Being Transgender: - Elise
I write this article from the perspective of a woman who recently completed her gender transition from male to female. I had to leave my previous employer in order to transition and am currently rebuilding my career. Although writing from a candidate’s perspective, I have recruited staff in various countries around the world and have perspectives from both sides. This article will be followed by a second one about my Recruitment Experiences.
My final corporate role before embarking on gender transition was as International CFO for a Services Group with a remit to establish a global finance function in Dubai for the international operations. I won the appointment in competition with 320 other applicants. After 2 years in Dubai, I finally decided to proceed with my long-held desire to complete gender transition. It would have been impossible however to do so within my company (for cultural reasons) and in the UAE (law, culture and resources reasons), so I left the company and returned to the UK.
Since completing my transition in 2012, I have been rebuilding my career and exploring various options. This has included contacting recruitment consultants and submitting applications for suitable advertised roles, but I have yet to be invited to a single interview for a role. My CV makes no mention of my gender transition, though that would come at the point where references are required from former employers since of course I fulfilled those roles in my former identity, so the lack of progress isn’t necessarily on account of my transition.
Having enjoyed a wonderful and satisfying global career that has added value to my employers, leading projects such as M&A transactions, integrations and turnaround strategies, resuming my career with an employer has been next to impossible. Why is this so? I haven’t lost any of the skills, qualifications or experience that I had in my pre-transition career, i.e. I didn’t change my brain with gender transition!! Perhaps it’s on account of my current employment status or my female gender or any other variety of reasons. Only the recruiters know the answer as meaningful feedback is most often impossible to obtain.
Having resolved my gender dysphoria, I don’t identify as transgender or transsexual. When I attend cocktail parties or business networking events, I don’t introduce myself and say ‘Hello I am Elise and I used to be Paul’!! I don’t say it in words and I don’t say it in my appearance and presentation. Friends who have transitioned express the same sentiment. We just want to blend in and get on with life like any other man or woman.
This doesn’t mean that I deny having been transsexual – transitioning is undeniably a major part of my life story and I am very proud of having completed such a challenging journey – but it is merely a chapter, albeit a rather major and transformational one. I am happy to talk about it with anyone who is genuinely interested or who needs to know for practical, relationship or professional reasons.
The term ‘changing gender’ is a bit of a misnomer of course. The transition is in one’s external presentation and often with surgery to bring brain and body into congruence – a state that 99% of the population is at from birth, and comfortable with it. Our internal sense of gender identity doesn’t change, but following transition we are free and able to fully express ourselves in our true gender without having to live in (or ‘act out’) the opposite gender.
An interesting aspect of this is that, in my earlier career, I have numerous examples of taking an approach to leadership and decision-making that would be seen as typically female, coming naturally to me, and which proved more often than not, very successful. No one knew of my gender dysphoria and colleagues were sometimes surprised that I didn’t take an approach that would be considered more characteristically male, for obvious reasons.
I want to make another couple of points about my career. One is that although I had been transgender throughout my career (and life), it had absolutely no impact on my work or career up to the point that I decided to transition and leave my job. In other words, it was a private and personal matter and didn’t come into the workplace and there was no reason why it should. The second is that I loved my career and the wonderful experiences that it brought me and I took it as far as I could before I had to turn attention to my more personal needs. Knowing also that it would cost me a lot of money, that I might not earn much if at all during the process (apart from some SME consulting), and that picking up a career again would be fraught with uncertainties, I had to work, earn and save as much as possible.
The Transgender spectrum is wide, diverse and complex. The number of transgender people as a whole in the UK is estimated at around 1% of the population or more, the inaccuracy being on account of blurred lines of the defining characteristics. The largest proportion of people in the transgender spectrum is people who cross-dress occasionally and for social reasons; those who transition permanently such as myself, are a minority.
People who wish to transition permanently are diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and in the main have experienced it from an early age. The number of transsexuals who have completed transition is currently estimated at around 18,000 in the UK, although some 1,200 people now present for treatment annually, so this is a figure that is increasing. This doesn’t include people who plan to or would wish to transition at some time in the future, and are prevented by fear of losing their employment status, amongst other things.
I should also add that gender and sexual orientation are two entirely different things, with generally the same proportion of transgender people being straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual as in the wider population. Being transgender crosses all ethnic and social boundaries and in general 80% of transgender people were originally assigned male at birth, 20% originally female, all emphasising the wide diversity that exists within the spectrum.
The process of changing gender is one of the hardest things a person can undertake. It is akin to walking off a cliff in the darkness to undertake a journey of physical and emotional challenges that takes years to complete. The medical transition journey is well mapped out with numerous hurdles, or rather mountains, to climb and we have a crystal clear idea of where we want to get to at the end of it all; it is the reactions of employers, recruiters, family, friends, co-workers etc that cannot be predicted. In this respect we are often pleasantly surprised, yet often deeply disappointed.
As recently as 2006, as a cross-dresser, I was terrified to step outside my house as Elise, doing so very occasionally. Absolutely no one knew of my transgender status nor suspected it. I hadn’t even attended any support groups or transgender social events. Six years later in 2012, with my new passport and total confidence in myself, my appearance and my decision, I flew to Montreal in Canada to finally complete my personal journey.
How did I go from my gender-related agoraphobia to complete confidence in going out and into any situation, anywhere? I didn’t have a life coach; I didn’t attend any ‘Find the New You and be Your True Self’ type workshops by ‘Transformational Speakers’; nor did I read books like ‘Feel the Fear and do it Anyway’. These would only have scratched the surface of what we face. The need to transition is overwhelming, and we have to complete the process no matter how hard it gets, how many setbacks we endure or how long it takes.
Employment & Recruitment
From an employment and recruitment perspective, transitioning gender is a process that requires a range of transferable skills. After changing gender in all aspects of one’s life, a transsexual employee is likely to demonstrate excellent communication and negotiation skills, confidence to make difficult but necessary decisions, self-organisation skills, an innovative and constructive approach to problem-solving, and an ability to look at situations from different perspectives.
Key attributes to transitioning include courage, strength, resilience, patience, commitment, empathy, maturity, diplomacy and respect for difference. They will have all of these attributes in abundance. Post-transition, they will also be happier, more content and have an appetite for achievement driven by a desire to make up for lost time, and an inner confidence borne of being able to face up to whatever life throws at them. For me, I may not be ‘25 with my life ahead of me’ anymore, but my goodness, it truly feels like I am.
Research by the Equalities Review UK found that:
- Transgender people have higher than average educational levels and are more likely to work in professional and managerial occupations compared to the wider UK population.
- 33.0% of transgender respondents are in professional occupations compared to 10.8% of the UK population.
- The Review also reported that 49% of transgender respondents had reported that they were discriminated against frequently in recruitment on the basis of their gender change.
A recent survey of transgender people in the UK revealed that just 38% are in full-time employment and that of those who are employed, 51% were in professional and managerial positions before their transition. These numbers suggest that transsexual men and women are well educated, hard working and have successful careers prior to gender transition, but that conditions in recruitment and employment make it extremely difficult for them during and following their transition. To me, this is not logical and denies opportunities to people just because of their gender and gender history. It also denies employers’ access to candidates, the majority of whom are well educated and experienced and who have demonstrable additional attributes that would add value in a wide range of circumstances.
The median age for transgender people seeking treatment and deciding to transition is 42, which means that they will already have well established careers, and post-transition will have many more years of career still to enjoy. This age point is lowering rapidly though as the environment for people to transition is much better now than it was even 20 years ago, and they are transitioning when much younger.
Recently I had lunch with a Partner in one of the top global consulting firms. The one hour appointment became 3 hours as we talked at length about my career, my transition journey and its impact on my career amongst other things. He concluded that any organisation would benefit from employing people who have undertaken a journey such as gender transition because of the strength of attributes that it demonstrates. He took the words right out of my mouth! If some of the top employers can appreciate the value of diversity, can more recruiters not follow their lead?
There are very encouraging examples of people transitioning while maintaining their employment. But this is rare and only with employers who are forward thinking and have a clear culture of diversity and inclusion. While there is a strong legal framework to enable transition to take place in employment, it is the company’s culture as defined from the top that is the real key to success. There is now a fairly well established set of principles and processes for employers to follow and benchmark against, and plentiful resources to learn from, which would ensure a smooth transition for everyone concerned. It’s important also to take the lead from the employee who is transitioning. Facilitating an employee’s transition is entirely practical with minimal disruption, if any, but doing so demonstrates a very strong culture of diversity and inclusion that adds value to any organisation.
In the next article, I will discuss my experience of transgender and recruitment and raise some points for recruiters to be aware of.
The views expressed here are my own, through my experience of recruitment, and to give some perspectives and suggestions. Since I present completely and in public as female and only disclose my gender history as may be necessary, I have written this article under a pseudonym, though the circumstances are accurate. If you wish to discuss any aspect of what I have written, I am happy to do that, so please contact Diversity Jobs who will put us in touch.