The office doors of perception

A look at a unique set of men reveals how gender still affects us in the workplace.

(Photo: Bill Clark/Newscom)

There are probably very few women in the workforce who, at some point or another, haven’t wondered if their colleagues, clients and suppliers would treat them differently if they were men. How many men, though, wonder the same thing; would they be treated differently if they were women?

There’s a very unique set of men in the workforce who are able to answer not just one, but both of these questions. They are the men who partway through their careers stopped being outwardly identified as women and instead became identified as men. And a recent study by Kristen Schilt, a University of Chicago sociologist, focuses on exactly those experiences among female-to-male transsexuals.

The men in Schilt’s study came from a variety of educational backgrounds, races, ages and professions and, as you would expect, they had a variety of different experiences as men.

Those who were older and white found that they were given more authority and respect than they had experienced as women. They were perceived to be right more often and encountered much less resistance when they expressed their opinions. Some even reported that employers who had sanctioned them for expressing knowledge as women rewarded the same behaviour when they were men. They were given more resources and support at work, improving their job performance, and, perhaps as a result, they saw improvements in their income.

Many of Schilt’s participants found that when they “took charge,” that behaviour was now seen in a positive light. Before, as women, their bosses and co-workers would read that same kind of behaviour as excessively assertive. For some men, though, this was a problem, not a benefit. African-Americans who had transitioned from female to male felt that, as men, they couldn’t express frustration or annoyance at work without being sanctioned—they were seen as being aggressive, even threatening. On the other hand, Asian women who transitioned to male found themselves facing criticism for being too passive. And those trans-men who were short or young-looking—the latter a particular problem when new beards were still in the peach-fuzz phase—had to face a whole new set of stereotypes as men, for either not fitting a macho stereotype or for looking inexperienced.

There’s a story in the study’s literature that I really appreciate, because it is something that anyone could do as an experiment to see how gender perception works in their own workplace. In it, a trans-man tells how in a conference setting he intentionally repeated a comment that had just been made by a woman. She had been shot down by the speaker for making the comment—but when the trans-man made exactly the same observation, the speaker excitedly proclaimed, “Excellent point!”

The value of Schilt’s work is in its use of the experiences of extraordinary people as a lens to reveal how the value of human capital—an individual’s education, experience and abilities—is tied to gender perceptions. As an economist, I find that fascinating.

Marina Adshade is a Dalhousie economics professor and author of the blog Dollars and Sex.