"Hi my name’s Ben. I’m the proud mother of two and I’m now a man." "Hi, I’m Al. I don’t fit into your binary gender norms, but I’m a committed worker who would prefer to keep my private life private." These statements opened the interview session at Lost in Translation?, an event organised by the Inclusive Employers Foundation last week at The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.
The event was for employers who feel there is a lack of support in managing transgender issues at work. It was never going to be a boring event, a number of transgender people (an umbrella term that includes all those whose gender identity and / or gender expression differ from the sex they were labelled at birth) had agreed to come and talk openly about their experiences in the workplace, good and bad. What was surprising was how much it revealed about our approach to inclusion more generally and how far we still have to go in challenging workplace cultures that can condone bullying, discrimination and harassment at the extreme, and benign ignorance as standard.
Not very many people undergo gender reassignment each year. James Morton, Coordinator at the Scottish Transgender Alliance, estimated it at about 10,000. However, this is the tip of a very broad iceberg. Another 100,000 people are thought to be transgender in the UK and many more are not conforming to gender norms. A consequence of decades of marginalization is that there is very little quality data about trans people. The lack of data and relatively small numbers means that the majority of employers have no direct experience of managing someone who is transgender or transitioning and the continuing taboo around the subject (reminiscent of how we talked about sexual orientation 15 years ago) means that trans is often ignored, or at least the forgotten ‘T’ at the end of LGB. Transphobic bullying is on the increase, in a recently published EU report 79% of respondents had experienced harassment. Earlier research shows that trans people are more likely to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts and are forced to leave their job because of discrimination and harassment.
But the infrequency of the issue is exactly why employers should engage with it. One of our speakers from West Midlands Police used the ‘fire-drill’ analogy. You don’t wait until the building’s burning down to work out where the fire escapes are. Waiting until someone has an issue and then muddling through puts so much more pressure on them, their colleagues, managers and the organisation. How your organisation thinks about transgender and how it responds to a challenge in this area is a litmus test for how inclusive it is. If there is a culture of gossiping, a tolerance of bullying or discrimination, or a lack of competent management - this will be revealed just at the point someone is going through an extremely challenging change for them personally. The results can be catastrophic for the employment relationship and now there is legal protection under the Equality Act, extremely risky for the employer.
There are some incredibly practical interventions that employers can put in place, ranging from including transgender in general inclusion policies and training, having a specific transgender policy and an absence policy which includes reference to transgender needs. The experience of trans people who have survived the process, then to be ‘outed’ by a computer that simply won’t accept them as their new gender, is depressingly common. So, your transgender ‘fire-drill’ must include walking through every system in the organisation that would need to be amended in the case of a name or gender change.
The most effective intervention is creating an inclusive culture, where people can be themselves and there is zero-tolerance of discrimination and bullying. Organisations with visible champions on the full range of diversity issues, not just a few of the protected characteristics, are able to give confidence to people struggling with their gender identity. Leaders create the culture, if managers know that their performance is measured on their style of management, and not just on financial measures, they quickly learn to be more inclusive.
Anne Foster, Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the House of Commons, who provided an employer experience at the event, believes that the experience of working with someone as they change their gender has been an extremely positive one. The key to making the transition smooth was acceptance and positivity - for the individual, their managers and colleagues. Being open and discussing issues as they came up, and putting the individual at the heart of the process is essential. Sounds like solid advice for an employer and on any issue. And that’s why transgender shouldn’t be ignored.
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