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Diversity in tech - a trans woman perspective

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett April 17, 2018
A personal story from one trans woman about the tech sector's attitude towards diversity in the workplace.


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Supporting the trans community should be a core element of any diverse and inclusive workplace, and technology firms have been some of the most vocal in this area.

Case in point: when transgender student Gavin Grimm took legal action against the Gloucester County School Board, Virginia over his right to use male bathrooms, many of the biggest names in the tech sector signed a Human Rights Campaign brief in his support.

The firms, including Apple, Airbnb, eBay, Intel, LinkedIn, PayPal, Salesforce, Twitter, Yahoo and Yelp, wanted clearly and publicly to disagree with Donald Trump’s decision to rescind protections for transgender students, which allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.

Elsewhere, the Transform Tech initiative has recently won financial backing from Slack to develop a guide to help tech companies accommodate a range of gender identities; while the second annual Transform Tech Summit took place in March, hosted by Salesforce and examining the issues facing trans people in tech and how the tech sector can help the trans civil rights movement.

Yelp has also shown how technology can be put to good use to support trans gender people, building bathroom data into its platform that already tracks elements like Wi-Fi, bike parking and kid-friendliness.

However, for all these positive instances within the tech sector, the broader picture is less rosy. According to the 2016 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, based on the responses of 6,450 trans people, 90% of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it. Furthermore, 47% said they had experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender non-conforming.

A positive workplace

Fortunately this hasn’t been the situation for Samantha Whitehorn, an operations manager at converged services provider GCI, who is currently transitioning from male-to-female. Whitehorn shared her experiences with us about working in the technology sector as a trans woman, and how from her position she feels the industry could take further steps to better support the trans community.

Whitehorn came out to her close friends and family in January 2017. In a move that must have taken just as big a dose of bravery as telling that group, she also told her line manager and HR at the time. The idea was to put a plan in place for coming out at work. She explains:

I’ve always been one that likes to plan things, so coming out at work was planned meticulously. I worked closely with HR, and set to coming out. In February, I met with everybody individually that I could, face to face to let them know. Also, in private I wanted to let them ask questions if they had any. Like most people, when I first told my manager, he was taken back a little, but was fully supportive once it was understood properly.

Whitehorn took the month of March as a period for contemplation and to allow her co-workers to think about it, chat about it and adjust:

Then, April 10th 2017, I came into the office as me - Samantha.

Armed with a new name, a new email address and business cards to match, Whitehorn faced the prospect of that first day on the job with her new identity. Fortunately, HR had been very supportive in the lead up to the big day, allowing her to sound off some concerns and offering reassurance:

Pretty much immediately after I was me all the time, it was just like a normal day in the office. There was a period where some people had to adjust, as did I, but now I don’t even feel like I need any support. Everybody treats me with respect, and me being a trans woman isn’t even a thought most of the time.

I think by compiling all the worst-case scenarios from my friends that have gone through the same process, I was extremely apprehensive about how it would be met. But I can genuinely say, that the company and colleagues have been amazing. My change has only been met by respect and support. The process has truly left me feeling humbled.

Whitehorn’s identity change certainly doesn’t seem to be holding her back. In fact, her most recent promotion to Enterprise Sales Support Team Leader came in February 2018, a year on from her coming out.

This is a huge challenge for me, and I am really excited about it. My current challenges include working on consolidating and improving sales processes across the companies acquired by GCI. It also means I have to manage and cross train the team spread across multiple sites in the UK.

Inclusive tech

Outside of the workplace, Whitehorn hasn’t had such a positive experience with her transition so far:

The process isn’t quick. I saw my GP, and had to convince them that I am transgender. When they agreed, I was referred to the Gender Identify Clinic. This is where hormones are prescribed, and all other things are addressed regarding the change. This is a 14-22 month wait at the moment, so I haven’t got my appointment until May. All I have been able to do so far is the admin side of life. Changing my name and then updating all my personal records and accounts.

Luckily the technology industry has been much quicker to embrace Whitehorn’s new identity, a fact she puts down to its inclusive nature. Whitehorn hasn’t come across anyone raising an issue or being visually uncomfortable with her at meetings; instead what is apparent is the diversity of employees at GCI, its customers and other vendors:

This may be skewed slightly as my roles have been within the sales section of the tech sector, but everybody is focused on the deals and looking after customers. There is often such a volume of work that people don’t even think about the gender/ethnicity/sexuality of a person. Aside from the UK becoming a more tolerant and accepting place recently, the team morale from working together under pressure is often enough to negate anybody being excluded.

While Whitehorn holds the tech world in high regard for its inclusivity, she believes it’s the people rather than the sector that are important. There will always be nerves, no matter what the sector, for someone going through this experience.

Whitehorn says for her, she felt more at ease going through the process in an office-based environment, as opposed to a manual labour environment like a garage, building site or factory, as that’s what she’s used to:

I don’t think a sector plays a massive part in my level of comfort, as it would all be down to the people. Equally, I feel more at home in an office environment.

Wish list

Despite her largely positive experience, Whitehorn has a couple of items on her wish list she’d like to see tech companies introduce to further support the trans community. This includes networking groups to help trans people connect with others in a similar position:

I was in school during a period when it was very taboo. There was no education on the subject, and many chose to stay in hiding, like myself. If I compare it to the support groups and charities they have for children and young adults in schools now, with all these groups and support, there are thousands of children that know it’s fine to be who you are. It’s wonderful to see.

I think if there was a similar exposure to help and support adults, as there is for children, it would be beneficial to many. Not just to those struggling with their identity, but equally to their colleagues who may have questions.

Whitehorn would also like to see some kind of optional accreditation, along the lines of ISO, so a company has to prove it has certain safeguards and policies in place to promote and encourage diversity.

I know it’s a hard metric to measure, but a badge like that would give potential employees confidence to apply.

My take

In the face of some depressing statistics and the negative stance taken by certain senior political leaders, it’s been heartening to hear about Samantha’s more positive personal journey. Although hers is only one example, it’s clear from her experiences with customers and other vendors that the tech sector is overall an inclusive place to be.

Hopefully some of the more forward-thinking vendors will take note of her suggestions around networking groups and an accreditation program to better and more openly support the trans community in tech.


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