Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The (Sexist) Politics of the (Transgender) Workplace

I am an NPR and PRI addict (also BBC Radio 4, which means my nerd credentials are nearly perfect). I was just now catching up on some podcasts that I had not had time to listen to and caught the episode of Marketplace Weekend that aired on July 5th.  The new host of this newly reconstituted version of Marketplace Money is the inestimable Lizzie O'Leary and she has changed the calculus of the show significantly after the rather disastrous--and short-lived--replacement of Tess Vigland with Carmen Wong Ulrich (which continues to go unremarked on the Marketplace website).  The new show has to grow into its hour-long format, but it has a lot to recommend it.  And the interview Lizzie had with Ashley Milne-Tyte about her latest story concerning transgender people in the workplace is a great sign of things to come.  Check it out:

Great but horrifying:  Ashley covered the research of a social scientist, Christin Schilt, who interviewed both trans people and their co-workers about changes in attitudes after transitioning.  The workers who had formerly been gendered female and transitioned to being male experienced a significant rise in their level of authority, in their ability to make themselves heard, and in their potential for future success.  The former men who transitioned into being women?  Just the opposite. While I was predicting this result under my breath as I listened to the interview, I was unprepared for some of the reasons why the trans women experienced a lowering of their status and more difficulties in being taken seriously: male convictions about the nefarious properties of estrogen.

Estrogen??  Really????  Male co-workers were apparently convinced that the introduction of estrogen into a circulatory system instantly produced a vapid, nail-obsessed, makeup wearing bimbo: a kind of trans Sex in the City character.  My jaw hit my computer keyboard when I heard this.  How dumb can these guys be?  And do they really think that women are all inherently disabled by the presence of estrogen?  This takes us way beyond sexism and into the realm of male self-delusionary fantasies.

Now, I happen to be a cancer survivor and there has been a marked absence of estrogen in my system for almost twenty years because of the surgeries, chemo, and other treatments that I underwent lo those many years ago.  I have noticed quite a few changes--such as a lower libido (something that is problematic in managing my life with my sweetheart) and some physical issues that relate to being thrown into menopause at the age of 38 instead of at the usual time.  What I have NOT noticed is that the absence of estrogen has resulted in a greater inclination to drink beer, belch, get into bar fights, or watch football.  In other words, my lack of estrogen has not turned me into a pop-culture caricature of  a man.  I have not turned into some bizarre Simpsons character.  I still wear heels and like makeup (masks are very handy things in the public world).  And I am still the direct, over-analytical person I have always been, estrogen-full or estrogen-free.

So how to address this level of self-congratulatory ignorance among male co-workers of women?  Do we have training sessions, ones titled "Estrogen will not make you stupid"?  How early do we have to start teaching these lessons?

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