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What Transmen Tell Us About Inequality in the Workplace

The experiences of transgendered men demonstrates that gender is still an issue in the workplace.

In her memoir, accomplished economic historian (and my personal hero) Deirdre McCloskey, relates the conversation in which she informed her dean that she planned to transition from man to woman.* At the time, the dean joked that the change would be great for affirmative action (“one more woman, one less man!”) and meant that he would only have to pay her 70% of her current salary. I don’t think Prof. McCloskey was amused by the comment, but as her book reveals that was only the beginning of discovering what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated profession.

There is a new book, based on the author’s research undertaken as part of her PhD work in Sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles, that examines the workplace experience of those who have taken a different journey: the transition from female to male. **

These men have a very unique perspective on the workplace experience of both women and men; they all started their careers as women and are now working as men. 

The gender history of some of the men is known to their employers, but for others it is hidden. The men work in a variety of occupations (from construction workers to lawyers) and come from a variety of educational backgrounds, ages and races. 

Most of the men interviewed revealed that as men they were given more authority and respect in the workplace than they had received as women, even when they had stayed in the same job. They also found that their economic gains post-transition were greater despite the fact that their human capital remained the same.

Here are just a few of the observations made about the personal difference they found between being a woman in the workplace and being a man.

As men they found that they were perceived as being right more often. One tells a story of intentionally repeating a comment that had just been made by a woman in a conference setting. The woman had been shot down for making the comment but when the man made exactly the same observation the reaction was “Excellent point!”

Alternatively, the men found that displays of knowledge that had been previously sanctioned by their employers when they were women were now rewarded and they were encouraged to offer their opinions. More support was provided to them at work when they needed it, and more resources made it easier for the men to perform their jobs well.

As men, they found that behaviour that had been previously perceived as excessively assertive when they were woman was now positively seen as “taking charge.”

Many of the men in the survey observed increase rewards to education to being a man and, as a result, returned to school post-transition in order to take advantage of those rewards. 

The overriding theme here is that as men they were seen as more competent in their jobs and given more respect and authority. When it came time to evaluate workplace performance, either for promotion or pay, this perception played to their advantage.  For those running their own businesses, they found it easier to gain the confidence of investors as men, making them more successful..

Not all the participants in the survey thought they had been advantaged. About one-third saw no gains to being a man. It turns out that the real gain described above is not in becoming a man, but in becoming an older white man. Becoming either a Black or Asian man meant facing a whole new set of challenges in the workplace as either being too aggressive or too passive. If the transition made them look like very young men (especially over the period in which they are developing peach fuzz beards) they saw no advantage, or were disadvantaged for their youth and perceived lack of experience.

This transmen story is really just a continuation of the discussion we had a few weeks ago regarding the source of the lesbian wage gap. In that post I argued that the gender wage gap could in part be explained by the tendency of heterosexual women to under-invest in unobservable workplace skills in anticipation of having a higher income, male partner. Lesbian women have a different expectation resulting in greater investment in these skills and a higher pay for lesbian women.

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 The evidence here tells a different story:  that competency in the workplace is assessed within the context of the perception of gender. If this is the case, one possible explanation for the lesbian wage gap is that some lesbians are perceived to be more “like men” and that perception makes it possible to accrue some of those economic gains normally given only to men.

For transmen, taking the step from being perceived to be like a man (which I suspect many are) to actually being a man closes the gap between male and female gains. If I am correct about this, then the experience of transmen in this research actually understates the difference been male and female workplace experiences. 

Just out of curiosity, if I had a penis would you be convinced that I was right?

*McCloskey, Deirdre (2000).  Crossing: A . University Of Chicago Press (2000)

** Schilt, Kristen. 2010. Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

** Schilt, Kristen. 2006. “Just One of the Guys? How Transmen Make Gender Visible at Work.” Gender and Society, Vol. 20 (4): pp. 465-490.


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