By Diane Hames
Few people have the privilege of experiencing the business world in two genders. There are plenty of studies that try to compare the impact of gender in the workplace, but first-hand accounts of experiencing those effects are understandably difficult to come by.
That is, unless you are transgender. In 2014, I came out and transitioned from male to female, on the job and in the board room. After a 20-year career with Daimler Trucks North America, including positions such as CEO of Daimler Trucks’ Mexico Operations and General Manager of Marketing & Strategy, I threw my white male privilege into a blender with no idea what the outcome would look like. For the most part, the company was learning and adjusting as fast as I was. Regardless of these efforts, 11 months after my transition, we agreed to part ways and I left the only company that I had ever known.
My career advanced with ease at Daimler, so searching for a job was not something that I had experience doing. Most of my past promotions were the result of being recruited into positions and had little to do with applying and interviewing. I even recall feeling guilty for being selected into positions over women who I felt were equally or more qualified than I was, but I advanced because I already had a seat at the table.
During the past 18 months of seeking comparable leadership positions in the private sector, I have developed an understanding of the risks that employers take when bringing outside talent into an organization. It has made me rethink many of the decisions I made as a hiring manager and what kind of bias I carried into the selection process. One of the concepts that I have become painfully aware of is the “organizational risk” that a manager implicitly takes when hiring a person who does not fit into the norms of their organization. Rarely is a manager going to have their judgment questioned when they bring in a qualified candidate who looks and speaks like the rest of the management team.
Sadly, when that manager hires a candidate into a senior position who wears a hijab, speaks with a thick accent, has a visible disability, or has a unique gender history, many organizations believe this is a risk.
I have been told by hiring managers who are friends of mine that they would love to hire me, but their management wouldn’t go for it. I may know their children and understand their rationale from a personal perspective, but it has repercussions.
Transgender people face extremely high rates of unemployment and underemployment in the United States. A recent study by the National Center for Transgender Equality has shown that 15 percent of transgender people are unemployed – three times the national average. Further, 77 percent report taking steps to hide their gender identity in the workplace to avoid mistreatment or discrimination. Let that sink in.
I am fortunate in that I do have a choice in this matter–I have chosen to hire myself and work on my own terms. Fortunately, I am finding that many people and businesses are interested in hiring my skill set and services, even if they may not have been willing to risk hiring me as a part of their management team.
Unfortunately, most transgender people do not have this option available to them. Basic Rights Oregon’s Fair Workplace Project aims to assist employers in creating inclusive work environments for all employees. By offering fee-for-service training programs, Basic Rights Oregon can educate companies on how to create transgender inclusive benefits packages, how to support transitioning or gender non-conforming employees in the workplace and can assist in developing employment policies that are in compliance with federal, state and local civil rights and labor laws.
It is more important than ever for companies and organizations to set the tone at the top to break down the perceived organizational risk of hiring diversity. Leaders like Nike’s Mark Parker and apple’s Tim Cook demonstrate the “walk the walk” attitude in their public statements against discrimination and racism in all forms. These public statements not only influence political discourse, they also send a clear message to their organization about embracing diversity. Conversely, executives like Roger Ailes and Travis Kalanick also illustrate how the contrary approach hurts the bottom line.
Diane Hames works as a marketing and strategy consultant serving local businesses and global companies in the automotive and technology space. She provides consulting and advisory services through her company SMO Strategy Consulting and is in the process of starting a new company, Bleukar Marketing, to serve the marketing needs of her clients. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post was originally published in the Portland Business Journal.