Want to see how men and women fare differently at work? Change gender.
The workplace gender gap is real: In a report published last fall, the Economic Policy Institute found that after controlling for education and occupation, women are paid less than men, even among recent college graduates. In another study, researchers gave science faculty identical resumes of a candidate applying for a lab manager position, but with different names. Male and female faculty were equally likely to rate “John” higher and offer “Jennifer” a lower starting salary.
Despite a wealth of empirical evidence about gender biases, recognizing them in daily life can be difficult. But not for one group: transgender people.
“We can see the ways that men and women are treated differently and receive different pay for the same work very clearly when a person transitions from living as a woman to living as a man,” says sociologist Miriam Abelson, who teaches at Portland State University.
Abelson is researching the experiences of transgender men for a forthcoming book. Because her subjects have worked as both men and women—sometimes in the same workplace—they have unusual insight into how the experience is colored by gender.
Abelson interviewed 66 trans men around the United States. Most reported being seen as more competent, being taken more seriously, and having their authority questioned less after they transitioned. “A majority of the people I interviewed felt that they had some kind of moment where, if they didn't already believe that sexism existed, this gave them proof,” Abelson says.
One of the first things she asked them was: How did they know when other people started seeing them as men? Aside from being addressed as “sir,” they were treated in “strikingly different” ways, they told her.
“For one person, it was like, suddenly he knew how to use electronics and set up computers,” Abelson says. Their experiences varied, but for many interviewees, it was a “night and day change.”
One of her subjects, Henry (all interviewees are identified by pseudonyms), talked about his experiences as a 49-year-old working in construction. “As a male, people assume that you know what you’re talking about,” he told Abelson. “As a female, they assume that you probably don’t.”
Interview subjects reported being given more physical space and respect as men, but some thought they were perceived as threatening in certain situations, and worried their arguments with other men might turn physical.
Bobby, a 31-year-old in a small city in the South, worked with livestock and said he was surprised when he was given a promotion after transitioning on the job. He got a shot at a position he described as “the man’s job” on the farm. “Here’s your chance,” his boss told him, knowing it was “tough” work. Bobby did well with the new challenge and gained his boss’s praise.
But not all trans men benefit. Ethan, a 38-year-old African American nurse in the Midwest, told Abelson that both finding a job and performing it were easier when he lived as a woman. Patients and their family members were “standoffish” to him as a man, he said. Walking down the street changed, too—police repeatedly stopped and frisked him.
When interviewees were known to be transgender, they were rarely able to reap the benefits of being male, and often experienced harassment or discrimination at work. These men were more likely to be unemployed, marginally employed, or severely limited in their choice of jobs, especially in rural areas and conservative cities.
When the subjects from Abelson’s sample were recognized as men, more than one-third were let in on “backstage talk” (men talking with other men when there aren’t women around), including moments of male bonding over sexually objectifying women that made them uncomfortable.
“Because they don’t presume that you’re trans [they will] say a lot of things about women ... nasty things ... in a very sexual way that I would never hear if I was a female,” said Dominic, a 27-year-old Midwestern waiter.
One man was shown porn on a colleague’s cellphone. Another worked at a rental car agency where misogynistic and homophobic jokes were the norm. Banter that was “crossing a line” made him ambivalent, because the camaraderie felt good, and he worried his close relationship with his boss would suffer if he spoke up.
What about trans women? “When comparing trans men and trans women's experiences at work as men and women, women generally have less opportunity in most workplaces,” Abelson says. Traits viewed as favorable when they were men can be seen as off-putting in women. (For example, an older male worker may be regarded as distinguished, whereas an older female worker may be seen as simply “too old.”)
Abelson’s findings bolster previous research suggesting that gender inequality is a systemic problem. It’s not a case of a few bad apples or outlier workplaces with a sexist culture.
“It's complicated,” Abelson says, stressing the interconnectedness of race and gender to inequality. “It’s not enough to change policy—we need to rethink the way we create gender and sexuality boundaries in our everyday lives. We all have a role in changing things.”