On the Job Market as a Transgender Candidate

Brian Taylor

August 27, 2012

Most trans people in academe wait for the job security of tenure before undertaking the risky process of a gender transition. The reason is obvious: There's still a tremendous amount of discrimination and harassment toward us.

But what about identifiably trans people who either have managed to finally land a tenure-track job, or are seeking a tenure-track position in a poor job market? Where are their stories, and what are some of the special barriers that they face in hiring?

In my previous column, I wrote about my experiences explaining my transgender status to my classes. Here, I want to focus on what it's like being a transgender academic on the job market.

In academe, trans people, like everyone else, at least have the consolation that our research is reviewed anonymously for publication and, thus, can be evaluated merely on its merit. Our trans status is irrelevant and, more important, is unknown at the evaluation stage—at least in principle. But of course, that's not the case at job interviews. Furthermore, job applicants have less control than ever before over the amount and kind of information available about them via the Web to a search committee.

Recently, while still visibly trans, I attended Canada's annual conference for philosophers where I gave two peer commentaries on papers. Both were well received, and I heard compliments for the rest of the conference. I also met several high-profile researchers in the Canadian philosophy world, which was great. The people I meet at professional conferences seem to understand that I'm there as a philosopher first, and a trans person second. But I worry that job-search committees will see personal information about me in ways that do not facilitate that same understanding.

Of course we should all be aware of implicit biases in evaluating job candidates. Studies have shown that gender and racial biases (among others) influence hiring-committee members who know the names of applicants (and female evaluators show the same bias as their male counterparts). We should also be aware of the potential for explicit biases against trans applicants. Even in jurisdictions with antidiscrimination laws protecting trans people, we face rampant unemployment and underemployment. A 2006 San Francisco Bay area study found a 35-percent unemployment rate for trans persons, with 59 percent of those employed reporting salaries of less than $15,300 annually.

You might think that trans status won't be evident on a CV or in an application package, but that isn't true. Many job candidates are approaching the job market with publications. I had two before I finished my Ph.D., for example. But they were published pre-transition under my male name. I'm a little lucky that my male name isn't obviously male. If it had been something like "John" or "Dave," there would be a clear disconnect on my CV between my current, legal name (Rachel) and my old name. That would effectively out me as a transgender person. I've since added a third publication to my CV, written under my current name, and one journal has agreed to change the name on one of my previous publications (another journal could not do so).

I have an acquaintance who was told by a senior faculty member to remove all mention of her male name from her CV—thus eliminating her past work and accomplishments under that name. It diminished the quality of her CV, removing evidence that she is a fantastic academic. That is not good advice, but we can see the motivation for it: Search committees will wonder about a candidate whose publications are under a characteristically male name, and whose CV and application package are under a different, characteristically female name.

My own compromise with this problem has been to take my previous first name as my current middle name. I'm not happy about that; I would have preferred to take a much different name. But it's a way to try to get around the problem of losing credit for my work. People may merely think that my first few publications were under my middle name.

However, there is another problem far harder to avoid. Search-committee members can easily perform Internet searches for information not included in an application package. Since I'm out about my trans status, and I've published an article (now two) in The Chronicle about being trans, it's not very hard for someone to find that out in a Web search of my name.

It's natural for search committees to want to know as much as they can about candidates. They want to make informed choices about their future colleagues. But we should notice some adverse-effect discrimination here: A policy that seems fair on its face, since it's equally applied to all candidates, actually serves to disproportionally discriminate against certain candidates.

It's illegal to ask about someone's sexual orientation, marital status, and gender identity in an interview, but that information can often be gleaned, or at least inferred, by searching someone's Internet profile. Should a candidate respond by having an anemic Web presence? Hiring committees might then assume that you have something to hide or that you aren't Web savvy, both of which may negatively affect your chances.

Should I try to be stealthy about my trans status, and risk a search committee finding out? Or should I risk the committee not finding out and my possibly ending up in a department with a toxic attitude toward trans people? Or should I be fairly open about it, and risk implicit and explicit biases against trans (or LGBT in general) people, decreasing the likelihood of landing a position?

I know trans people in other academic disciplines who have faced discrimination and harassment during on-campus job interviews. I've heard plenty of such interview horror stories. It's common for hiring-committee members to mistakenly refer to a trans candidate by the wrong pronoun. I've heard of multiple cases in which faculty members even went so far as to say, "He, she, it, whatever!" to the applicant after making a pronoun error. Then there's the explicit hostility from jokes and passive-aggressive comments.

I've had to essentially eliminate half the potential jobs for which I would normally apply because they are in states where the legal protections for trans people range from slim to nonexistent.

Health care is another barrier for trans candidates on the job market. The problem for me is that nearly all the jobs in my field are in the United States. I now live in a Canadian province (Ontario) that covers the medical interventions that I need; most provinces don't, however, and virtually no American states do. Moreover, I now have a "pre-existing" condition and, thus, won't be eligible for most insurance programs that would cover my health-care needs.

So if I move out of Ontario, I will probably be moving somewhere that doesn't cover the health care that I need and want. I may have to stick around here for a couple extra years as an adjunct instructor, which is a significant career risk since holding temporary teaching gigs for too long can reduce your employability. Search committees seem to infer that you had to take a string of part-time jobs because you weren't an attractive candidate. That's a structural bias against people who have noncareer reasons for needing to stay put in a particular region.

It's a terrible bind. I'll continue to apply for tenure-track positions, but I may have to make some extremely difficult decisions based on my health-care needs, and on the human-rights protections in place at my prospective employers.

So what lessons can be drawn from these observations?

First, to avoid adverse-effect discrimination, hiring committees need to better understand that we shouldn't evaluate candidates along a single metric. For example, Mary Ann Mason argues that forgetting that women bear a disproportionate burden in child-rearing leads to an underrepresentation of women in all levels of academe, increasing in severity the further up the hierarchy we look. Treating the review of CV's and tenure files similarly for men and women—an approach that appears equitable on its face—while ignoring the effects of things like child-rearing creates a bias against women.

Similarly, ignoring the special health-care needs of a transgender candidate (which might explain why that candidate held a series of adjunct positions in the same location for longer than the usual time span) creates a bias against trans applicants (as well as others, of course). Search committees need to have more sophisticated ranking criteria.

Second, departments need to be more aware of, and sensitive to, trans issues. People who are aware of their implicit biases but don't take steps to avoid them (like reviewing files with the names covered) are more, not less, susceptible to those biases. Don't create situations that make it more likely that your biases will sway your decision. Be aware that the extra searching you may do about candidates could reveal their trans status, and that that may negatively affect your evaluation of their application.

One final cautionary note: Departments are sometimes worried about hiring trans candidates for at least two reasons. First, they might worry about how the students will react. From my experience, I can tell you that students have absolutely no problem with being taught by a trans person. And I know from speaking with other trans academics that my experience is typical, even in very conservative contexts.

Second, departments might worry that they are hiring a cause, rather than a colleague; an activist, someone who won't be as focused on research or teaching as the department would like. (Or, someone whose research focus is, in a nutshell, himself or herself.)

Well, some of us are activists, and activism isn't confined to trans persons. Activists come in all demographic stripes. The problem here is viewing a candidate as trans first, and an academic second, so that a commitment to activism that would be unremarkable for an academic appears worrisome coming from a trans person. That surely gets things backwards. We should evaluate candidates on their merits. You can take into account how candidates' trans status may explain aspects of their employment history without introducing any unfounded fears or assumptions. In that way, too, trans people are like everyone else.

Rachel McKinnon is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Waterloo.