It’s been three years since “transgender” was announced as one of the top ten “Words of the Year” by the Collins English Dictionary. Caitlyn Jenner is old news, Laverne Cox is taking over women's magazine covers around the world and nearly everyone knows of a trans person in their social circle.
Why then are trans employees still not accepted into the workplace?
SHE: Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender Women of Africa, recently released a report that revealed that while 69% of those trans women surveyed had completed tertiary education, only 48% were employed.
“That’s the irony for me,” says the organisation’s Leigh-Ann van der Merwe. “It shows that this is not an uneducated population.
Yet whatever jobs they get are limited. Very few are in corporate jobs. And those are who find themselves either having to hide their real gender or are placed in behind-the-scenes positions.”
SHE, based in the Eastern Cape, offers an internship that provides ‘a space for trans feminists to gain some work experience and the needed skills to compete in a tough job market’.
Pi Delport, a software developer in Cape Town, shared her story with M&G late last year, saying she feels lucky that her employer and colleagues are supportive.
“My boss was, like, ‘if anybody has an issue with you, they need to come and speak to me’. I am fortunate. Many are not that lucky,” she said. “I have friends who have come out at work and were treated so badly. They weren’t fired outright, but the work environment became so hostile that they left. There are legal protections, yes, but not everybody has the strength to fight.”
‘Feeling lucky’ should not be the norm for any employee.
Trans employees are just as valuable as the rest of the workforce and it is in fact illegal to discriminate against them. Our constitution protects employees in a number of ways, and the Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act (No. 49 of 2003) deals expressly with this point.
Trans people are people too
In short, trans employees should be treated just like any other professional. They deserve the same respect and dignity, and they have the same rights.
Businesses must work to create and maintain supportive and inclusive cultures, by engaging and including trans employees, by talking to them and finding out what they need.
Yes, there are some differences and some difficult conversations may have to be had. Employers will need to discuss topics such as which bathroom the employee prefers to use, and by which pronouns and first name the employee prefers to go by. These conversations can be painless if everyone is on board and the employee feels supported.
Additionally, employers must address and condemn discrimination by colleagues or management as soon as it may occur. Being seen to protect the rights of all employees, trans or otherwise, is the best way to create an inclusive and supportive work environment.
Resources to aid employers
Cape Town based Gender Dynamix, an organisation working to advance transgender human rights, has published a “Transition at Work” guide for employers, helping them to learn how to support transgender employees.
Gala, a centre for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) culture and education in South Africa, also offers a workplace guide for transgender employees and employers.
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