Creating Positive Spaces for Career Counseling with Transgender Clients
By Sue Motulsky and Emily Frank
Transgender and gender non-binary people are those whose gender identity does not fully align with their assigned birth sex. Transgender youth and adults experience stigma, discrimination and misunderstanding in all aspects of their daily lives, including access to employment and counseling services (Brewster et al., 2014; Budge et al., 2010, 2016). Career practitioners are well positioned to promote understanding of transgender people’s career development needs and to provide support and advocacy in the world of work. Current research on transgender people and work includes career-related challenges to employment, the transitioning process, career and work discrimination, and resilience (Drydakis, 2017; Mizock & Mueser, 2014; Ruggs et al., 2015; Sangganjanavanich & Headley, 2013).
Along with recent expansion in both research and transgender roles in television and social media, gender non-conforming individuals are also more visible in educational settings and the workplace. Career counselors in schools, community agencies, and private practice are likely to see transgender students or clients who have significant career decision-making, employment, and job search needs (Scott et al., 2011). Due to stigmatization, transgender clients need significant support from career counselors on job search and employment discrimination issues. However, career practitioners may not be confident in effectively assisting transgender individuals with career interventions, job searching strategies, and transitions at work. They may even encounter their own biases and misunderstandings or have difficulty addressing sensitive topics. With awareness and increased knowledge, career practitioners can assist transgender individuals with developing positive approaches to education and work.
Issues for Transgender Individuals at Work
Employment and job search discrimination for transgender people is rampant, including job threats, termination, demotion or lack of promotion, harassment (e.g., name calling, verbal intimidation, destruction of property, physical abuse, violence), gender stereotypes, restroom discrimination, lack of training opportunities, lack of benefits, and gossip and social isolation (Brewster et al., 2014; Grant et al., 2011). Transphobia at work contributes to elevated levels of depression, anxiety and suicidality, which in turn increases stigma; it is a vicious cycle. Trans people of color and those with mental illness experience even higher levels of discrimination (Budge et al., 2016; MCullough et al., 2016). In addition to discrimination in hiring/promotion and negative responses from co-workers or supervisors, other work-related issues for trans employees include:
Deciding whether to transition at the present job or at a new place of employment (Pepper & Lorah, 2008)—there are significant benefits and drawbacks to each, so assisting clients with this decision is key.
Losing job or educational experience under their previous name. For example, when those who transition legally change their name, previous employment or educational records will not match their current name. This may create difficult choices about whether to explain that they have two names and have changed genders, or not to disclose, but then to appear to have less relevant work experience.
Difficulties with access to gendered bathroom or locker facilities at work if gender-neutral options or policies are not available.
Dilemmas concerning self-disclosure and isolation at work. For example, workers need to decide whether to disclose their gender transition or non-binary identity, which increases the risk of discrimination or harassment, or attempt to “pass.” Either approach may result in social isolation in the workplace, reducing the benefits of social connection at work (Blustein, 2006).
Experiencing double discrimination based on intersections of identity (e.g., gender identity plus racial, sexual orientation, or disability discrimination), or new discrimination based on their coming out or transitioning. One example would be a MTF (male to female) trans individual who is used to living with male privilege and then experiences discrimination as a woman in the workplace.
Recommendations for Career Practitioners
Trans-affirming career counselors acknowledge the unique needs of transgender and gender non-binary individuals, display cultural competence through sensitivity to the client’s preferred name and pronouns, and support and advocate for individuals in a context of stigma and discrimination. Exploring personal gender biases and increasing knowledge about the issues facing this population empowers clients and contributes to advocacy efforts for trans equity and social justice.
Language: Improve cultural sensitivity, including using affirming and appropriate terminology and asking about the client’s language and personal pronoun preferences; use their preferred name and pronouns once known (e.g., he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their, ze/zir/zis)
Empathy: Become familiar with the transitioning experience and how to assist clients on work-related aspects. Affirm and support transgender individuals’ identity; include strengths and empowerment strategies but recognize the unique challenges faced by this community. Use the resources listed at the end of the article to learn more.
Trust: Trust what your trans clients tell you about the discrimination they have faced instead of questioning those stories.
Assessment: Use and interpret career assessments cautiously. Be aware that many assessments are normed on conventional gender groups and that occupations are often associated with particular genders. This requires counselors who have explored their own biases and beliefs.
Laws and Policies: Learn about legal issues and discrimination common to transgender individuals in your state or municipality, and stay up to date on national trends.
Inclusive Organizations: Become aware of local companies or organizations that actively protect gender identity in non-discrimination policies and those communities that include gender identity rights along with lesbian, gay and bisexual rights. Provide resources for legal and civil rights.
Intersectionality: Acknowledge all aspects of a transgender individual’s identity, including race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, ability status, etc., as well as their unique personality, interests, values, and life experiences.
Social Support: Encourage development of social support networks both at and outside of work, as social support is linked with better coping and mental health. Suggest resources and avenues for involvement.
Allyship: Provide signs and resources that visibly indicate that you are a trans or LGBTQ ally; display a trans/LGBTQ-friendly symbol in your office, have handouts available on trans resources, add your preferred gender pronouns to your email and when introducing yourself, etc. Affirm and support transgender individuals’ identity; include strengths and empowerment strategies but recognize the unique challenges faced by this community.
Resume/Interview Strategies: Discuss knowledgeably the pros and cons of including trans or LGBTQ activities or related leadership positions on resumes and in interviews. Invite clients to thoughtfully consider disclosure decisions, emphasizing that the ultimate decision and timing is up to them.
Attire: Advise trans job seekers to dress professionally for their gender identity; include trans images on Dress for Success sites or in workshops.
Job Search: Include trans resources on job hunting materials. When possible, inform seekers of trans or LGBTQ job fairs or local trans employment resources.
Advocacy: Participate in social justice efforts for transgender people, including being an outspoken ally, increasing public awareness and education, and/or engaging in broader societal advocacy.
Thriving at Work
The discrimination transgender people face in education, hiring and the workplace prevents them from experiencing all the benefits that employment, especially meaningful work, provides. Trans individuals, like all people, deserve to thrive at work, and positive, trans-affirming career counseling can help make that a reality.
National Center for Transgender Equality: http://transequality.org/
Human Rights Campaign Foundation HRCF: www.hrc.org
Transgender Law Center: http://transgenderlawcenter.org/
Blustein, D.L. (2006). The psychology of working: A new perspective for career development, counseling, and public policy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Brewster, M. E., Velez, B. L., Mennicke, A., & Tebbe, E. (2014). Voices from beyond: A thematic content analysis of transgender employees’ workplace experiences. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1(2), 159-169.
Budge, S. L., Tebbe, E. N., & Howard, K. A. S. (2010). The work experiences of transgender individuals: Negotiating the transition and career decision-making process. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 57(4), 377-393.
Budge, S. L., Thai, J. L., Tebbe, E. A., & Howard, K. A. S. (2016). The intersection of race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, trans identity, and mental health outcomes. The Counseling Psychologist, 44(7), 1025-1049.
Drydakis, N. (2017). Trans employees, transitioning and job satisfaction. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 98, 1-16.
Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., Tanis, J., Harrison, J., Herman, J. L., & Keisling, M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Retrieved from: www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/ntds_full.pdf
McCullough, R. Dispensa, F., Parker, L. K., Viehl, C. J., Chang, C. Y., & Murphy, T. M. (2016). The counseling experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming clients. Journal of Counseling & Development, 95, 423-434.
Mizock, L., & Mueser, K. T. (2014). Employment, mental health, internalized stigma, and coping with transphobia among transgender individuals. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1(2), 146-158.
Pepper, S. M. & Lorah, P. (2008). Career issues and workplace considerations for the transsexual community: Bridging a gap of knowledge for career counselors and mental health providers. The Career Development Quarterly, 56(4), 330-343.
Ruggs, E. N., Martinez, L. R., Hebi, M. H., & Law, C. L. (2015). Workplace “trans”-actions: How organizations, coworkers, and individual openness influence perceived gender identity discrimination. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 2(4), 404-412.
Sangganjanavanich, V. F., & Headley, J. A. (2013). Facilitating career development concerns of gender transitioning individuals: Professional standards and competencies. Career Development Quarterly, 61, 354-366.
Scott, D. A., Belke, S. L., & Barfield, H. G. (2011). Career development with transgender college students: Implications for career and employment counselors. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(3), 105-113.
Sue Motulsky, Ed.D., (she, her, hers) is an Associate Professor in the Division of Counseling and Psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA and has a private practice, Career Journeys, in career counseling and transition. Her research and teaching interests include feminist relational psychology, adult career development and transition, gender, multicultural and LGBTQ studies, especially transgender career issues, qualitative research, and social justice in counseling education. Sue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Frank, M.A., spent over 12 years in public higher education and now owns and operates Career Catalyst (www.DenverCareerCatalyst.com). She uses the pronouns she, her, and her. She graduated from Smith College and got her master’s degree in counseling. She spent 3 years living in Japan and speaks conversational Japanese. Emily is committed to social justice and advocacy, and is always interested in learning more. Emily can be reached at email@example.com.