When Morgane Oger started her gender transition several years ago, she couldn’t find work in her preferred field—freelance IT consulting.
“Nobody wanted to hire a transgender person in early transition,” she recalls. “There was a two-year period when I was untouchable.”
Consulting companies would show interest, promising to send her contracts. But once they figured out she was transgender, she says, communication stopped. “I would call to confirm and there would be some story about how the needs of the client have changed and I’m no longer the right person.”
Then, about a year ago, Oger landed a full-time job at a consumer intelligence company. She likes the gig and the benefits are nice.
“But, before they hired me, they checked with all the staff if it was okay with them if I was hired,” Oger explains. “That’s completely illegal [and] pretty offensive. It’s equivalent to an employer assembling the team and asking, ‘We’re thinking about hiring a Christian person—what do you guys say?’ ”
Oger, who also chairs the Trans Alliance Society in Vancouver, says her experience isn’t the exception.
Legal protections notwithstanding, trans Canadians face workplace discrimination, starting with bias at the recruitment stage and the difficulty of proving academic and employment credentials due to name changes. As a result, they see much higher levels of unemployment and underemployment.
A 2011 report from Trans PULSE— which polled 433 trans Ontarians— revealed just over one-third of survey respondents worked full time, 15% held part-time jobs, and 20% were unemployed. Some respondents were retired, or students.
Of those who transitioned at work, only 20% said their colleagues were always accepting, and 38% said they were mostly accepting. Forty-two percent received co-worker acceptance only half or less than half of the time—including 15% who never got acceptance.
And 13% reported getting fired because they were trans; 15% said they were unsure if their termination had anything to do with their trans identity.
These numbers don’t surprise Nicole Simes, an associate at MacLeod Law Firm in Toronto. “There’s still misunderstanding among employers about trans people’s lives and about what employers have to do,” she explains.
KNOW THE LAW
The first thing: companies need to know the law. Simes says many don’t.
The Canadian Human Rights Act doesn’t have explicit reference to protections for gender identity and expression. Neither does the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. Federal legislation offers protection based only on sex and disability.
But most provinces (Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Northwest Territories) do offer protection based on gender identity or expression.
Discrimination includes using wrong pronouns and names, asking personal questions and outing trans employees without their permission.
Simes says it will take higher damages awards from courts before companies become less discriminatory. So far, she says, damages have been low—from $5,000 to $20,000.
HIRE WITHOUT BIAS
Many trans Canadians get disqualified from job competitions in the early stages. More than 50% of Trans PULSE respondents said they couldn’t secure academic transcripts with their current names and genders. Another 28% were unable to get letters of reference with their current names and genders.
The survey also found 18% of trans Ontarians believed they’d been rejected for jobs because of their trans identities. Another 32% were unsure if they’d been turned down because of being trans.
Companies need to understand legal protections also apply during the recruitment process, says Simes. “If an employer did not interview or did not give a second interview to an applicant because they were transgender, that would be a breach of the [law].”
When considering and interviewing trans candidates, hiring managers should act the way they do with non-trans applicants, says Marie Little, a member of the Trans Alliance Society’s steering committee. “If they know the person is trans, and many of us don’t pass well, they shouldn’t express surprise, and they should use the gender pronouns of the applicant’s preference.”
Companies also need to provide training about transsexuality—not only to HR but to every single employee, says Oger. “In many cases, it’s not the employer that causes the transgender person trouble—it’s fellow staff,” she explains.
Training’s important even if there aren’t any known trans workers—many trans Canadians are afraid to come out on the job. For example, Little transitioned only after she retired from Canada Post in 2006. While her colleagues thought she was a man, her common-law spouse and friends knew otherwise.
Apart from spelling out what constitutes discrimination, transsexuality training should also dispel myths. One is that gender changes result from sexual orientation. In fact, people change genders because of a personal sense of identity.
Another myth is that it’s a lifestyle choice. “When it’s told that way, it doesn’t represent what’s actually gone on with that individual,” says Stacey Vetzal, an Ontario-based education and support worker with the Gender Journeys team at the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Most trans people realize they’re in the wrong body long before they inform their employers. “I knew way back that something was different; it just wasn’t quite clear what,” says Little. “When I was a child in the 1950s, if you were trans, you were [considered] a fetishist. It took me until I got to university and had a better library to figure out exactly what terms applied to me.”
PROVIDE EXTRA SUPPORT
It’s important to check in with trans employees regularly, particularly during the early transition stages when they’re most vulnerable.
Laura (not her real name) got good support from her Ontario employer. Three years ago, she told HR about her plan to transition and asked the department to inform her team. Then she took a week off so she didn’t have to handle questions from coworkers—HR did that.
When Laura came back, HR emailed her weekly to ensure everything was fine. For two weeks it was, but then a colleague made a misogynistic comment. “He never used to do that before, and the only woman who worked in our group before I transitioned was our boss.” Laura reported the incident, and no issues have come up since.
Companies should also eliminate bias against trans employees working with customers. “When someone says, ‘I want to transition at work,’ especially if the employee is client-facing, [companies] fear it will hurt their business,” Oger explains. She adds this perception is more common among smaller employers.
EXPAND BENEFITS COVERAGE
Apart from the psychological toll, changing genders is expensive. It always involves lifelong hormone therapy, which isn’t covered by the provinces. Companies with drug plans usually absorb that cost, which can range from $50 to $200 a month, notes Vetzal.
Certain medical procedures—which can add up to at least $50,000—often aren’t covered by provinces or employers.
Take Ontario. For trans women, the province covers genital surgeries but excludes breast augmentation, facial feminization surgery and electrolysis.
For trans men, the province covers genital surgeries and mastectomies but excludes things like facial surgery, penis prosthetics and sculpting, which makes the chest more masculine.
Outside the trans community, these procedures aren’t accepted as crucial to transition although they matter for trans people’s mental health, says Stephanie Woolley, president of Xpressions, a support organization for the trans community in southern Ontario.
That’s why employers need to offer coverage for visible procedures, Laura adds. For example, after removing all her body and facial hair, she underwent facial surgery because she thought this procedure—rather than genital surgery— would help her more with being recognized as a woman. “Who looks at your genitals when you walk on the street?”
It’s also important to cover counselling with psychologists specializing in transgender issues—something few employers do—because trans people often need psychological support, says Laura. They experience higher-than-average levels of harassment, assault and homicide. That’s why Laura won’t go out after 9 p.m.
And “the stress that accompanies living in the wrong body, transitioning and going through […] surgeries cannot be underestimated,” notes Unifor, the largest private sector union, in its manual for trans-inclusive workplaces.
Yaldaz Sadakova is associate editor of Benefits Canada.
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