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August 29, 2014 8:44 AM   Subscribe

“Until a person has experienced career-harming bias...they simply don’t believe it exists.”
Why Aren't Women Advancing At Work? Ask a Transgender Person.
posted by sp160n (47 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great article and a perspective on workplace bias which I think we'd be foolish to ignore. Ben Barres speaks the truth as usual: “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”
posted by capricorn at 9:04 AM on August 29 [11 favorites]


That article was a punch to the gut.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:14 AM on August 29 [6 favorites]


Obviously because they are so abrasive! /hamburger

Joking aside, this is a truly fascinating perspective. Thank you for posting it.
(I'm a cis man in a management position, so I find particular value in this kind of thing. I don't think I'm biased, but the more of this I can get deep in my brain I figure the better off I am.)
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 9:17 AM on August 29 [9 favorites]


Man, my feelings about this are all over the place.

1. I'm always kind of uncomfortable about the "trans people! They've seen BOTH SIDES let us extract their wisdom", because to my ear, it strikes a little close to TERF-y arguments about "male socialization" and such that are used to discredit and attack trans women.

1a. ...and yet, presumably Ben Barres decided to write this book because it was something he felt was important, so more power on him, and DrMew's excellent comment in this thread is one I'm glad he wrote.

2. I'm not trans, but I am a mixed-race person who passes as white most of the time, so I have some window into the "man you would NOT BELIEVE how differently things go when people perceive you as more/less privileged", so I get the drive to write about it.

2a. And yet, I find that the people who are surprised by this are usually white people. POC are already acutely aware of those quiet biases. Similarly, nothing in the article really surprises me as a woman.

1b/2b. Which then raises the question: are we giving extra weight to trans people talking about sexism because we perceive them as having the credibility of "the male experience", which strikes me as both transphobic and sexist?
posted by kagredon at 9:20 AM on August 29 [28 favorites]


I have a dear friend who is a trans woman, who transitioned some years ago. She and I worked at the same organization. I got to know her just as her transition was ending. We used to go for lunch, and she would complain bitterly about her manager and her office environment, about being stepped on and over at work, and about not being taken seriously. I remember feeling similar frustrations (working there was not fun times), but always marveled at her vehemence about her situation.

Looking back, it should have been obvious...part of her struggle had to have been that she was experiencing being treated as a woman for the first time, and was struggling with the inequality of it.

If she's reading this, I'm so sorry I was such a monumental derp that I didn't notice it at the time.
posted by LN at 9:25 AM on August 29 [18 favorites]


"One [FTM] subject noted that when he expresses an opinion, everyone in a meeting now writes it down."

My mother, who is FTM, has a lot to say about this...the short example he often gives is that as a woman, telling a difficult truth to a client would be received as "bitchy," while as a man people "appreciate the honesty." I told him he should write a book about it....glad someone has.
posted by Thomas Tallis is my Homeboy at 9:27 AM on August 29 [36 favorites]


Soooo. As a person with most of the privileges, but no one reporting to me at work, what are some good actions to take?

I've been trying to publicly encourage male co-workers not to criticize assertiveness in women and not to talk over them. I've been privately encouraging female co-workers to be more assertive, even though it can be dicey. As a more senior engineer I make time to share knowledge with everyone, but particularly female co-workers.

I also try to make it known that I can be an anonymous go-between if someone needs to correct a micro-agression but doesn't want to talk to the problem person directly.

What are the other things to do? This can be very frustrating for me, and I'm not even the victim.
posted by poe at 9:33 AM on August 29 [9 favorites]


The bit about having your authority less frequently questioned really hit home.

I am a somewhat aggressive cis-gendered woman with a strong memory for facts, trivia, and anecdotal evidence-based examples, and I can't tell you how many times in business, on dates, and in general conversation I've had dudes, ONLY dudes, not believe me until they fact-checked everything I'd said on their phone or another dude had backed me up.

It's so demeaning and exhausting and insidious. And many of the guys that do this, if you asked them, would claim they supported women's rights. They just can't seem to extend that proclivity to believing a woman at her word, especially if it involves facts, quotations, or scientific examples.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:46 AM on August 29 [79 favorites]


are we giving extra weight to trans people talking about sexism because we perceive them as having the credibility of "the male experience", which strikes me as both transphobic and sexist?

I think it's because we perceive them as having the credibility of both experiences.
posted by Etrigan at 9:47 AM on August 29 [11 favorites]


I think it's because we perceive them as having the credibility of both experiences.

Part of my discomfort here is that I think characterizing it as "both" experiences, rather than the unified experience of a trans man or trans woman, has some weird implications. Searching through my favorites, here are two comments by two different trans women that say more eloquently than I can why characterizing the pre-transition experience of trans women as a "male" experience is problematic.

But okay, let's move the locus slightly to avoid that characterization: trans people have both the experience of being perceived as male or as female (leaving aside the politics of passing for a moment.) Should that be granted more credibility? Why is it not enough to trust women, cis and trans, when they describe sexism that they've personally experienced?
posted by kagredon at 9:57 AM on August 29 [16 favorites]


poe: It's great that you're asking that! Note that any of these work just as well for other people who might not be heard in an organization — junior staff, people with disabilities, people who are just shy regardless of gender or race.

* Occasionally invite them to meetings that might be a little over their head. They'll learn by example, and attending "exclusive" meetings once in a while confers status.

* Call on them in meetings, but ask them low-stress questions like, "Do you see any downsides to that approach?" or "Are you on board with this?" It's a good question if they can get away with just yes/no so they aren't embarrassed, but encourage them to expound on their reply if it looks like they have more to say.

* If they make a good point, reiterate their name when you continue discussing it. "I want to go back to Jill's suggestion that we..."

* If someone misattributes their comment to someone else (typically a higher status individual), gently correct the speaker.

* Find out something they're passionate about and treat them like the local expert on that topic, even if it's not specifically their job. "Before we do that, does Tamisha have any concerns about the accessibility of that feature?"
posted by nev at 9:59 AM on August 29 [48 favorites]


Ben's been a godddamn treasure in the field of neuroscience his whole career, and the fact that he offers his experiences publicly is just part of him being an all around good person. He owes no one nothing, but having a respected no-nonsense prolific scientist offer this kind of evidence of sexism is a gift to women in the discipline, and hopefully more broadly as well. His response to Summers literally evoked tears of gratitude from more than one of my colleagues.
posted by synapse at 10:02 AM on August 29 [25 favorites]


What are the other things to do?

ideas from the article:

When a woman expresses an opinion, carefully listen and write it down. (Or whatever other words or actions appropriate to the situation would demonstrate you are taking her opinion seriously.)

Do not interrupt a woman.

When a woman is in charge of something, say complimentary things about her leadership.

Suggest women for promotions. (Or whatever other reward for excellence or opportunity to do higher profile work you have input into, however informally.)
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:05 AM on August 29 [6 favorites]


Why is it not enough to trust women, cis and trans, when they describe sexism that they've personally experienced?

I think it's more that there is a way to make direct comparisons about exactly the same person, with the same knowledge, education, personal history, etc., being perceived differently because of a change in gender. It's not that we should dismiss what women (or men) say, it's another piece of the puzzle to see how the same person can be treated differently in the same place by the same people by changing that aspect of themselves.
posted by xingcat at 10:05 AM on August 29 [10 favorites]


kagredon: "are we giving extra weight to trans people talking about sexism because we perceive them as having the credibility of "the male experience", which strikes me as both transphobic and sexist?"

That depends on the trans person in question (clarification edit: whether it is transphobic and sexist depends on the trans person in question). Everyone lives their life differently, everyone copes differently, and honestly if a trans woman or trans man is going to say, "I coped well enough at faking being my assigned gender that I honestly believe I experienced male privilege/a woman's upbringing/unfair gender-based preferential donut selection at the bakery/whatever," I am going to believe them.

Universalising trans experiences is what's bad: "x trans man said he experienced thirty years 'as a female' therefore all trans men experience that and all trans women experience life 'as a male'" is inaccurate and harmful; "James said he experienced thirty years 'as a female' and therefore I will consider his insights in that light," is pretty okay.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 10:08 AM on August 29 [29 favorites]


But okay, let's move the locus slightly to avoid that characterization: trans people have both the experience of being perceived as male or female (leaving aside the politics of passing for a moment.) Should that be granted more credibility?

A tremendous amount of sexism is passed off as "Well, that's just how this particular person is -- I'm not sexist, I just think that Jane is a bit too aggressive, while Jack finds a better way to handle things aggressively." These stories help punch huge gaping holes in that excuse by showing that when Jack presented as Jane or vice versa, people perceived the same person differently.

Why is it not enough to trust women, cis and trans, when they describe sexism that they've personally experienced?

Because it isn't. Believe me, I wish it were, but if that were all it took, then we wouldn't have the problem. Illustrations like this are incredibly useful in pointing out these blind spots.

It's not about more credibility. No one is taking away cis women's ability to complain about sexism. This is about adding credibility.
posted by Etrigan at 10:09 AM on August 29 [36 favorites]


kagredon - I think it's for some of the same reason lots of medical studies focus on twins raised in different environments - with twin studies, you know that the DNA is the same in both people, so differences are more likely due to the environments, and similarities are more likely due to DNA (gross oversimplification here, but it's a line of reasoning).

With transgendered people, you know that the essential thought processes, intelligence, ways of constructing arguments, educational background, and professional experience of the pre-transition and post-transition person are the same, but the differences in her/his experiences are largely due to the whether the world sees him/her as female or male.

So, if a cis-woman called Jennifer complains about not being taken seriously, that could be because she's female (and a lot of people will sympathize with that view, myself included), but some will attribute her problems to other potential causes -- lack of assertiveness, genetic differences in cognitive ability, height, genetic personality differences that lead to increased focus on children, etc..

However, if post-transition transgendered person experiences a difference, it seems much more likely (to many readers) that this difference is really because of others' perceptions and treatment of women; everything else about the person is the same, only the way she/he is perceived has changed, so this perception by others is the biggest change and is most likely to lead to the different experience.

This is similar to a study where the same résumé is sent out to potential employers, but only the name of the applicant is changed; the experience and education is identical, so if there's a difference in whether the résumé leads to an interview it's probably due only to the different names, whether the names are male vs. female, white vs. black, hispanic, or asian, etc.
posted by amtho at 10:16 AM on August 29 [15 favorites]


I agree with everything in the piece, but it's all based on the perceptions of the individuals themselves. Since my hobbyhorse is that we don't really understand ourselves all that well, that bothers me. It would be great if someone could get more "objective" data (which would quite likely say the same thing).
posted by learnsome at 10:22 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


it's the tyranny of the counterfactual. outside of a highly controlled research situation such as a lab, there's really no such thing. but people want to believe in it because it's easier than recognizing things are much messier irl.

I mean really, are we going to pretend that the majority of transfolk experience gender one way and then transition to another and there you go there's your comparison? isn't that assumption itself reductive?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:24 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Eeek, I'm going to give a big no to this article, based on the experiences that my trans friends have had. I have trans women friends who actively believe that since they have never been men, they have never had male privilege, and trans male friends who believe they are not now afforded male privilege.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:30 AM on August 29


It's definitely not a highly controlled research situation. I'm sure the experience of being trans itself has a huge effect, and pre-transition people are definitely not the same as cis-gendered people and many of them wouldn't have the same experience. Still, not all trans people are alike, and maybe there's something to be learned from those people who do report a difference?
posted by amtho at 10:34 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


amtho, I think this just gets too complicated to talk about with any degree of uniformity. Because you're talking about a small percentage of trans people that do transition in the same job, or who transition in the same job using hormones/surgery.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:42 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


That's a good point. I realized after I posted my comment that it probably seemed to go too far. It's not like there's enough material in the world for real "research", or that it's even the responsibility of a few brave people to be in that role. But they are gracious enough to present their individual experiences, for which I'm grateful.
posted by amtho at 10:46 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I agree. Perception is an interesting thing. But as has been said here many times, trans people aren't all alike, and assuming that for example that trans women have ever had male privilege is dangerous to the many trans women who haven't.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:49 AM on August 29


Jennifer Finney Boylan comments on this in her autobiography She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. Also, Norah Vincent, in Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man. We can talk to people who have experienced male and female genders, we can see just how much sexism there is in the workplace, well, and the rest of life. This is why the earnest advice to Lean In irritates me. Of course you have to lean, the playing field is so not level.
posted by theora55 at 10:51 AM on August 29 [14 favorites]


I understand the point about "controlling for variables", but it seems to me that people who are looking for a way to find confounding factors will find one anyway (for instance: presumably, arrow of time being what it is, people are older post-transition than they were pre-transition, so how long until someone says that ageism is the "real" explanation for what's going on?)

A tremendous amount of sexism is passed off as "Well, that's just how this particular person is -- I'm not sexist, I just think that Jane is a bit too aggressive, while Jack finds a better way to handle things aggressively." These stories help punch huge gaping holes in that excuse by showing that when Jack presented as Jane or vice versa, people perceived the same person differently.[...]
It's not about more credibility. No one is taking away cis women's ability to complain about sexism. This is about adding credibility.


Sorry if I was turning this towards "what about the cis women". I did my best to get away from that, but I don't think I succeeded well enough.

I guess what I was trying to get at is this: if Jane, who is trans, speaks up about sexism she's experienced, it seems like the response should not be "and Jane used to pass as male, so she should know." 1. Because Jane is a woman, and using the fact that she's trans to qualify (even in a positive way) her statements about being a woman seems...off and 2. I worry that it carries the implication that Jane's experience when she was perceived as male is more objective or necessary in some way than that she's a woman talking about sexism, which should always be enough. (This second point seems to be one that a lot of people are departing from me on, so I'm going to say I was wrongly overstating it.)

But ArmyOfKittens is right: trans people aren't a monolith. The New Republic article still kind of rubs me the wrong way TBH, but Ben Barres and other trans people who are discussing how they experienced sexism before and after transitioning should still be heard, and they are not responsible for managing whether or not cis people wrongly over-generalize those experiences.
posted by kagredon at 10:59 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


I don't think talking about pre-transition experiences in terms of folks' assigned at birth gender is particularly problematic - even if a woman knows in her heart long before she says it out loud that she's female, before she transitions she's still perceived and treated as male by other people.

Maybe this is not true for all research, but in this it's not that THEY experienced life as a male prior to transition, it's saying that OTHERS perceived and treated them as male prior to transition. Since discrimination is all about the perceptions of others, I don't think it denies their gender to discuss how they were treated by others pre-transition.

In fact, the utility of this research hinges on their internal selves being similar pre and post transition. If our hypothetical woman transitioned and underwent a massive personality shift, there are now too many confounding factors to say whether people's perceptions of her were sexism or something else (and of course this does indeed happen for some people, so you have to be careful).
posted by zug at 11:04 AM on August 29 [11 favorites]


1. Honestly, it seems like there would be a lot of difficulty separating the discrimination trans women face because they're women from the discrimination they face because they're trans.

2. LOL like there are enough trans women with jobs in the first place to support a study.
posted by Toby Dammit X at 11:04 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


(And of course it's always worth remembering that the trans women and men you see who got a way in their careers before transitioning are the ones you see and can't be taken as a model for transness or pre-transition privilege or whatever; I know more trans women who are and always have been poor, who were forced to drop out of school or become homeless, than trans women who were Successful Business(assumed)men before transition. And for a great many trans people the idea of a defined "transition period" before which people saw them as their assigned gender is also not really applicable.)
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 11:05 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]


Who writes down what other people say at meetings? Ever?
posted by 99_ at 11:09 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]


I don't think talking about pre-transition experiences in terms of folks' assigned at birth gender is particularly problematic - even if a woman knows in her heart long before she says it out loud that she's female, before she transitions she's still perceived and treated as male by other people.

Maybe. But if you talk to a lot of trans women, they were treated badly for acting feminine. They were perceived to be gay and experienced homophobia. They were often bullied. It's not so simple to say that they were treated like any cisgender guy.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:11 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Part of my discomfort here is that I think characterizing it as "both" experiences, rather than the unified experience of a trans man or trans woman, has some weird implications.

I agree it'd be wholly inappropriate to, as has been said already, universalize the experience of any trans person to represent the whole of a gender. Not only because gender roles can be so situational and personal, even as they are ubiquitous, but also because any trans person was also experiencing them as a trans person, which is an experience no cis person has. That's where I think the comparisons to twin studies breaks down. These kind of "natural experiment" comparisons are inherently noisy. When trying to universalize the single experience of a trans person's life to all men and women, even more so. Still, if any one person was going to have even the approximate capability to speak of their individual experience both as a man and a woman, it would be a trans person.

We also can discount the fact that, as is always true when dealing with personal experiences, if someone genuinely feels like their treatment changed when they transitioned, then their treatment changed when they transitioned.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:12 AM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Who writes down what other people say at meetings? Ever?

Sometimes I do this to stay awake.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:13 AM on August 29 [19 favorites]


One man said he went from being “obnoxious black woman” to “scary black man”—and was now always asked to play the “suspect” in training exercises.

Holy Christmas.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:14 AM on August 29 [9 favorites]


Who writes down what other people say at meetings? Ever?

Lots of academics do. And this reminds me of what the biologist reported: that when she questioned a mathematical idea, people thought it was because she didn't understand.

When I was studying math, I was sometimes hesitant about asking questions, because I was afraid that me asking would be interpreted differently than a male student asking. ("She has difficulty with the material" instead of "he asks questions as part of the learning process.") I certainly had the experience that when asking a question about the implication of something, the person I asked would go back to a basic explanation of something I already knew. I didn't feel like my actual question was being heard. I'll probably never know if it was due to gender or not.

I think that the perspectives in this article are valuable because these are people who did experience a difference when only the perception of their gender changed. Of course people who don't believe that bias has real effects will find a way to "explain" those experiences in other terms, but that's true for every single example of sexism that you could possibly dream up.

I don't actually like the framing of the article itself, though, because as others noted, it is very generalizing. Instead of "here are some perspectives from some trans people," the claim is very much "trans people (as a group) can tell us about this." I think I see some people in this thread who might be reacting to different parts of the article (the actual, valuable perspectives of individuals, and the less valuable generalizing of the author) and thinking they disagree when maybe they don't.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:27 AM on August 29 [17 favorites]


The article also seems to put a value judgment on "passing." Like, "Oh, this person treated me great until they found out I was assigned a different gender at birth. They totally couldn't tell." Gender nonconforming people often worry about being correctly identified in their lived gender without this sort of nonsense.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:31 AM on August 29


Cis-woman here. Reading articles like this is killing me, yet I can't stop. I can't stop being angry. I don't know what to do with all this anger.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:44 AM on August 29 [27 favorites]


Omnomnom: I think the only thing to do is to actively, intentionally support other women. Depending on where we are in our careers, we can team up with them, mentor them, coach them, praise them publicly, criticize them fairly, and promote them.
posted by mchorn at 11:49 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


Part of my discomfort here is that I think characterizing it as "both" experiences, rather than the unified experience of a trans man or trans woman, has some weird implications

I have a friend-coworker who, before she transitioned, spent considerable time working in the military and the building trades (construction, roofing, fencing, etc.). I think of her as having served as a deep-cover agent behind enemy lines, like Donnie Brasco.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:52 AM on August 29 [5 favorites]


totally right there with you, omnomnom (note my handle does not reflect my genetically-assigned gender or current gender presentation).

So, say you're female, and your (often negative) boss tells you in a job review that you need to stop bringing a negative attitude to the office. And you suspect it may have something to do with your gender. And your boss generally likes to be on the right side of issues like this. What to do? Really hard to gently bring up this issue when everyone involved is invested in thinking they're good people along these lines, and when there's power dynamics involved.
posted by gusandrews at 12:12 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


mchorn: Right on. I've been noticing lately how I tend to tune out when women start speaking, or doubt that a woman knows what she's talking about... and I'm female! (I won't get going on how often I get that from other women.)

So I've started to make a conscious effort to do things like give verbal hat-tips to other women when they express good ideas in meetings. If I notice myself tuning out when a woman starts talking, it's "gotcha, maybe you should start paying attention." I think the practice has already started yielding some results, but it's not about getting results for me so much as it is just not buying into the common unconscious practice of slighting women in the workplace.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 12:28 PM on August 29 [3 favorites]


When I was studying math, I was sometimes hesitant about asking questions, because I was afraid that me asking would be interpreted differently than a male student asking. ("She has difficulty with the material" instead of "he asks questions as part of the learning process.") I certainly had the experience that when asking a question about the implication of something, the person I asked would go back to a basic explanation of something I already knew.

This! A thousand times.

I've experienced it myself, but the worst instance I've witnessed was a friend of mine in secondary school. The school we were at was a former girls school, and many of the teachers had taught back in the girl-school days. With these teachers, male or female, kids who were good at math and science were encouraged and supported warmly.
Then, as the elder teachers were pensioned, we had new teachers and strange things happened.
My friend was hyper-intelligent and very good at everything. And she asked a lot of questions, because she loved learning. With our old teachers, this was encouraged, and she was rightly seen as one of the smartest kids in our class. Then we got a science teacher who started out by telling us that he hated the idea of women in science. And he hated my friend most of all, and always humiliated her when she asked questions by giving replies for dummies.
Together she and I were writing the papers for everyone in class (yeah, we were normal teens, and favors were distributed in many ways), but we, and the few other girls were always given D or less, while the boys handing in the exact same papers got B or more.
Unfortunately, my friends dad responded by telling her that while she was obviously wise, she probably wasn't as intelligent as she thought. She dropped out of school, and only years later she found a craft education.

Seeing all this made me an angry fighting woman. But my friend just gave up. No one wanted her brilliant brain.
posted by mumimor at 1:53 PM on August 29 [24 favorites]


Mumimor, that's incredibly sad.
posted by clawsoon at 2:42 PM on August 29 [5 favorites]


The first female Fields Medalist, Maryam Mirzakhani, mentioned she almost lost her interest in math because of a bad year and an unsupportive teacher. She didn't mention sexism at all, but when you think about that remark in the context of how many women just get discouraged right out of STEM fields for sexist reasons (whether it's individual misogynists or just pervasive, even internalized attitudes), and put it together with the fact that as a Fields Medalist this woman is one of the most accomplished living mathematicians of any gender, it's some real Fridge Horror.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:07 PM on August 29 [12 favorites]


When I get gloomy over the future of the world, one thing that cheers me up is realizing oh hey, educated women. We've used less than half our potential humanity for so long, and now we get a massive brain surge right when we need it.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:39 PM on August 29 [13 favorites]


What are the other things to do?

1) Throw us on the fucking cc line.

2) Call it out when we're not invited to launch meetings and new feature meetings even though they are products central to our jobs.

/increasingly bitter

(thanks for asking)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:39 PM on August 30 [6 favorites]


Why I Don't Ride the Night Bus, By Christin Scarlett Milloy
posted by theora55 at 7:09 AM on September 3


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