Transgender employees in tech: Why this "progressive" industry has more work to do to achieve true gender inclusivity

The tech industry is seen as being inclusive, but the reality for transgender workers is often very different.
Written by Alison DeNisco Rayome, Managing Editor

This article originally appeared on ZDNet sister site TechRepublic


Delaney King created a successful career as a freelance digital artist working in video games in Australia—with more than 20 years of experience and several awards under her belt, she had been headhunted by large studios and offered salaries of over $100,000 AUD. 

But that was before her gender transition. 

King is intersex, which means she biologically falls somewhere between the definitions of male and female. About four years ago, she decided to transition from presenting as a man to presenting as a woman. 

Despite her years of experience and accolades, suddenly studios were no longer eager to hire someone with the name "Delaney" on a resume. When presenting as a male, she had sent out about 10 applications, and received eight interviews and seven offers over the course of her career. As a female, she sent out about 10 applications, and received two interviews and two offers, one in a more junior position. 

"It's absolutely striking," King said. "It is essentially the same CV. It's simply that the rules are different as an apparent cisgender woman." (Cisgender is a term for people who are not transgender, according to GLAAD.)

The tech industry represents itself as a champion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. But the experience of transgender individuals working in tech has not always been as positive, suggesting there is still plenty more work to do before the tech industry is as inclusive as it likes to think it is.

In reporting this story, TechRepublic found that in the workplace, transgender people often find their status shifts after transitioning, in opposite directions: Transgender men typically receive more respect on the job than when they were presenting as female, while transgender women often have to fight harder to get hired and be heard than when they were presenting as male—particularly in the male-dominated tech industry. 

Transgender women who have experienced careers both presenting as a male and as a female can act as a real-life blind resume test to expose the gender bias that still exists in tech and other industries: The only variable that changes on their CV is their name. 

A 2003 Harvard Business School study demonstrated a similar phenomenon: Professors presented students with the story of a successful entrepreneur. Half of the students were told the entrepreneur's name was Heidi, and half were told it was Howard. Though students ranked the two entrepreneurs as competent and worthy of respect, they were more likely to regard Howard as a more appealing colleague, and view Heidi as "selfish" and not "the type of person you would want to hire or work for." Again, the only variable in play was the gendered name. 

TechRepublic spoke with a number of transgender, intersex, and nonbinary people working in the tech industry worldwide to learn about their experiences in the hiring process and the workplace before and after transitioning. While they do not represent the full spectrum of experiences, they do shine a light on just how far the tech industry has to go before achieving true gender inclusivity. 

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The transgender legal landscape

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth, according to GLAAD

An estimated 1.4 million transgender adults live in the US, representing about 0.6% of the adult population, according to a 2016 study from The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. However, few studies have measured the transgender population, so the actual number could be higher than past estimates, according to the Human Rights Campaign

SEE: How to create a more inclusive workplace for LGBTQ employees (TechRepublic)

While there are no US federal non-discrimination workplace protections on the basis of gender identity, 21 states and the District of Columbia currently prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the Human Rights Campaign reported. 

Title VII laws prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sex. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has ruled that under existing federal law, Title VII covers discrimination based on gender identity. The Trump administration has opposed this ruling, saying that the legislation cannot be read to apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status. 

In October 2019, the US Supreme Court began hearing three cases that decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees protections from workplace discrimination to gay and transgender employees. The court will rule on each case by the end of June 2020. 

Non-discrimination laws and policies

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have high scores for nondiscrimination policies that legally protect transgender people. 

Image: Movement Advancement Project

If the Supreme Court follows precedent, the justices will rule that transgender individuals are protected under the existing laws, said Naomi G. Goldberg, policy and research director at the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a nonprofit think tank. Some states and cities have already taken proactive measures to pass laws explicitly banning discrimination based on gender identity, Goldberg said. 

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However, even in states with policies like nondiscrimination laws and processes to update identity documents, "trans people still face a lot of challenges at work, finding housing, and even using the restroom, in addition to challenges accessing the kind of healthcare they need," Goldberg said. 

Worldwide, as of 2017, 20 countries had passed some form of legislation recognizing transgender rights, but these vary greatly by country. 

Discrimination also plays out differently along other axes of people's identities, including race, religion, and class, and no one's experience is the same, Goldberg said. 

For transgender women, working in the male-dominated tech industry—where research shows women in general are paid less, promoted less, and respected less than their male colleagues—can be particularly challenging. Getting the first call for an interview becomes less about their status as transgender and more about their status as women. 

SEE: Why it's time for the tech industry to take gender diversity seriously (ZDNet)

While many tout the tech industry as progressive, the treatment shown to these women and others before they even make it to the interview stage highlights a different reality. 

"The idea of the tech community as progressive is one I have encountered over and over and over from cisgender heterosexual white men, and no one else," said Hazel Havard, a developer at Workday in Victoria, Canada, and a member of Lesbians Who Tech. "The idea that people other than white men are even going to be in the space is foreign." 

200 resumes: 100 as Michael* and 100 as Olivia

A few years ago, Olivia Hill, a freelance video game producer based in Japan, took a studio job in Tokyo. When she decided to transition, the studio was very supportive, offering information about healthcare benefits and making a formal company introduction with her new name. 

"It seemed like such a great environment," she said. 

A month later, she and most other women at the company were laid off. The studio had grown too large too quickly, and only the most workaholic employees—primarily men—survived, she added. 

"The day I was fired, a woman who worked with me was also let go," Hill said. "We were commiserating, and she said, 'So what's it like finally being acknowledged as a woman in tech?' It's such a silly point, but that was the moment I felt like my coworkers really, truly embraced me as a woman—the moment I was laid off." 

Hill returned to freelance work, and began applying again to full-time jobs. She quickly noticed a far lower response rate with the name "Olivia" on her resume, and decided to conduct an experiment: She sent out about 100 resumes under the name "Michael" (*name has been changed), and 100 resumes under the name "Olivia" to jobs all over the world. 

The result? "I've had about 30 responses under my male name—I've had two under my female name, and one was a staffing agency," Hill said. "This isn't margin of error. The only thing that's different is the name." 

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Research on unconscious bias—when someone makes a judgement based on a job candidate's gender, race, or other factor without realizing they are doing so—reflects Hill's experiences: Both male and female managers are twice as likely to hire a man as a woman in the academic sciences, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

For King, the constant rejection has been disheartening. 

"I've given up on it," King said. "I'm a successful freelancer. But the beautiful thing about working in a studio is having peers and bouncing ideas off each other, so I'm missing all that." 

Moving down the social chain

Many transgender women noted a marked change in their working environments after making the transition, particularly those who rose in their career while presenting as male. 

"I noticed all the classic things that women complain about, like men talking over them in meetings. I would raise a very good point, and then I would just be ignored, and literally seconds later, a man would say pretty much the same thing, sometimes verbatim, and get praise for it," King said. "It's just unbelievable." 

SEE: Apple, Google among dozens slamming discrimination against transgender people (CNET)

Geena Louise Rollins, a distributed big data consulting architect for Leapfire Solutions, transitioned after she had an established career as a software architect. Yet despite her success and years of experience, once she began to appear as a cisgender woman, her male colleagues began explaining technical concepts to her "as if I were in kindergarten," she said. Others would assume she was in a non-technical role. 

"Trans men go up the social chain, and trans women go down the social chain, especially in the tech world," said Cass Averill, the global diversity, equity, and inclusion program manager at Symantec. "Some trans women who are in higher ranking positions because they got there in their male form, and once they transition, they either completely stagnate, or find themselves going down the ladder instead of up. We see the exact opposite with trans men." 


Cass Averill, the global diversity, equity, and inclusion program manager at Symantec, said it's important to be out as trans in a leadership position to set an example for others.

Image: Cass Averill

Hitting the glass ceiling

Rollins waited to transition until she was in her fifties. "Society wasn't very supportive of this when I was younger, so I just decided, 'Well, I'll do the man thing.' I married a woman and had kids, and we're still married today," Rollins said. "At some point I was feeling trapped, and I decided to start part-time trying to get better at looking like a woman and learning more."  

She decided it would be easiest to transition between jobs, and took a new role as an engineer at Yahoo in 2012. 

"I don't know whether it was because I was female or because the economy wasn't so great, but a lot of Silicon Valley companies tried to get you for as little money as possible," Rollins said. "I had to take a $17,000 a year pay cut to get a job again as a woman." 

After Yahoo, she took a job at Disney Interactive, where she said she faced the same problem: "Low salary, menial job," she said. It wasn't until she applied for a job at Symantec when a hiring manager said they wanted to promote her back up to her original high salary, she said. 

Rollins felt that she soon reached a glass ceiling, and said she believed she wouldn't be able to rise to a higher level at Symantec or at her next two jobs at Adobe and Uber. (The companies she said she worked for did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

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"It has nothing to do with being trans at all—people can't tell anymore," Rollins said. "The hardest thing about being a trans woman is being a woman engineer." 

Finding opportunities for mentoring and development can also be difficult for transgender and nonbinary employees, said Lianna Newman, a senior consultant and full stack developer at Booz Allen Hamilton and the DC chapter head for Out in Tech. Newman identifies as nonbinary and does not use a pronoun, but prefers to be referred to as "Lianna" instead of she/him/they.

(Nonbinary refers to people who experience their gender identity or express as falling outside the categories of male and female.)

"I've been in this field since 2016, and I'm still a junior dev because I can't find either A, a job that will keep me for more than a few months, or B, anyone to train me," Newman said. "I see and hear from other people who are getting mentoring, and I'm like 'Let's just be real. What kind of person was it?' And it was always a white guy." 

Transitioning to male in tech

Before Averill transitioned from female to male, he had already worked his way up to an advanced technical team at Symantec. When he decided to transition to male in 2009, he first checked state and company anti-discrimination policies to ensure he wouldn't lose his job. His manager was supportive, and he worked with HR, legal, and the management team to draft an email to send to the company letting them know.

"It felt like all of the air got sucked out of the world there for a second when I knew that the send button got hit," Averill said. "But within minutes, I had lots of people walking up to my desk to shake my hand, give me a hug, and tell me some encouraging words. Just things I would have never expected." 

After a few years of hormone replacement therapy, Averill began to notice a distinct change: The people he had been working with for years started treating him very differently. 

As a help desk technician, his job was to help employees fix technical problems and explain his process for doing so, and teach them how to solve issues themselves the next time around. Suddenly, the same people who he had been teaching for years would stop him mid-process and say the same thing: "No, no, no, I trust you. Just give me the answer."

"The 'No, no, no, I trust you' phrase was used more than I can even count," Averill said. "After a while, it started to click—oh, okay, so what you're saying is I was implicitly not trusted before, and had to show my work to prove my knowledge and value. But now that I'm seen as just another one of the guys, I'm implicitly trusted, regardless of what I say. I don't have to prove myself or my knowledge or my worth—it is just inherently valued." 

Averill said he noticed a difference in how he is treated in meetings as well. 

"I went into meetings in my female form, and essentially the experience was 'Hmm, that might be a great idea. Let's take it apart and investigate it from every possible angle. And if it's found to have no holes we will move forward with that plan,'" he said. "My experience now as a man walking into these meetings is, I give an idea, and there is no investigating. There are maybe a couple of clarifying questions, and then it is enacted and piloted and adopted, without any of that severe scrutiny that I had before."

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If you asked these well-meaning coworkers directly, "they would be totally unconscious of it," Averill said. "This is not something that they chose to do—this is a socialized, ingrained behavior.

"I'm the same person," he added. "What has changed is my gender presentation." 

Tanner Arnold, a customer experience analyst at Intuit, began transitioning to male in December 2018. 

"I've had some feedback that I present more aggressively now," Arnold said. "I'm super interested in where that's coming from. Is it a perception thing, or am I actually speaking up sooner or being more pressing?" 

Arnold said he has heard from other female-to-male trans people that after transitioning, "their opinions are taken without question." He said he has not yet noticed much of a difference in terms of how people treat him, but that it is still early in the process. 


Tanner Arnold, a customer experience analyst at Intuit, said he has yet to notice a difference in how people treat him since he began to transition to male. 

Image: Intuit

A spectrum of trans experiences

Transgender people in tech fall into several different groups, including those who came out sometime in the middle of their career, and those who came out before or at the very start of their career. 

"Trans women who got hired as male established themselves, and at some point transitioned—that has its own set of challenges, but they didn't have to get into the field and get hired as female or as trans," said Ina Fried, chief technology correspondent for Axios (who formerly reported for our sister site CNET).

"It's really different if you are a trans or nonbinary and early in your career and trying to get hired. That's probably the area where the industry's the weakest," Fried said. "A lot of people who go through school [who present as] female or nonbinary, for a variety of reasons, leave the funnel before they enter the tech field." 

Women earn only 18% of bachelor's degrees in computer science in the US. Women who do enter the tech field leave the industry at a 45% higher rate than their male counterparts, due in part to lack of opportunity and poor company cultures. Further, more than half (53%) of LGBTQ employees report having experienced or seen anti-LGBTQ behavior by coworkers

SEE: Video: Here's what transgender means to me (CBS News)

"It can no longer be denied that there is a difference in how men and women are treated," Averill said. "We have people who have experienced both, and it's really hard to argue with someone from their own personal experience. This could allow us to start figuring out what it means beyond this, so we can start throwing some of these implicit biases, judgements, and labels out the door." 

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