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Everyone can make a better space for trans people in the workplace

New research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) highlights some of the challenges that trans and non-binary staff can face at work but also shows how even seemingly small actions can create a more inclusive environment.

Trans workers are often subject to discrimination, harassment and violence, despite gender identity being a protected characteristic in many contexts. While there are various examples of good practice and initiatives to make workplaces more inclusive, there is little research that tells the story of employees being trans at work – this article addresses the gap.

This new study, published in the journal Work, Employment & Society, looks at how individual experiences combine with organisational culture, processes and working relationships to produce moments where diverse gender identities can be accepted (or are unfortunately denied).

Lead author Dr David Watson, Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour at UEA’s Norwich Business School says that the findings of the research are important because trans and non-binary people do not have a strong voice in all workplaces, and a lack of inclusion or welcome can lead to significant harms to their wellbeing.

The research team, from UEA and the University of Valle d’Aosta in Italy, met with 11 Italian trans workers to hear their stories, which were then analysed to understand how their experiences challenged binary gender norms and how they could inform the transformation of workplaces so they become more inclusive.

“Our encounters convey some of the stigma and harms that trans workers can experience, however, we also heard about positive experiences,” said co-author associate professor Angelo Benozzo, from the University of Valle d’Aosta.

“Departing from expected gender norms exposes individuals to vulnerabilities, although it may also prompt reflection on the nature of gender, thereby encouraging acceptance in the workplace and reducing vulnerability for others.”

The study is based on an understanding of gender that sees gender identity as a something which is performative and potentially fluid rather than fixed and given. Where cultural expectations of what constitute ‘acceptable’ gender identities shape how people ‘do’ gender, for example through the way they dress.

When the heterosexual model of gender is considered the default gender identity, this concept of heteronormativity reinforces gender binarism – the idea that society only has two genders, male and female – that heterosexuality is expected, and other gender identities are regarded as less intelligible or even acceptable.

Accepting and consistently using names and pronouns is of course a vital part of making an inclusive space – note the difference this made to Vittorio:

. . .he spent the whole summer never calling me by name, trying never to use any pronoun, nor anything, so I said: “oh well, it’s okay even so, in short, better than nothing” and instead suddenly, in September, he began to call me by name, so it struck me more, because it was not necessary at this point to make this step because now he could go on like this, this middle way in short, this neutral thing even if we want, instead he started to talk to me too, oh well I take it almost as an apology in an indirect way. . . (Vittorio)

Small acts by everyone and anyone to go beyond the binary themselves can help make the space more trans-friendly.

The research study does not emphasise the need for trans workers themselves to subvert gender norms, but rather highlights that we all can challenge binary gender norms in the workplace to enable all individuals to freely express their gender identity.

‘Trans people in the workplace: possibilities for subverting heteronormativity’ by David Watson, Angelo Benozzo and Roberta Fida, is published in Work, Employment & Society and is open access (free) to read:

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