Transgender Employees and Overcoming Barriers to Employment

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do or achieve. Do what you want to do and be who you want to be. Just encourage and include each other, don’t ostracize the gender in front of you.”
― Emma Watson

Just over a year ago, Caitlyn Jenner graced the headlines with the simple proclamation: “I am Cait.” Since then, North Carolina proposed and passed HB2, forcing transgender people to use the gendered bathroom aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth instead of the one they identify as now. The Department of Education released the Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students, specifically those in K-12 schools, outlining institutions’ responsibilities under Title IX. Several states (spearheaded by Texas and including Wisconsin) are challenging the DOE’s guidance and refusing to follow it. So, what does any of this have to do with our work?

Everything. And, here’s why.

Transgender people are simply people who identify and live as a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. Some trans people go through a complete medical and legal transition, continuing their life as stealth with no one ever knowing they were born another gender. Some trans people don’t legally or medically transition at all, either because they don’t desire to do so or they cannot for various other reasons. And trans folk are everywhere else in that spectrum.

Looking around the UW Systems, one of my first questions was “were are all of the trans folk?”  Honestly, if the problem was that UW refused to hire trans people, the solution would be simple: Hire trans people. Obviously, that’s not the case (go us!), and the problem is much more complicated than that.

Some, or most, trans people face barriers that their cisgender counterparts don’t, even when we consider the intersections of other social identities, such as age, race/ethnicity, class, etc. Cisgender simply refers to people who still identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. These barriers make it harder for trans people to survive, earn a degree, and land a job. So what are these barriers?

Individual trans people can tell you their own experiences and share the commonalities within their own community, if they have one at all. Some trans folk don’t. The results of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey were released in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force, with the next survey’s results to be released later this year. This survey found (or rather confirmed) that trans people experience discrimination, harassment, and violence in almost every aspect of their lives and usually at rates much higher than their cisgender counterparts. Below are some key findings, and you can find the link to the full report in the references section:


  • Those who expressed a transgender identity while in grades K-12 reported alarming rates of harassment (78%), physical assault (35%) and sexual violence (12%); harassment was so severe that it led almost one-sixth (15%) to leave school or college.


  • Survey respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population at the time of the survey, with rates for Black transgender people being four times the national rate, and other trans people of color at elevated rates.


  • Ninety percent (90%) of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it.
  • Over one-quarter (26%) reported that they had lost a job due to being transgender or gender non-conforming and 50% were harassed.
  • Sixteen percent (16%) said they had to work in the underground economy for income such as doing sex work or selling drugs.
  • The vast majority (78%) of those who transitioned from one gender to the other reported that they felt more comfortable at work and their job performance improved, despite high levels of mistreatment.


  • A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population.


  • Of those who have transitioned gender, only one-fifth (21%) have been able to update all of their IDs and records with their new gender.
  • Forty percent (40%) of those who presented ID (when it was required in the ordinary course of life) that did not match their gender identity/expression reported being harassed, 3% reported being attacked or assaulted, and 15% reported being asked to leave.


  • Nineteen percent (19%) of the sample reported being refused medical care due to their transgender status, with even higher numbers among people of color in the survey.

Many of these aspects of life feed into each other. Not graduating high school or college reduces opportunities for success in the workplace. Being refused medical care, even for non-transitional medical purposes such as injuries and illness, can affect one’s ability to go to school, work, or hold a job. Not being able to update all of one’s legal documentation can out a trans person and cause further discrimination in the interviewing and employment process. So on and so forth.

Now that we know some of the barriers, what can we do to eliminate them?

Individual Level:

  • Get into the practice of asking every one their pronouns when you first meet them. Include your personal pronouns on your email signature, on your nametags, in meeting introductions, on your business cards, and on/under your office name plate. If you need more practice with using pronouns, visit sites such as to review.
  • Learn about the trans experience by doing your own research. Start with a Google search and expand from there. Keep in mind that the trans experience is not monolithic, meaning that no all trans people experience the same things. Seek out diverse representations.
  • Listen to your transgender students and colleagues when they reach out to you, and affirm their experiences instead of debating them. Provide them with resources and be an advocate for them on our campuses.
  • You should alert security or police about suspicious behavior (peering over/in stalls, exposing self) in any facility, including restrooms, but trans people existing in those spaces is not suspicious behavior.
  • Reflect on conscious and unconscious biases around gender and gender identity. Give yourself room, grace, and compassion to grow. We cannot control the environments we were raised in, but we can control our thoughts and the behaviors we have now.

Office/Department Level:

  • Take initiative to ensure that everyone in the office is asking for pronouns, including them in emails, etc. Consider having professional development around gender and gender identity if members of the office are not familiar with this and do not have a grasp on why this is important yet.
  • Enforce policies against bullying, harassment, and violence (especially Title IX) in our work, living, and learning spaces. Have zero tolerance for slurs, misgendering, misnaming, and general verbal/physically harassment. Support survivors/victims of these and enforce sanctions against perpetrators.

Institution Level:

  • Review our hiring and employment processes to ensure that transgender folk can use their name even if it is not their legal name throughout the entire process. Be transparent about where and when legal names must be used, and ensure that the fewest number of eyes possible has to see a legal name. This prevents outing that trans person.
  • Review any forms or surveys that ask for demographic information. Consider whether you need to know sex (Female, Intersex, Male) or gender (Man, Woman, Transman, Transwoman, Non-binary/Genderqueer, Agender, Other), or if either are needed at all. Make sure these options are inclusive of diverse identities.
  • Keep retention and graduation rates for transgender people, showing a commitment to them by counting them across the institution.
  • Review our benefits package and create a resource around transition-related health and medical care, including which services are and are not included in plans, trans-friendly doctors and facilities, and community resources.
  • Review our financial aid services to ensure we can provide options to trans students who no longer have financial support from their families.
  • Review restroom facilities in all buildings to ensure there are gender neutral or family facilities in every building. Build a map of these, and distribute it in various places.

“If anyone makes you feel less than you are, for the color of you skin, for where you come from, for the gender of the person you love, for the religion you have faith in, stand up, speak up, roar. No silence till we are equal.”
― Thisuri Wanniarachchi, COLOMBO STREETS

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