Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman popularised the theory of “doing gender.” This theory sees that gender identity is something we do – it is a performance and an achievement that people put a lot of work into, rather than some innate biological state of being. People do gender by the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they move their bodies, the types of leisure activities they engage in their spare time, through their division of labour at home, at work and in every other context. Doing gender takes work: you need to learn what’s expected of you as a “man” or as a “woman.”
Early knowledge on doing gender comes from childhood socialisation. Subsequent life experiences teach us, often through trial and error, what the norms and expectations are for masculinity and femininity in different social settings, such as at work.
West and Zimmerman argued that, since gender is something we learn to do, and doing gender leads to inequality, it is possible to undo gender inequality, by doing gender in alternative ways that do not punish femininities. The doing/undoing of gender has been an ongoing focus of gender studies, most recently focused on transgender people. I will discuss recent scholarship about how transgender people do gender at work, with a focus on the experiences of transgender women. Social scientists are preoccupied with the idea that transgender people are in a special position to “undo” gender. I want to explore why viewing transgender experiences in this way contributes to the Othering of transgender people, by amplifying their difference as a solution to gender inequality. Society can absolutely undo gender, but part of this means addressing the inequalities transgender people experience. This is something that mainstream feminism has yet to fully embrace.
Gender is not just personal identity; it is a social identity. Gender depends upon social interaction and social recognition. To this end, it helps if the biological body you were born into matches your personal gender identity. This is known as cis-gender. This gender experience is distinct from being transgender, which is where one’s biological sex does not align with their gender identity. Doing gender is time and knowledge intensive for all other genders, including transgender people, because our gender performance is constantly being judged by others.
The stories we tell about being male or female are part of doing gender. Where those stories are informed by bias and prejudice, the outcomes lead to gender inequality. As such, West and Zimmerman show that by doing gender, we are in fact, “doing inequality.” For example the stereotype that women make bad leaders is a way that we do gender. Research shows that women excel at leadership, particularly in managing diverse teams, but they are not rewarded (remunerated or promoted) for their outcomes because they lead in ways that male Executives see as weaknesses. Women take more time listening to and acting on concerns; women negotiate outcomes; and women are more likely to give the team credit, rather than take all the glory of success. In short, the traits that are considered feminine in a professional context are undervalued, and as a result women are generally disadvantaged professionally. Gender expectations impact transgender people of different backgrounds in different ways than for cis-gender people.
Doing Gender at Work
An estimated one in 1,000 Australians are transgender or intersex. Surveys specify that over 4% of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) people identify as transgender. Similar surveys overseas estimate that 0.1% of people identify as transgender in Britain and up to 0.5% of Americans are transgender. The First Australian National Trans Mental Health Study finds that transgender people face various problems at work that impact negatively on their mental health. The idea of “coming out” as transgender can lead to anxiety. The lack of general awareness training on transgender issues for employers and other staff leads to discrimination and abuse. Transgender people report:
“I’m having a hard time acquiring paid work because of my ‘trans status.’ While I can’t prove it, as soon as a potential employer finds out I’m trans the interview ends suddenly. They find out because they ask for proof of my right to work and see the female marker on my birth certificate.”
“[I was] forced to resign my job, verbally abused and belittled in front of co workers, stalked, threatened, hate mail.”
Not all transgender people experience active or overt discrimination about their gender at work. Instead, gender inequality manifests in more complex ways. I’ll focus on the everyday experiences of gender at work.
Catherine Connell is an American sociologist who has taken up West and Zimmerman’s theory of doing gender to see the extent to which gender can be undone in a professional context where transgender people work. That is; can transgender people challenge how gender is “done” through their jobs and work relationships? Connell is not a trangender woman (otherwise referred to as “cis-woman“). She conducted in-depth interviews with 19 transgender people. The majority of them were from White, middle class backgrounds. Five of the participants were in “stealth mode” in their workplace, meaning they did not identify themselves a a transgender person. In a couple of cases this was because they had transitioned a long time ago when society was much less accommodating of transgender people (notwithstanding the problems that exist today). Others said their gender was private and they had no desire to share this information with work colleagues. The other 14 participants had “come out” as transgender to work colleagues.
Connell finds that the male-to-female transgender people put a lot more work into doing gender after their transition. These transgender women talked about taking a lot more time and care in thinking about their outfits and in putting on make-up. The female-to-male transgender men reported the opposite. One transgender man talked about life being easier now, with less time spent on grooming. Notably, these findings are not specific to being transgender; rather having experienced life in the opposite gender, these people were acknowledging how “doing gender” happens. Society expects women to put a lot of time into their appearance, but the same expectation is not placed on men (and yes, this is changing, but the imbalance still places women under more scrutiny).
Doing gender requires another type of maintenance: impression management.
Dealing with, and trying to control, the judgements other people make about us because of our gender performance is part of doing gender. Connell’s research finds that, prior to transition, the female-to-male transgender men faced hostility from work colleagues for appearing “too masculine.” After transitioning, their masculinity was no longer seen as a threat to colleagues. The transgender men in this sample found it easier to achieve authority in the workplace as a man. One White male participant said:
“I don’t feel like I have as much to prove to my clients because I already get the whole, ‘Oh you’re the man,’ kind of privilege.”
At times, the participants emphasised the gender traits they learned in their early life in order to get ahead at work. For example, one transgender man says he might make more emotional appeals or speak differently when speaking with female clients, a trait he saw as being feminine.
Some people feel ambivalent about how far they would take their transition with regards to hormones; so doing gender in this case is not about physical treatments, but it is more about performing gender in other ways, such as through dress and behaviour. This is not unusual, as many transgender people do not undertake hormone therapies nor surgery. Other participants found that some aspects of their newly adopted gender status didn’t suit them. For example, one transgender woman said that acting “girly” isn’t part of who she is. This variation in “doing gender” after transitioning highlights the diversity amongst transgender people, a point that is often lost in mainstream depictions of what it means to be transgender.
Given that gender is a social identity, society is heavily invested in trying to maintain the existing gender order. To this end, society encourages everyone to get involved in policing gender – to judge and remind people of the “rules” of doing gender, with reference to a strict gender binary of male/female sex. This is part of why gender leads to inequality. Being expected to conform means additional scrutiny for those who are seen to deviate from the norm. The participants in Connell’s study find that their colleagues were constantly giving them advice about how to do gender “properly” – how to dress, how to behave, how not to behave. Even though some of their colleagues were supportive, others expressed reservations about how gender reassignment might affect their employees. One computer programmer who transitioned from male to a woman says that her boss was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do programming as well. (Because ladies don’t do computer programming, get it?) In this respect, the transgender women felt devalued in their workplace after their transition, and they adopted what they saw as masculine traits in order to gain back respect. This included being “more aggressive” during meetings. For example, raising one’s voice, banging on the table, and adopting behaviour that appears “more assertive.”
Doing gender made the male-to-female participants more aware of gender inequality. As a result, they feel they are in a better position to speak out against inequality on behalf of other women. In this predominantly White, middle class context, transgender women are more disadvantaged than transgender men. Connell argues that working class transgender people would face additional challenges which require further research. I’ll return to this point soon.
Connell ultimately argues that transgender people have a great capacity to undo or “re-do” gender at work. She sees that their experiences advance the “feminist cause of gender equality.” There are some gaps in Connell’s analysis, as her study does not really support this conclusion.
Connell’s work shows that doing masculinity in dominant ways (“hegemonic masculinity,”) is the primary method for gaining respect at work. This does not bode well for “undoing gender.” In this respect, transgender people are in no greater position of power to assert gender equality on behalf of feminism, and nor should they be expected to carry this burden.
Feminist theory has generally failed to integrate transgender issues as part of the feminist agenda. The feminist theory of intersectionality examines how inequalities are connected. Gender inequality is also impacted by racism, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination of disabled people (ableism) and other issues. In other words, the experiences and issues that transgender people face when they “do gender” are impacted by socio-economic status.
Sociologist Kristen Schilt interviewed 54 transgender men. She finds that they were quickly promoted in comparison to their slower career progress before their transition. One transgender man was promoted within months of starting a new job, while another went from working in sales to a manager position – a position that is only ever given to men in his workplace. He remarks “it’s the guys that rise through the ranks, and they rise quickly.” Other men remarked how when women speak they are ignored or overlooked, but after their transition, these men are now praised more frequently. One transgender man noted that he spoke up for a woman colleague who had been silenced during a meeting, but was surprised when he was applauded for “making an excellent point” even though he’d simply repeated the woman’s words. So as a man, he was invited to take credit for a woman’s idea. Another man remarks that after transitioning, “I’m right a lot more now.” This pattern held true for blue collar workers as well as professionals.
Nevertheless, Schilt notes that racial hierarchies persist. Transgender men whose bodies conform to the “ideal male worker” (White and tall) made greater economic gains than Other transgender men who were minorities and those who did gender in more ambiguous ways.
Stanford University biologists, Professor Joan Roughgarden and Professor Ben Barres, have experienced both sides of male privilege. Joan is a transgender woman. Whereas before she was free to share her ideas with peers who would engage with her respectfully, she is now undermined at work. She is routinely intimidated by male colleagues who accuse her of being “irresponsible” when presenting new ideas, and who literally shout her down and tell her she is wrong simply because they disagree with her. This did not happen to her when she was perceived to be a man, prior to transition.
”I will have some man shout at me, try to physically coerce me into stopping [during a conference paper] …When I was doing the marine ecology work, they did not try to physically intimidate me and say, ‘You have not read all the literature.’ They would not assume they were smarter. The current crop of objectors assumes they are smarter… You get interrupted when you are talking, you can’t command attention, but above all you can’t frame the issues.”
In contrast, Barres is a transgender man who has gained professional esteem because he is a man. When he was living as a woman and studying at MIT, a professor assumed his boyfriend at the time must have helped him cheat because, then a woman, he was the only person to get the right answers during an exam. As a medical student, he noticed only the men were given opportunities to try out difficult procedures. After his transition, all that changed: people routinely commend his ideas and praise his professionalism. In short, he notes: “I am taken more seriously.” Roughgarden compares her experience to Barres by saying:
“Ben has migrated into the centre whereas I have had to migrate into the periphery.”
Male privilege is affected by other social characteristics, including race and sexuality.
Artist Chella Coleman has also reflected on the connection of race, gender and privilege. She feels like a beautiful, Black woman, but as a transgender woman of colour, she is instead treated with fear and disrespect. It is not only her gender, but her racial background that compounds the inequalities she faces daily. For example, potential employees discriminate against her and undermine her mental wellbeing:
As I try to attain some stability, sitting in possible places of employment dressed as the woman I want the world to perceive me to be, I’m ever so mindful of my feelings, knowing how I feel affects how people see me. But when I hear the words: ”We have already filled the position,” or “I’m sorry, we are not looking for any new people at this time, but we’ll keep your application on file…” I know something bigger is at play. I see the new hires just a few days later, always assimilated black and brown non-queer folks. This happens to me all the time, and each time I reach into my belly and channel the same resilient energy my people have always had to. This is not to say it doesn’t get me down; it gets me real down.
Coleman’s struggles show that even though people of colour generally occupy a marginalised position in society, as a transgender woman of colour, she faces heightened problems of racism, sexism and transphobia. Transgender people of colour do gender in ways that are meaningful to them personally, but other people denigrate them, making them feel excluded and undervalued. The extent to which transgender people can “undo” or “re-do” gender is limited by the norms of society, and transgender women of colour bear the brunt of gender and sexual oppression.
The narrative of “undoing gender” that has been a recent focus in social science research is a position of privilege largely imagined by White cis-women feminists. This is an odd twist, given that mainstream White feminist traditions still largely ignore intersectionality, which is why women of colour and transgender people are largely missing from mainstream feminist accounts of gender inequality.
Limits of “Undoing” Gender
Catherine Connell notes that transgender people are not the only group actively challenging gender expectations (some cis-women and cis-men do this too). Still, she places a great responsibility on the shoulders of transgender people, by claiming they have the capacity to undo or re-do gender. To an extent, they are reconstructing gender, by noticing patterns of inequality that they did not see clearly before. Some transgender men now feel emboldened to speak up on behalf of women colleagues who are passed over at work. They did not have the power to be heard as women, but now, as transgender men, they have more sway. Nevertheless, gender transition brings up other inequalities.
Kristen Schilt’s work highlights issues of race. White male privilege confers greater power to White transgender men, but White privilege gives transgender women limited autonomy to negotiate the way in which their professional identities are viewed. As a result, White transgender women sometimes fall back on “masculine” traits in order to be respected at work. Conversely, transgender men adopt “feminine” traits such as listening and focusing on emotions. These strategies help them win over clients. Transgender women may or may not choose to do gender in “girlie” (that is, in conventional ways), but behaving in masculine ways is the primary way to seek equal treatment.
Doing femininity in a masculine way, however, can be seen as threatening. Transgender women may get “heard” when acting “more aggressive” but it comes with some professional backlash. Some transgender women are literally shouted into a place of submission, creating a hostile working environment. Femininity is therefore largely being punished, while adhering to dominant masculinity is rewarded.
There is diversity in the way transgender people do gender, but transgender men who embody the hegemonic ideal (being White, tall and “assertive”) face less overt forms of gender policing at work. Under the current model of doing gender, transgender women of colour are particularly disadvantaged.
The research shows that doing gender has similar trappings for transgender people as they do for everyone else. Gender relationships are constructed in ways that reproduce inequality, whether it’s a White cis-woman being ignored at work, or a White transgender man being promoted because he’s a man.
The idea that transgender people are in some ideal or unique place to undo gender inequality by virtue of their previous gender experiences is a trap. This notion falls into the general hoodwink of mainstream feminism. This conceives all women have the same needs and resources as the White middle-class cis-women who lead mainstream feminism.
To be sure, gender must be undone – we must stop rewarding gender patterns that generally punish women. Yet the professional experiences of transgender women actually suggest that undoing gender is highly complex. Transgender people are placed in a no-win situation, where conforming to dominant models of gender helps them mediate further discrimination, and in some cases, to get ahead. They spend more time and energy after their gender transition thinking about gender inequality and trying to help where possible, but they face other struggles that cis-people do not.
Part of undoing gender is undoing White feminist traditions that divide women, by marginalising women of colour and other minorities. Part of undoing gender is not looking to one group, whether it’s White cis-women, or transgender people, to transform inequality for the rest of us. Gender inequality cannot be undone at the individual level without institutional change.
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My related posts:
- Sociology of Gender
- Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People
- Visit my Pinterest for more visuals on the Sociology of Gender and Sexuality.
- National LGBTI Health Alliance – Inclusive Language Guide: Respecting People of Intersex, Trans and Gender Diverse Experience
- Zoë Hyde et al. (for Beyond Blue) – The First Australian National Trans Mental Health Study