environments where most if not all of the men would say they are committed to eradicating sexism. I’ve also had a man march into my office to tell me a personnel decision I made was wrong, and then accept the explanation of it from a man. I’ve had a man tell me he wasn’t going to apply for a promotion because he wanted me to get it. If we’re going to create an equal playing field for women, we have to both acknowledge that sexism in the workplace exists, and be willing to look inside ourselves for how we might be perpetuating it.