Job change

Sociologist Kristen Schilt examines the lives of transgender men through an unlikely lens.

By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07
Photography by Dan Dry

Job change
 Sociologist Kristen Schilt studies how “transformations” affect the workplace experiences of transgender men.

“The men listen to more of what I say and respect what I say,” Nathan told researcher Kristen Schilt, during a conversation about his coming out to his coworkers as a transgender man. “I actually get a lot more respect from the men,” he said, than he did as a woman.

A Chicago assistant professor of sociology, Schilt studies gender perception in the workplace through an unlikely lens, examining the experiences of transgender men—people born female who identify as male—on the job. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Schilt was struck by the “persistence of unequal outcomes for men and women,” she says, such as why there are more men in high-level professional and managerial jobs. “But I was always really interested in finding a different way to look at the question.” Through interviewing and observing support groups and transgender conferences, she looks at how “transmen” interact with coworkers and how attitudes toward them can change along with gender.

Nathan wasn’t the only research subject who felt that he got more respect and authority as a man. Yet one-third of the 54 transmen she interviewed “reported no changes or negative changes in their workplace treatment” after transitioning, Schilt writes in her book Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality (University of Chicago Press), released in February. The negative treatment, Schilt reports, was mostly noticeable in those who appear gender ambiguous, are in a racial minority, or work in low-level retail positions. Elliott and Nicky, for example, worked in high-turnover retail jobs with set promotion schedules and few authoritative roles for men or women. “Transmen might do different jobs than they did as women,” Schilt writes, “such as carrying heavy boxes or working the grill in restaurants, but they were not financially rewarded differently.”

Not all of her subjects, with whom she stayed in contact to track their workplace trajectories, were open about their transitions—some chose to remain “stealth” about their transgender status at a new job. In those situations, Schilt says, when the subject could pass as a man, the difference between how a workplace viewed men versus women was often the most clear.

Between 2004 and 2008 Schilt interviewed 54 transmen about how they experienced their gender change. The subjects, most of whom were white and all of whom Schilt identified with psuedonyms, held a range of jobs—blue-collar, professional, service, and typically “women’s professions” such as elementary-school teaching.

Schilt also spoke with coworkers of the transmen who openly transitioned, studying outsiders’ conceptions of trangenderism in general. Publicly coming out as transgender at work is a risky situation, says Schilt, because the transmen “can’t really guarantee” that their coworkers will be supportive.

There’s little data on how people make sense of a coworker’s decision to switch gender, which might include hormone therapy, sexual reassignment surgery, or simply a name change. “We’ve been tracking attitudes toward homosexuality for about 30 years,” Schilt says, but there’s not much information on attitudes toward transgender people.

For her research, Schilt chose politically liberal and politically conservative cities in both Texas and California, four cities in all. Those are the two states where Schilt went to school (she earned her PhD at UCLA in 2006), but they were also appropriate because of their respective reputations: “In the popular imagination, California is considered this liberal bastion of alternative lifestyles, and Texas is stereotyped as being politically conservative.” California also has more established resources for transgender people; in Texas support services are harder to find.

She didn’t find any explicit patterns: she couldn’t say that one city’s coworkers are more accepting of transmen, or that men are treated better than women in one state but not the other. “It’s difficult to talk about patterns because the numbers are so small,” she says. But she did observe that if an employer reacts positively to the change, the rest of the staff is more likely to do so. When coworkers uncomfortable with the transition “saw that the employer was offering their support, it really seemed to curtail” negative behavior.

Some interviewees in Just One of the Guys? didn’t have the protection of an accepting boss. Many worried about keeping their jobs. Caleb, for example, a transman working a retail job in Texas, was a sales representative, which required a lot of client interaction. After he came out to his supervisor as transgender, she moved him to a job in the back of the store. Caleb told Schilt that his boss said, “We can’t have you in the public. You don’t fit the representation of what we consider appropriate.”

Coworker responses to a fellow employee’s transition often reflected a perception of gender roles as rigid—men act one way and women another. Consider Trevor: his female supervisor would ask him to move furniture and handle computer issues, even though he often reminded her that he had a hand injury and couldn’t do it. “And, meanwhile,” Trevor told Schilt, “there were a couple of big, strong women who were much bigger and stronger than me.”

To understand a gender change, some of the coworkers framed transgenderism “as something biological,” Schilt says. “So that they were able to say, ‘There was some kind of biological error; they were born in the wrong body, and they need to do this in order to fix that.”

It’s similar to how people have made sense of homosexuality, Schilt explains. In the past 30 years, “the belief that homosexuality is innate, or biologically driven, has increased,” she says. “It’s correlated—something having a biological origin makes you feel more like people should have rights because they can’t change it.”

Schilt believes that transgender research is at a turning point. She coauthored one of the first trans studies to be published in an economics journal, “Before and After: Gender Transitions, Human Capital, and Workplace Experiences” (B. E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 2008). And Just One of the Guys?—nominated for an American Sociological Association Sex and Gender Section “Best Book” award—is one of the first analyses of transgender people’s interactions in a particular environment, rather than simply individual experiences of transitioning. “But there will be many after it,” she says. “This is a topic that’s always changing.”


Return to top