Trans and gender-diverse people are facing an epidemic of discrimination within US workplaces, according to a wave of research published in the past year by the Williams Institute and McKinsey.

Discrimination in the US workplace

The studies highlight the shocking barriers to employment that members of the community face. Trans and gender-diverse people in the United States face more frequent obstacles in accessing employment, and equal pay, and are more likely to be subject to a discriminating work environment than their cis peers.

According to a late 2021 survey, the incidence of trans people living in poverty in the US is almost double that of cis people, and higher even than in other sections of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Other key findings are that cis workers make about one-third more money per year than trans workers, even when their experience and education levels are the same as those of cis people. Over half of trans employees also admitted to not feeling comfortable being out at work, with more than 60% not disclosing their identity due to fear of discrimination and violence.

Workplace cultures are, more often than not, hostile to trans people, with many experiencing misgendering, mockery, even violence, and other forms of discrimination. While last year, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order which protected LGBTQ+ people from workplace discrimination, many employers have shown to focus solely on supporting sexual diversity and failing to address gender diversity and expression. This has resulted in trans people feeling even less supported in the workplace compared to cis people.

McKinsey Quarterly’s article on Being transgender at work also highlighted that ‘both the scarcity and the precarity of transgender employment can lead to feelings of loneliness, instability, and alienation from the rest of the workforce’.

Research published by the Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law highlights the persistent discrimination and harassment the community faces when simply trying to turn up and do their job. Key findings include that near half (45.5%) of LGBTQ+ workers reported experiencing discrimination and harassment at work, including being fired due to their gender or sexual identity.

Income difference between cis and trans workers

Data taken from the 2020 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) found that 9% more cis adults were in the US workforce compared to trans adults. BRFSS data also reported that 42% more trans people work part-time, thus, being less likely to accrue the same healthcare benefits as full-time workers.

Trans and gender-diverse people in employment make less money on average than cis people. Trans people are meanwhile 2.4 times more likely to work in the food and/or retail industries, which often pay minimum wage. The 2020 BRFSS data found that on average, the annual household income of a trans adult is around $17,000 less than that of a cis adult. These differences in income were even more disproportionate among BIPOC trans people. Three-quarters of Native American trans people and almost half of Hispanic trans people earn less than $25,000 a year, compared to only 17% of white cis people.

More recently, research conducted in March 2023 found that 95% of trans people have had negative experiences at work in the past year. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conducted an in-depth survey with 2,230 trans and gender diverse people across eight countries. The survey revealed that only 5% did not report any negative or discriminatory behaviour towards them in the workplace. Over 40% of respondents also experienced sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace.

In the UK alone, BCG’s report stated that 63% of trans people surveyed were misgendered. Trans employees were also subjected to inappropriate, invasive and personal questions. On average, less than a third (29%) of trans employees were out at work. The three main reasons were fear of discrimination, previous negative experiences with employers, and not wanting to be tokenised and be the spokesperson for all trans people.

Applying for a job as a trans person

Even the practice of applying for a job can be more challenging for trans people. Due to binary gender roles and expressions still being very prevalent, many trans people feel pressure to conform to apparent gender norms in order to avoid confrontation and fit in more easily when attending interviews for potential jobs. According to McKinsey Quarterly’s survey, 50% of trans respondents stated that they were not able to fully be themselves during the job application process compared to only one-third of cis people feeling that way. Employers should make their company’s workplace culture and values clear regarding trans issues so that trans applicants know what to expect.

While applying for a job, trans and gender diverse people’s decision about a company is twice as likely to be influenced by their gender identity compared to cis people. The majority of trans people believe safety to be one of the most concerning factors when looking and applying for a job. Other reasons for avoiding certain industries and companies include the lack of diversity within the team (especially in leadership positions) and the lack of support available for trans employees.

Trans people in management and company leadership positions are extremely underrepresented. Only 19% of respondents were working as managers or senior leaders. Not being able to see themselves reflected in higher positions likely impacts how trans and gender-diverse people view their prospects for career advancement.

Even once they were hired, trans people reported feeling a ‘sense of alienation from their colleagues and managers’. Not many trans people feel comfortable talking about their gender identity and among those who are open about it, only one-third reported feeling safe.

Other out respondents stated that they were either outed or were unable to pass as a cis person. This resulted in trans employees being around three times more likely compared to cis employees to come late or not show up at all in meetings, according to McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace survey. They are also far less likely to speak during meetings and share their opinions on social issues such as racial inequity, gender or sexual identity at the workplace.

Trans people in the UK face similar issues

Although the studies focused on the experiences of trans and gender-diverse people in the United States, these issues are certainly not unique to America. More in Common, an international initiative countering social division and polarisation, published a survey this year on British people’s views on gender identity and the LGBTQ+ community. Regarding the bathroom issue, the survey found that only 39% of Britons support the introduction of unisex toilets within workplaces. However, almost half of the respondents also believe that trans women should not be allowed to use the women’s toilet if she has not undergone gender-affirming surgeries. This number decreases to 26% if the trans woman in question has gone through gender reassignment surgeries.

What can companies do to better the situation for trans people in the workplace?

More trans and gender-diverse people need to be hired (in leadership roles) and involved in the decision-making process, especially when it comes to issues affecting them personally, such as anti-discrimination and bathroom policies. However, there also needs to be more education and training provided on trans issues. It is not enough to hire a trans person without ensuring an inclusive working environment, especially given the negative experiences and discrimination that the majority of trans employees have encountered at the workplace.

Given the millions of trans and non-binary people, it is vital for companies to ensure that their workplace is a welcoming and safe environment for all and that workers are trained and educated about trans issues. This will also positively contribute to decreasing the disproportionately high number of unemployed trans people.