‘Overt and Unchallenged’ Part II – The Simple Reason Transgender People Are Discriminated Against at Work

As the UK government considers its response to the report into transgender equality published by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in January, 2016, I would like to throw a handful of my own findings and recommendations into the mix.  This week, I would like to turn over the institutional stone of recruitment practices and the job market, in order to consider the causes and effects of the prejudice that lurks beneath it, and to offer a sincerely meant suggestion of my own for remedial action.  The process via which most people are interviewed and hired (or not) for paid employment mitigates against transgender people when their potential employer cannot see the person they are considering through the amount of prejudicial baggage lying in the way.  As a result, discrimination in this context cannot not be addressed through policies or awareness-raising campaigns, but by challenging the personal biases of employers themselves.


Companies, businesses and professional bodies are not abstract entities with norms, assumptions and values that have come about independent of human agency.  The way employees and potential hirelings are treated by organisations is the result of cultural patterns that are established and maintained by the founders and managers of those organisations.  The culture of a company is established by the people who run it – the people who work there may pursue common economic goals, but these goals were determined, originally, by the company’s founders.  The everyday rituals, rules and routines that determine the way a business operates, and how its employees conduct themselves, are sustained through a complex series of social interactions, but it is the CEO and their management hierarchy that co-ordinates the activities of employees (via division of labour and the allocation of authority and responsibility) in order to facilitate the achievement of common aims.  Neophytes are (often formally) inducted into the culture of the workplace, and if an employees’ conduct is considered irredeemably disruptive of a company’s working practices, and detrimental to the pursuit of its goals, then that employee is jettisoned.

It follows, therefore, that prejudice against transgender people in professional contexts is not the result of an unseen, ethereal force devoid of human agency; it is not ‘institutional’ in the sense that it is simply the way things are, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Transphobia in the workplace and at the level of professional recruitment is the consequence of the personal biases of people in key positions of authority within the organisation.  I have seen for myself how the individual prejudice of school managers and head-teachers determines who they hire to work in their schools and who they don’t; and I have been fed the lie too often that attempts to abdicate personal responsibility for what is nothing more elaborate nor noble than personal bigotry: It’s not me, the lie begins, but our parents/children/governors/dinner-ladies who might be scared/confused/uncomfortable with having a transgender teacher in their classroom.  Sorry, but we’re just not ready to take such a bold step.

People who transition whilst in full-time employment may suddenly discover that a thick glass-ceiling has been erected over their heads.  They may find themselves marginalised or held-back, passed-over for promotion, or re-designated to minimise the contact they have with clients and customers.  Of the 7,500 people questioned by the team who compiled the US Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011), 26% reported being dismissed or made redundant after transitioning; 23% said they were denied promotion; and 44% said they felt ‘under-employed’ – that is, were working in positions or fields that were, frankly, beneath their qualifications and experience.  With eerie symmetry, the number of respondents who claimed to have been unsuccessful in their attempts to find work after transitioning was also 44%.

The prejudice that limits the employment prospects of gender nonconforming people has exactly the same roots as the discrimination that leads to iniquities in the medical care we can expect to receive.  Almost a fifth of transgender respondents in the aforementioned American survey of 2011 reported having had clinical care withheld; having had a diagnosis of depression forced upon them when a diagnosis of gender dysphoria would have been more appropriate; or having had treatment delayed, or made conditional upon their jumping through innumerable psychiatric and therapeutic hoops.  The determining factor in institutionalised discrimination, in short, is the peculiar chauvinism and wilful ignorance of powerful individuals: prejudice is only intrinsic to a system – medical or otherwise – when its practitioners allow it to be.

The reason I was so unnerved by the discrimination I encountered at work (and in my subsequent attempts to find another teaching post) was that I had been naïve enough to believe that the rhetoric of equality, social justice and the celebration of difference, which permeates schools’ promotional literature, is true, and that it applies to me.  It came as a genuine shock to learn that individual difference would only be tolerated within narrow, institutionally sanctioned parameters; and that the language of acceptance, family and community that peppers head-teacher’s speeches and litters school prospectuses and websites, is actually an obfuscation of school managers’ deeply ingrained conservatism and almost obsessive need for conformity.  (In private schools, I have subsequently discovered, this dogmatism runs even deeper, and leads to a level of discourteous illiberalism that would make a drug-dealer blush.)

I lost my job because teachers are considered interchangeable and immediately replaceable.  No matter how good a teacher I thought I was, someone equally capable (but much less complicated) was ready and willing to step into my shoes.  Teaching, it turns out, is not considered a highly-skilled occupation – like, say, cardiology or plumbing – so it really doesn’t matter if one teacher is sacked or not appointed: there is always someone else who can take their place.  Appointment to a teaching post doesn’t depend upon technical expertise because, in the teaching profession, competence can be acquired by pretty much anyone in a relatively short space of time.  When a university graduate and someone on the brink of superannuation can be considered for the same job, it is almost impossible to argue that experience counts for very much, either, so it is small wonder that a head-teacher’s personal bias has the room to be such a determining influence in the selection of staff.

The usual remedy for subjective prejudice in professional recruitment practices is to introduce layers of bureaucracy designed to act as checks and balances to employers’ innate partialities – the use of equal-opportunities monitoring forms, for example, or the observation of job interviews by disinterested third-parties.  These attempted solutions do not remove prejudice, however, but create more ways for it to enter the selection process: the more people who are involved in making appointments, the greater the number of individual partialities that can muddy the waters.  Affirmative action and mandatory employment quotas may force bigots to not to heed the calls of their small-minded consciences when they are interviewing for new staff, but I believe there is a more palatable, truly meritorious way removing prejudice from the process of job recruitment.  It is surprisingly simple; deals as effectively with nepotism and favouritism as it does with transphobia; and borrows its format from nineties’ Saturday-night TV staple, ‘Blind Date’.

Blind Date Frame
Ber-line-der Day-te! – a defunct Saturday evening game-show furnishes an unlikely but effective model for eliminating employer bias and ensuring full equality in professional recruitment practices

In blind interviewing, potential employers have all the information they need about a candidate’s skills, qualifications, experience and expertise, but they do not know the applicant’s age, gender, ethnicity or name.  Interviews take place from either side of a screen, which eliminates the possibility that anything about the candidate’s appearance is influencing the employer’s opinion about their suitability for the post.  The absence of any demographic information ensures the offer of employment – if one is made – is based entirely on the content of the applicant’s mind and the quality of their character, and not whether they like the colour of their tie or the shade of their lipstick.  Employers will thus be unable to recruit people based on how old they are, what gender they identify as, what colour their skin is, what they are wearing, and which country they were born in.  Only when an offer of employment is made (or not) is the screen withdrawn, and it is only then that the CEO of Morgan Stanley (or wherever) can discover that the owner of the fruity baritone they have heard waxing lyrical about asset management or revenue liabilities is not a dead-ringer for Brian Blessed, but a petite, peroxide-blonde who answers to the name of Fifi-Trixibelle.



The report by the UK parliamentary committee, Transgender Equality (January 2016), remains here…http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmwomeq/390/390.pdf

The report of the 2011 US National Transgender Discrimination Survey (‘Injustice at Every Turn’) can still be studied here…http://endtransdiscrimination.org/PDFs/NTDS_Report.pdf#page=8

An object lesson in equal-opportunities recruitment practices can be watched here…                                                                                                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj_ewz53Frk

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