Gender bias? A transgender perspective!
I’ve been looking forward to writing an article about my personal views on the gender bias for a long time now. After countless drafts that have never seen the light of the day, I think I’ve finally found the missing piece.
If you are in a hurry for an answer, I must say that this XKCD comic entitled “How it Works”, summarizes it all:
I am a transgender woman, which means at some point in my life I used to be a man, or better, used to be seen as a man. That gives me a unique perspective on gender that I want to share with you today.
The Beginning: Life as a Man
Life isn’t easy. For anyone.
But you may say that it can be a bit easier for some groups of people. I was born a white male and was interested in girls, which placed me in the most advantageous group: the infamous “cisgender” heterosexual white male.
I had some minor drawbacks though… I was born in a poor family in a very unequal country (Brazil). I’ve studied all my life in public schools, which meant a really bad education, and had little access to everything, from clothes to technology.
I felt something was wrong with me since I was 4 years old (gender-wise), but I’d chosen to ignore it because I had bigger problems. And by “bigger” I mean my big brother, who used to beat me up almost every day until my early teenage years. There was no time to think about gender identity… I had to “man up” to resist the beating.
That experience turned me into a very introverted kid, and interacting with machines — video games first and computers later — was my escape route. They were much easier than people. That’s how I got into IT.
Until I got to the working age there was no clear benefit of being born male, but soon things changed. Here’s how a typical job interview looked like in my early days:
- Interviewer: Do you know how to do this thing?
- Me: no.
- Interviewer: And what about this other thing?
- Me: also no.
- Interviewer: You are hired!
Yeah, I’m exaggerating a little bit… but the bottom line is that people were much more inclined to believe that I was able to learn the job on the job. Almost every resume I’ve sent got a reply, and back then my resume didn’t even fill half an A4.
I was used to being asked my opinion in every single important decision, no matter what kind of job I was doing. People really wanted to listen to my ideas.
In my later years, when I was working at Oracle, I recall feeling almost like a celebrity every time I visited the HQ. Everybody wanted to talk to me, get my feedback on their projects, wanted to know what I did to overcome this or that situation. My projects were highly boosted around the company.
I was never a top performer, but still I had a consistent portfolio of projects closed and always overachieved my quotas by at least 20%.
In my last days as a man I was being scouted by other teams to make a lateral move. Also my boss had promised that a promotion would happen very soon. It seemed that I had everything under control.
But it wasn’t.
I was dying inside from living a life that wasn’t mine. So, I took the bold step to come out as a transgender woman. And suddenly, my life fell apart.
The Coming Out: Life as a Woman
There is one person I’ll be eternally grateful for helping me handle my transition: Alberto Brisola. He was the head of human resources at Oracle Brazil, and he supported me for two years before I had the courage of coming out to my team.
Having the head of HR on my side and having spent enough time to prepare, I finally decided to make a move in August 2014. I decided for a two-step approach, first telling my manager and director, and then telling my team. The meetings had been set two weeks apart from each other.
I must say, inviting my bosses and the head of HR to the same meeting was kind of fun, especially because I asked for the subject to remain secret until the actual meeting. My boss tried to get the subject every opportunity he could, but I didn’t break. Both of them even started making bets about what the real issue was. Of course, they only told me about this later.
The meeting went more smoothly than I expected, and we ended up laughing from the secrecy I’d created and their hypothesis for the meeting. Funny enough, one of them almost got right, but he discarded the idea for looking too “absurd”.
Then I had to tell my team. I used a team meeting that happened at the beginning of quarter. It was just before the lunch, my boss made a brief statement saying I had some important to say, and then for the first time in my life I said that I’m transgendered out loud.
I still remember the silence soon after I’d told them… it seemed like an eternity, until someone decided to make a silly joke to break the ice. Other people then praised me for my courage, but most of them left that room without really understanding what was happening.
At first, I thought everything went ok, but only the time would show the impact of that day to my career.
The company had a very strict policy against discrimination, but that doesn’t say much about forcing individual social interactions. A small group of very enlightened people started treating me as a woman, and that felt really empowering, but most of the people simply avoided me completely or talked about me behind my back.
I was no longer a person to be asked for opinions, the ways I had previously solved my daily challenges were no longer relevant. When I was a man, I was taught to brag about my feats, to take ownership for my winnings… when I started doing that as a woman, oh my, “she’s just too arrogant”, or, “she’s not that good as she says”.
It’s really crazy. Technically I was the exact same person. Even better: I was a person that wasn’t spending a lot of energy hiding her true self, so I could focus 100% of my energy into the job.
That was my best year as a sales consultant, and yet, no one seemed to care about me anymore. The lateral move offers were withdrawn. The promotion never came. My ideas didn’t seem relevant anymore.
I was really new to this “womanhood” thing, so I didn’t understand what was really happening. It took me a while but eventually I understood: it was nothing against me, I was just getting exactly what I’ve asked for… I was being treated as a woman.
Life as a woman is strange. Men started treating me differently everywhere. They opened doors for me, they offered to carry my things, they smiled at me, they talked to me in a soft tone and mild language. Almost like I was a frail little flower so vulnerable that needed protection everywhere.
All that is very sweet, but I would trade it anytime for equal pay and professional respect. One interesting aspect about job seeking while female is that I’ve sent literally hundreds of resumes every month to get zero replies. Yes, zero.
After I was laid off from Oracle it took me 6 months to get a new job. I even did a non-scientific experiment where I tried using different combinations of my new name and old name, with or without mentioning that I am transgender… can you guess which resumes got replies?
So, how did I ended up getting a new job? The good old-fashioned way, networking. And one thing that bugs me a little bit about this is that the person that referred me to my current role knew me as my old self. I’m yet to get a job solely based on my reputation as a woman.
And yes, people don’t assume I can learn anything on the job anymore…
The Second Coming Out: Life as a Transgender Person
I lived as a woman for a while until I perceived something else was bothering me. I identify myself as a woman, but when exchanging ideas with other cisgendered women I felt something was missing.
It was clear that they had way more experience than me in “womanly” things and some of those experiences I would never be able to relate. On the other hand, by hiding my former self I was losing a huge part of my history and the experiences that helped build my character as it is today.
I decided to out myself again, this time as a transgender person. It was November 17 2017, during my talk at Gophercon Brazil, that I took the final step:
The audience was composed by about 250 people, 93% of which were men. I was talking about diversity and inclusion and the best way I could find to tell that audience the importance of that subject was telling about my experiences when I was one of them. So, I said: “I used to be one of you, I am transgender”.
Simply saying this phrase out in the open has proven to be quite an ordeal though.
I was unaware at that moment but, on the same weekend, Coraline Ada Ehmke, a prominent transgender in the Ruby community, was scheduled to speak at RubyConf Brazil, but decided not to go because of death threats… yes, you read it right: death threats.
She still held a touching keynote remotely. Later she even published some of it on Twitter. You may see the entire thread here (this is the first post, click for more tweets):
I debated long and hard and decided to share this. These were the opening words of my keynote to RubyConf Brazil. Please read and think.
This is serious and, unfortunately, not uncommon. Also in 2017, another prominent transgender suffered serious harassment and death threats here in Brazil. It was the case of Evelyn Mendes, a local leader often seen fighting to inspire women to join the IT community and stay together.
Evelyn is a friend of mine, so I watched this history unfold firsthand. Her experience alone could be the reason to keep me inside the closet for at least another decade. Still, I had to do something. I felt I needed to do my part in this fight as well.
The thing is, even if you are not a prominent leader, being transgender is quite dangerous in this world. The prejudice is enough to justify the most bizarre aggressions and you don’t need to go too far to find many examples. Just type “transgender deaths” on Google and you will get plenty. That’s what motivated the creation of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, observed annually on November 20.
So it’s not surprising to see how many transgender woman and men decides to stay in “stealh mode”…
The mythical “passing”
Gender identity is like the mental gender of a given person. Cisgender people have the same gender in their minds as in their bodies. The misalignment of those two components is the main characteristic of a transgender person.
Passing is the ability of one person to be identified as the self-identified (mental) gender by other people. By that I mean, you look at that person and there is no “obvious” sign that that person is actually a transgender.
That’s the dream.
Nobody actually wants to be transgender. At least, I’ve never met one that does. So passing is the ultimate accomplishment as it means that our bodies are completely aligned with our minds. It also completely redefines our social interactions.
I’m one of the lucky ones that most of the times are completely passable, but the majority of us doesn’t have this kind of luxury.
The obvious drawback of not being passable is that you become an instant target. So passability is not only an identity goal, it’s also a mean of self-preservation.
There’s a subtle difference in social interactions when you are not passable… you see the effort in other people interacting with you to respect your gender to a greater or lesser extent. While when you are passable these interactions are quite smooth.
I had a brief non-passable phase after my transition, but I had since undergone several surgeries to enabled me to become the person I am today. The tranquility of my new social interactions was quite seducing at first. I thought… “I’m done with this transgender crap, now I can have a life”.
But the activist in me has won that battle. I’m one of those people who is constantly trying to find meaning in life. I had so much pain to become what I am today, but maybe that pain could be useful to someone else… And hence, I dedicate myself to writing those experiences in the hopes that someone find them useful. It’s way better than just keeping it all inside me.
This article ended up a little longer than I expected, but hopefully helped to show you a bit on how gender may redefine completely our social interactions and our careers. I’ve assumed three “labels” on my life so far… man, woman and transgender woman. I dream for the moment when only one label will be needed: human being.