Author Lily Zheng advocates for great acceptance of gender-diverse employees at work.

picThe workplace can be a challenging environment for anyone who doesn’t fit into the established culture, but it is especially hard on people who are gender nonconforming. They can face blatant harassment, but they also deal with more quiet forms of discrimination, such as a lack of promotion or social isolation.

The issue is top of mind for Lily Zheng, a trans woman of color who works as a diversity and inclusion consultant. She wants to change workplace culture to be more accepting of all employees, regardless of gender identification. Zheng and wellness coach Alison Ash Fogarty, both Stanford University graduates, have written a book titled, Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination. Zheng joined the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM to shed light on the issue. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: The debate around gender norms has been around for a while. Why does it continue today?

Lily Zheng: When you look at the experiences of people in the workplace, not just transgender people but also people who identify as the gender corresponding to the sex they were assigned at birth — cisgender people — you see that these gender norms [reinforced] by the gender binary — splitting society into men and women — are extremely restrictive for people of all genders.

For example, men aren’t allowed to be emotional in the workplace, women aren’t allowed to be confident in the workplace, and because of the rigidity of these gender norms, you see them persisting over time and affecting not just trans people but everyone in the workplace.

Knowledge at Wharton: How does this issue affect the workplace?

Zheng: It restricts people’s creative potential. It restricts people’s ability to think outside of the box, restricts their productivity, restricts their innovation. How can you create something that is going to change the world if you are acting under these extremely restrictive, implicit rules in the workplace of what you can and can’t do, how you can and can’t look, how you should or shouldn’t think?

Knowledge at Wharton: How do gender norms specifically influence hiring practices at companies across the United States?

Zheng: We saw this a lot when we talked to participants for this research. During the hiring process, there are so many touch points where bias can creep in. One of them is just over the phone. We talk to many trans folks that explain that over the phone they would almost never get a job because people would make assumptions based on their voice or how they would sound. People would read their ID cards and see that there would be an “F,” and they would expect a [female] voice, and on the phone they would hear something that didn’t sound like [a female] voice to them.

“We have these ideas in our head, these stereotypes or prototypes of what the right employee looks like.”

They would assume that maybe there is something off about this person. That bias would creep into the hiring process. Many trans folks we talked to were frustrated because they said, “In person, I can totally make this work. But over the phone, this is the only information they have to judge my gender, so if it doesn’t fit, they are not going to hire me.”

Knowledge at Wharton: You tell a story in the book about a trans woman who was told not to even bother going to recruiters because they wouldn’t take her as a client.

Zheng: That’s right. I think the quote is, “Recruiters will not represent someone with deficiencies because it reflects badly on them as a recruiter.” You see this blatant discrimination, this blatant idea that if you are trans, that just makes you worse than everyone else. Sorry, that’s just how it rolls here.

The person we talked to had no recourse. There was nothing she could do because this one facet of her identity overpowered all of her workplace experience. She had executive-level experience working for a major tech company, and she couldn’t find a job in the Bay Area because people were just fixated on that one aspect of her identity.

Knowledge at Wharton: Why aren’t businesses judging job candidates on their capabilities instead of these other factors?

Zheng: It is difficult because even when people are doing in-person interviews, you see these same sort of biases appear. It is because we have these ideas in our head, these stereotypes or these prototypes, if you will, of what the right employee looks like. I would say that despite all of our rhetoric about hiring based on merit, we still have these implicit ideas of what a good employee looks like or what the right employee looks like. All of this language about hiring for fit and fitting the culture is just coded language to say we want people that look and think like us despite their merit. And that is still not OK in the workplace.

Knowledge at Wharton: Does the problem become worse the higher you go up the corporate chain?

Zheng: That’s right. This is one of the largest contributors to the fact that there are, to my knowledge, no trans people in C-level positions at Fortune 500 companies. You see this problem across race, across class, across religion. Overwhelmingly, the C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies are cisgender, white, heterosexual men. The visibility of that population is self-reinforcing. It creates this vicious cycle where only people who look like that and have those life experiences enter those positions regardless of merit.

Knowledge at Wharton: What needs to happen for this to change?

Zheng: We really need to take a look at diversity and inclusion through this new lens — not through a race-blind or a gender-blind lens, but recognizing that our identities make us important and valuable. There is a value to having a cisgender, white, heterosexual man in the workplace. That is a unique experience. And that experience has nothing to do with the experience of a transgender, bisexual, Latino woman.

“The manager is really the point that we identified that changes everything.”

That diversity of experience lends itself to so many different ways of thinking, ways of doing, ways of acting in the workplace. Rather than just saying we are going to ignore your identity and hire you on the basis of merit, we should say, “Your identity has everything to do with the way you go about your work, so how can we bring identity back into the workplace.” We should say, “There is something about you, something about your life experiences that makes you special, and we are not going to try to erase that in the workplace.”

Knowledge at Wharton: We talked about the challenges of representation in the C-suite, but what about down the corporate chain? Someone who has been working for a company for two or three years may find it harder to get that first promotion because of bias.

Zheng: Absolutely. We saw a story of one trans woman who was considering transitioning in the workplace, and she saw a VP-level co-worker transition. This co-worker was set up for a promotion and a whole bunch of career advancements, and her career stagnated. She couldn’t get promoted, she couldn’t get a raise. Just watching that experience convinced this person to quit the company. It was a message that the company wasn’t going to be a space where she could be herself.

Knowledge at Wharton: Are there companies that are at least thinking about this as an issue that they need to address?

Zheng: There are some. I can’t name specifics, but companies that have supportive managers are making a world of difference. The manager is really the point that we identified that changes everything. When there is a direct manager that can support trans employees, and a direct manager that models behavior, then the workplace becomes a radically different location for trans people to experience authenticity.

When managers say, “We’re not going to have an explicit dress code in this workplace. We care less about dress code than about you being professional and talking to our clients professionally,” that is what matters. Ideas like that take the focus off of these arbitrary rules and refocus on the real things that the company should be caring about. Managers are experimenting with these things, and the ones that are succeeding are the ones that are thinking critically about their role, thinking critically about the company, and seeing gender as what it is, which is just a series of assumptions. We can’t say “be masculine” in the workplace when what we are trying to say is, “Be firm with your customers.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Does the desire for employee retention positively affect gender diversity?

Zheng: Well, here is the catch: To treat trans employees right doesn’t mean just making small fixes to your company. To really address this issue of gender norms, companies need to look critically at everyone and everything. It is an issue of company culture and an issue of leadership. It is not just that we are going to build one bathroom and hope that the trans people are going to be happy with that. This entire system of telling women that they should do this and telling men that they should do that is impacting men, women, trans people, nonbinary people, gender diverse people, everyone.

These are the sort of large, sweeping changes many companies are wary of. As a result, they are only doing these shallow, surface-level changes that are not succeeding in retaining their trans employees and, to be honest, not succeeding in treating their cisgender men and women employees well to begin with.

Knowledge at Wharton: You have a chapter in the book that is titled, “The Anatomy of Discrimination.” It explores the many facets of discrimination. Can you talk about that?

Zheng: I would say many of these things apply to people who aren’t trans. For example, one of them is gender policing. Trans people reported that, overwhelmingly in the workplace, they were pressured, harassed or told to change the way they dress to conform to these hidden gender roles. We had one person who worked at a tent company who said, “I would come to work some days wearing a kilt or a dress, and I noticed that on those days suddenly my work became more critiqued. Suddenly, I became more micromanaged. The HR representative needled me to change my clothing in the middle of the day.” As a result of all of this harassment, this person was extremely uncomfortable in this workplace and ended up leaving.

“Women are pushed down in the workplace, and [trans women] are punished for moving away from masculinity.”

Many people have experienced discomfort or pressure to look or appear a certain way at work, whether or not you are trans. This is just one of the many kinds of discrimination we found.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a difference of perception for male and female transgendered people in the workplace? Are they treated differently?

Zheng: This is a very, very interesting topic, and we looked at this closely. We looked at the experiences of transgender women, people who transitioned to become women, and transgender men, people who transitioned to become men. What we found overwhelmingly is the people who transitioned to become men in the workplace all received major boosts in their respect, in their pay, in their work experiences.

People were finding that when they became more masculine, they were suddenly more accepted in the workplace. We have this one story of this sales analyst who was initially perceived to be a lesbian woman in the workplace and received a lot of discrimination. When this person decided to come out as a trans man, suddenly he was part of the boy’s club, suddenly everyone was treating him well. He would get invited to play basketball with the guys, he would get included in the guy’s conversations, his boss treated him better, he got a pay raise, he got more responsibilities.

This feeds back into the idea that there are some people who are more valued in the workplace than others. Trans people give us this window into looking at how these gendered relationships play out because trans people move. Trans people change the way they look and change the way they appear, and that tells us so much about men and women and gender in the workplace.

Knowledge at Wharton: It sounds like no matter the situation, the impact on women is more significant than on men.

Zheng: That’s right…. We are seeing trans women experience just the opposite effect as I was talking about. People who used to be perceived as men in the workplace, when they transition away from that, they get doubly hit for two reasons. One, they take on this mantle of womanhood, which is not a benefit in the workplace. Women are pushed down in the workplace, and [trans women] are punished for moving away from masculinity.

“What I hope will happen is that trans people continue to experience gains in visibility.”

Men get really threatened when they see trans women transition because they think, “Why would you give up being a man for that? Why would you give up being this superior gender for whatever you chose now?” So, trans people receive this twofold discrimination. Trans women receive it, and it contributes heavily to the rampant underemployment and unemployment among trans women populations, especially trans women of color, for whom all of these problems are exacerbated.

Knowledge at Wharton: What does the future hold for transgender people in the workplace?

Zheng: What I hope will happen is that trans people continue to experience gains in visibility. As we found in the last four years since 2014, when Time Magazine announced the trans tipping point, the visibility of trans people in the United States and around the world has continued to grow, which is amazing. It is fantastic to see.

However, we have seen that this growth in visibility hasn’t been accompanied by meaningful changes in discrimination experiences, in standard of living, in many of these measures. I hope that continued visibility will start conversations in the workplace, and that these conversations will begin to chip into these long-held ideas about gender, gender norms and gendered systems.

I hope that change will eventually begin to shape structures, to shape norms in the workplace, to shape leadership, and that we can start to see these workplaces where truly inclusive cultures will be built. That is the hope. What I expect will happen is that many companies will choose the easy way out and will attempt to cover [themselves].

But liability is one of the most important things for many companies, so they will respond to lawsuits and they will respond to bad PR, and they will respond to trans people calling them out. However, these kinds of high-profile cases are not going to make a meaningful difference on changing workplace cultures. In fact, it might have the opposite effect.

When a company sees that hiring a trans person who later sues them is going to be bad press, that is going to be more incentive for them not to hire trans people. That is going to be more incentive for them to retaliate against trans people. That is an experience that, unfortunately, we saw a lot of in the research.