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Trans Issues in
the Workplace 101

LGBT Issues in Research and Practice 

Katina B. Sawyer, Villanova University; Jayden L. Thai, University of Louisville; 
Larry R. Martinez, Portland State University; Nicholas A. Smith, Portland State University; and Steve Discont, Illinois Institute of Technology


Gender identity and expression have become a trending topic in the public sphere, as well as within organizations. Although the transgender community has not historically been prominently featured within the media, there has been a recent surge in the extent to which the transgender community has been highlighted within the popular press. This increased focus on transgender populations has improved societal awareness of transgender individuals’ rights (or lack thereof). Activism towards achieving equality for those with minority gender identities has increased as people become more aware of the plight of transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary individuals, all of who express their gender differently than expected for someone of their biological sex. However, antitransgender legislation and sentiments have also surfaced as part of the societal dialogue surrounding freedom of gender expression. We will briefly outline the legalities surrounding gender identity within the U.S. today below. We will only cover U.S. laws for the purposes of this article, because culture and laws surrounding gender expression vary widely across countries. For this reason, it is always a best practice to become familiar with laws surrounding gender expression in the countries in which you are operating or plan to operate within.

Starting with Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), discrimination based on gender expression has been covered within prior court precedent which classifies it as sex discrimination. In this case, the employer used Hopkins’ manner of dress and self-presentation as a rationale for limiting her promotability within the organization. This case was ruled as sex discrimination because she was held back from promotion within the organization because she did not behave in ways that conformed to societal-level expectations for women due to her more masculine form of gender expression (not wearing dresses or make-up, communicating in more agentic ways, etc.). Thus, it was ruled that sex stereotyping was at the root of the discrimination she faced based on her gender expression.

Although this is a landmark case in providing support for the links between sex discrimination and gender expression discrimination, direct protections for gender expression minorities do not currently exist on the federal level, except for federal contractors (due to Obama’s recent amendment to Executive Order 11246 in 2016). As a direct example of this lack of protections, a recent ruling in North Carolina, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, forces transgender and gender nonconforming individuals to use the bathroom that aligns with their biological sex. This law has created a great amount of controversy, with many businesses publicly announcing their opposition to the law or even moving their business operations elsewhere. However, it has also created a great amount of public support, with citizens participating in protests against those who oppose the law. Supporters of the law often draw on false links between transgender individuals, pedophilia, and sexual perversion in order to argue that transgender individuals should not be able to use the restroom of their choice. These public debates, although raising awareness about transgender populations overall, highlight the level of transphobia that continues to exist within society. As a result, organizations should be prepared to properly educate employees about transgender populations, as well as to ensure that inclusive workplaces are fostered regarding gender expression.

In order for organizations and industrial-organizational psychologists to begin understanding the experiences of trans people in the workplace and promote equality for gender nonconforming individuals, there must be a basic understanding of gender identity.  It is important to note the use of the term trans in this article denotes an inclusive umbrella term that embraces the plethora of gender diverse identities.  The biggest misconception among the general population is that gender and sex are identical constructs and are synonymous to one another.  Upon closer examination of these two constructs reveal the contrary.  Gender is how one sees, senses, and conceptualizes one’s gender; simply stated, gender is one’s “intrinsic sense of being male (a boy or a man), female (a girl or woman), or an alternative gender” (Coleman et al., 2012, p. 221).  Alternative genders include (but are not limited to) identities of individuals that identify with both binary genders (male and female), fall somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum, or do not identify with the binary genders altogether.

On the other hand, sex is what is assigned to an individual at birth (male or female) and is typically “based on the appearance of the external genitalia” (Coleman et al., 2012, p. 222).  Although most people continue to identify with the gender consistent with the sex they were assigned at birth (cisgender people), trans people identify with the gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.  It is critical to note that identifying with a gender different from one’s sex assigned at birth is not and should not be seen as a pathology (Lev, 2013; Coleman et al., 2012).  Additionally, it is also important to note not all trans people desire medical interventions to their physical body (Coleman et al., 2012).

Another common misconception among cisgender people is trans identities are conflated with lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) identities (Diamond, 2002).  In reality, these identities fall under separate, though often related, constructs.  Trans identities are gender identities and are related to how one conceptualizes and feels about their gender, whereas LGB identities are sexual identities and are related to who one is attracted to sexually, emotionally, and/or romantically.  Trans people can identify as LGB and be attracted to people of diverse genders, though this is not always the case.  Furthermore, unlike sexual identities, trans identities are not necessarily concealable, socially invisible identities due to the physical nature of their social and/or physical expression and presentation of their gender.  Unfortunately, this can attract instances of biases, discrimination, prejudice, and/or violence (Grant et al., 2011).

Trans people encounter staggering levels of discrimination and prejudices (Grant et al., 2011), which is often referred to as transphobia (the negative social attitudes towards trans people).  Cisnormativity refers to the assumption that all people are cisgender and being cisgender is the norm; this often result in not only an extreme lack of representation of trans people but also the belief that trans people do not and/or should not exist (Nameste, 2000).  Cisnormativity is believed to be the basis of transphobia, such that it creates pathologization and fear of trans people due to the lack of understanding of this population (Bauer et al., 2009; Pyne, 2013).  To understand how the daily life experiences can impact trans people, industrial-organizational psychologists should become familiarized with current relevant research exploring trans lives.

Although empirical studies focusing on the workplace experiences of transgender employees are relatively new, it is important to review what work has been done thus far. Initial research focused on transgender issues did so to examine the impact of gender in the workplace. By examining the experiences of transgender employees, these authors were able to control for individual characteristics such as current job, employment history, education, and expertise in accounting for any differential experiences these individuals encountered when they were women compared to when they were men (or vice versa).

Specifically, across three qualitative studies, these authors found that trans men experienced increased status at work (Schilt, 2006) and that both trans men and trans women experienced difficulties in social situations with coworkers of both genders due to misunderstandings of how they expressed their genders (Schilt & Connell, 2007).Transgender individuals in the workplace may both effectively fit into social conceptualizations of gender (i.e., masculine, feminine) and challenge and expand these gender norms (Connell, 2010). Additionally, in a small scale cross-sectional survey (n = 43), Schilt and Wiswall (2008) found that trans men reported that approximately 10% increased earnings in the same job post-transition, whereas trans women reported approximately a 30% decrease in earnings post-transition. Generally, these studies suggest that the gendered nature of the workplace may have similar effects on trans men and trans women as men and women.

Later research conceptualized transgender status as an identity separate from, though certainly related to, one’s identity along the gender spectrum. For example, Law, Martinez, Ruggs, Hebl, and Akers (2011) investigated the impact of the extent to which one’s transgender identity is central to their self-concept on decisions to disclose one’s transgender status in the workplace and several job-related attitudes including satisfaction, commitment, and job anxiety. This study also found that the relations between disclosure and job attitudes were mediated by the reactions that coworkers had toward the disclosures. Later research showed that positive coworker reactions were more influential in predicting lower perceived discrimination among transgender employees than were disclosure or supportive organizational policies (Ruggs, Martinez, Hebl, & Law, 2015).

Another stream of research identified workplace issues specific to transgender individuals along with outcomes and possible solutions related to these issues. For instance, Budge, Tebbe, and Howard (2010) utilized grounded theory to build a process model of gender transition at work along with a career decision-making model identifying specific perceived or actual occupational barriers and contextual influences impacting occupational attitudes and behaviors. Similarly, Dietert and Dentice’s (2010) qualitative work discussed the experiences of being “out” or not about one’s transgender identity, experiences, and concerns in regards to working in non-supportive environments and the importance of using pronouns and names with which transgender workers identified. Focusing specifically on discrimination, Dispenza, Watson, Chung, and Brack’s (2012) qualitative study identified forms of career-related discrimination along with impacts of such discrimination. Finally, Davis’ (2009) self-narrative provides candid reflections of being one of the first open transgender secondary educators in the U.S. along with her identification of specific human resource development suggestions she believes could improve inclusion.

Given the current social, political, and professional climates surrounding trans issues within even the past half decade, there are a number of ways that we within I-O psychology can make an impact moving forward. With regards to improving I-O psychology’s involvement in trans issues and research, we recommend that researchers continue to explore both experiences unique to transgender workers and experiences similar to cisgender men and women by using grounded theory qualitative work. Such a methodology is particularly well-suited to examine transgender workplace experiences as it allows for in-depth exploration of underresearched topics, cocreation of scientific literature with participants who are part of the target population (providing a voice to transgender individuals in the scientific literature), and building a more nuanced understanding of theoretical mechanisms explaining transgender workplace experiences. Also, due to the inherently multilevel nature of the workplace, future work should focus on creating theory that takes into account these multiple levels of analysis. Finally, researchers should further triangulate these findings and theoretical propositions by using creative designs and multiple methodologies, such as qualitative comparative analysis; cross-sectional, multilevel, and longitudinal surveys; and lab and field experimentation.

From a practitioner perspective, there are a number of ways that I-O psychologists can improve the workplace for trans individuals. One such way is to include knowledge regarding trans and nonbinary identities and examples into organizational trainings. Diversity trainings do not often specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity minorities (Bezrukova, Jehn, & Spell, 2012), despite evidence showing that they are positively perceived and may be capable of improving attitudes towards these groups (Madera, King, & Hebl, 2013). Including information about gender identity in organizational trainings would also benefit trans people in the workplace, as it might demonstrate that the organizational climate is oriented toward understanding and acknowledging their experiences. Another way that practitioners can have an impact is by being active advocates for trans people in the workplace. This can manifest in various ways, including taking steps to add gender identity and expression to organizations’ non-discrimination policies; providing resources, guidance, and/or support to LGBT-oriented employee resource groups; referring to individuals by their preferred pronouns (e.g., if a person expresses preferring using gender-neutral pronouns, then one would refer to them using words such as “they,” “them,” and “their”); and making certain to report any transphobic behaviors, as would be expected for any other forms of discrimination. By improving our knowledge, research, and organizational practices, we as I-O psychologists will develop a greater understanding of trans people while hopefully also helping them live more comfortable work lives.


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