I recently wrote a laudatory post about Harvard Business Review's case study on gender transition in the workplace. A reader of this blog raised a strong objection, apologizing for "raining on my parade."
According to the 2008 2nd edition of HRC's "Transgender Inclusion in the Workplace" report, you and a few other transgender "activists/consultants" are listed in the report as the "go to" people that companies should contact for diversity training about transgender workplace issues.
My question then is if you folks are going to "consult" companies already as to how the rest of us should transition in our workplaces, then why promote a case study in the first place soliciting outside opinions? It would appear to me that companies will take both your, Out and Equal, and HRC's advice as gospel anyway, like they have already done in the past when adopting transgender policies, so why bother with anyone else's opinion? The little cottage industry already seems to be firmly in place with little hope of new people coming in to educate...
I see this as a very, very important question that goes to the heart of "workplace diversity."
This argument reminds me strongly of the argument in Derrick Bell's 1980 article: "Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma." I apologize to Professor Bell for copying his title. But his point about racial desegregation is equally applicable here as well: progress on racial desegregation did not occur because of Brown v. Board of Education. It occurred because white elites felt that it was in their interest for it to occur. And then, it happened in the way that suited the elites, leaving us a with still-largely segregated school system and residential structure. (There is a lot of supporting evidence in his article. Read it before you assume it's wrong.)
Transgender people are facing a similar problem: we need elites in order to obtain progress, but we embrace them at our peril too. This also reminds me about the old saying about holding your friends close and your enemies closer.
It also reminds me of the "paradox of workplace diversity" that I raised in my dissertation (page 2): in order to eliminate discrimination on the basis of a minority identity, advocates must raise consciousness about identity, but that paradoxically perpetuates the stereotypes that the culture uses to identify the minority group.
My reader's comment goes on to elaborate a bit on this theme. It's well written, so I'll let her speak for herself:
Additionally, I find it quite ironic that this case study was formulated in the Harvard elitist circle, when its the same corporate elitist circle which donates large sums of corporate donations and "sponsorships" to HRC, the very organization that referenced you all in the above report.
So Dr. Weiss, I don't mean to continue to rain on your parade here, but I fail to see how case studies such as this one helps, when its all going to be about the elitist circle, with elitist characters, formulated by folks who are going to educate companies as to THEIR own agenda anyway based on the system they currently have in place.
As I had said in previous posts, let the transgender employees do the educating and leave the politics and agendas to those who are in those circles. Please remember that contrary to popular belief, transgender "consultants" and "activists" do not speak for ALL of us in the workplace, regardless of HRC political connections and elitist cronies...
Thank you for your time.
Bravo. If the "elite" companies use the "elite" consultants to determine how gender transition ought to be accomplished, then it seems that there is little room for ordinary trans workers to express their own particular gender identity and expression. If a trans person expresses their gender identity or expression in the "wrong" way -- not in line with the theories of elite employers, elite GLBT nonprofits and elite consultants -- then they may find themselves without the protection that the elites are touting.
This is an issue that cannot be ignored, lest it undermine the whole "workplace diversity" effort. It will become more and more of an issue given the Obama transition team's inclusion of gender identity in its non-discrimination policy, a growing number of cities and states with non-discrimination laws that include gender identity, and the likelihood of a national non-discrimination law.
I have a number of ways of addressing this issue in my consulting, none of them really adequate because of the very limited time and attention that I can get from clients. They want -- and I deliver -- a relatively quick and inexpensive revision of policies, training of senior HR managers, transition planning and co-worker intervention. But this carries the danger of conveying the idea that transgender identity is monolithic.
This is the same problem identified by scholars about any "diversity" programming in the organizational environment. The purpose of "organization" is to simplify power and control over people to a single end -- in the case of corporations, it is profit. Any discourse that emphasizes or multiplies differences and incompatibilities is in for a rough time.
I spend a lot of time in my work discussing the different ways in which people express gender identity and expression, and the different types of transgender people that they might see in their environment. I use many different case studies and role play to try to emphasize that one size does not fit all. But, of course, I am doing so in a one-size-fits-all environment.
At one very large company where I consulted, I heard about a perfect example of this problem. There was a transgender employee who had transitioned several years earlier in a manufacturing plant on the production floor. The senior HR manager was very sympathetic and wanted to do everything possible to help this employee transition smoothly at work. The company called in a consultant who advised that there should be a big meeting of everyone in the plant with the trans employee present. The senior HR manager, a very accomplished communicator from the upper middle class, thought this was the perfect idea. The transgender employee, a blue collar worker whose expertise was in manufacturing, and was not interested in a lot of interaction with her co-workers on the subject, objected, indicating that this was a private matter, that such a meeting would feel very violative of her privacy, and that she did not want to have everyone voting on her transition. After several tense meetings where management and the trans employee battled back and forth, management then decided that, if she would not do it their way, they would do nothing. As a result, there was little communication with co-workers, and what little there was seems to have been poisoned by management, and it very quickly went wrong. The harassment got so bad that the trans employee quit.
Elitism is a very intractable problem in human relations, written about by sociologists for more than a hundred years. Elites gain power over time by creating networks of powerful allies. They rely on recommendations from their elite friends. There is little chance of influencing elites without being an elite as well. And some elites, perhaps more than some, tend to think that they are so smart and wonderful and effective that they lose all humility, and if you don't want to do it their way -- well, you're in little position to object.
This is especially ironic given my position as an adviser to the powerful regarding the disenfranchised, and my own outsider position. And, despite what you may think, my position is as an outsider. I did not graduate from elite universities, I am not teaching at an elite university, and I am a transsexual. Although I have been lucky to gain some recognition from some progressive elites, I am really nobody in the scheme of things.
In this vein, I found it interesting in the Harvard case study that the fictional HR manager, Henrietta, dismisses any consultant who identifies as transgender. "The problem is," she says, "I've been checking into resources, and many of the coaches and advisers in this business are transgender themselves. That could turn Alex off completely." In other words, a consultant who is transgender is by definition an "outsider."
The problem of the elite-minority connection is also further complicated by the fact that non-elites, subjected much more to unbuffered market forces than elites are, have even less incentive than elites do to eliminate discrimination. If we refuse to deal with elites, then nothing gets done. Dean Spade has made very persuasive arguments that the solution to this is grassroots community organizing. My concern with that is -- who's got time for that? And one still needs fundraising, and elites can, because of the nature of capitalism, fundraise much more effectively. Without that, community organizations tend to fall apart. Just look at what happened to United ENDA. And NCTE is still three or four people in an office in DC. Whither NTAC? It's Time, America? Transgender Menace?
I am not ready to give up my efforts to work with the elites, though I am happy enough to work with anyone who will listen, and to include anyone who wants to be included. One must be able to tolerate a lot of contradiction in this business.
Professor Bell's influential article that I mentioned at the top of this article -- decrying white elitism -- where did that appear?
The Harvard Law Review.
Projectors, don't worry about raining on my parade. It's been raining here for quite a while.