Back in October, the B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy published an article examining the salary and workplace experiences of transgender men and women "before and after" transition. The article, which was co-authored by economist Matthew Wiswall and sociologist Kristen Schilt, generated a lot of media attention; stories appeared in Time, The New York Times online, and in business sections across the country. TBP covered it too, of course. Alex and Jillian both wrote pieces about it (Jillian also wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Online blog). Alex, in particular, was skeptical about the authors' methodology and awareness of transphobia.
Hey Alex? That "Professor Schilt" you're throwing shade at? That's my baby sister.
Having known the esteemed Dr. Schilt all her life--including the last four years, as she's conducted in-depth interviews with scores of transmen in two states--I know that methodology and transphobia are two things she thinks about very much. So over the holidays, I asked for her take on the study and how it has been represented in the media.
1. Can you briefly summarize the paper?
What we were really was testing Gary Becker's human capital theory. He argues that people are rewarded at work on the basis of human capital - work experience, education, skills. According to the theory, as men invest more in their human capital (and women in the family), men get more workplace rewards. Clearly, if this theory holds true, transgender people should have no change in their workplace experiences after transition, as they have the same human capital. But, we found that transwomen lose, on average, $12 an hour - even though the transwomen in our study had MORE human capital than the average male and female in the United States. Transmen typically stayed the same or had a small increase. These findings suggest that we should be cautious when making claims about "the transgender" experience, as transmen's experience do not always line up with those of transwomen. And, that workplace outcomes are not just based neutrally on human capital.
2. Why do you think this piece got so much attention in the mainstream media?
The publication of the article and the coverage that followed is an interesting lesson in the role of the blogosphere in shaping news coverage. We were first discussed in the NYT Economics blog. Then it emerged on several other blogs - mainly feminist or LGBT in focus. Then, two weeks later, the news media started contacting us. I have done interviews with Time, a reporter from the NYT Magazine, the San Antonio Express News, CNN radio, the Harvard Business Review, a Brazilian newspaper, and Der Spiegel. Oh, and I just found out we were in News of the Weird. The topic of the study is seen by a lot of reporters as "quirky." And, I think transgender topics still sell papers.
3. What have been the highlights and lowpoints of the media coverage of your article?
The highlights are the coverage. I think it is great the article is so public. I am hoping that our study can be used as evidence to help pass an inclusive ENDA. As a social scientist, I firmly believe that this type of study with numbers helps educate politicians.
On the down side: I think that the general framing of the article in the mainstream media is as a cautionary tale to transgender people. Like, "before you have that 'sex change,' think about your job." Which is amusing on some level because the group of people who are NOT surprised by this article are transgender people. What I have seen in my research is transgender men and women spend a great deal of time agonizing over how a gender transition might affect their careers - they don't need a reporter to tell them to think about the possible outcomes.
Another surprise I have gotten from the coverage is how common the term "sex change" still is in the mainstream media. During interviews, I tried to model different terminology when answering questions, but most articles still use that term.
4. Can you talk about the methodology and how you collected the data?
The paper is based on survey data that I collected from transgender conferences in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Austin in 2003 and 2004. The final study had 60 surveys, almost equal split in terms of gender. It only included individuals who were working in a gender other than that which they were assigned at birth.
The questions on the survey were modeled on standard economics surveys on salaries so we could see how comparable our transgender respondents were to the "average person." This kind of comparison was really important to me because in academia I always encounter the idea that transgender people are not representative of the "average population" because they are a marginal, "fringe" group. What we found was that our group of respondents actually had more education on average than the "average person" of their gender assigned at birth. While we had a small sample size, this comparison showed the "best case" scenario. In other words, if transwomen who are more educated and have more workplace experience than the average person see this drop after transition, we should expect it to be worse for transgender people with less human capital.
5. Can you contextualize this article in terms of your larger body of work?
My research focuses mainly on the workplace experiences of transgender men. I have done a comparative interview study of transmen in California and Texas. In addition, I have interviewed co-workers when possible, and transgender workplace consultants. To see how generalizable my findings were, I did a content analysis of legal cases and news stories on transgender employment from 1977-2008, and did ethnographic research on transgender workplace panels at conferences. Finally, with Matt Wiswall, I did this survey. This survey served the dual purpose of revealing how the experiences of transmen in the survey (who came from ten different states) lined up with my interview data from California and Texas.
6. What would you say to people who say, "this article isn't really about trans people"?
I do see this article as illustrating how everyone - trans and cisgender alike - is impacted by gender. But, it also provides some really important data on what happens to transgender people during workplace transitions. Research on transgender people in the social sciences has for thirty years focused almost exclusively on the transition process. And while that is important, we also need to understand what happens to transgender people afterward, or to see that transmen and transwomen have other experiences outside of their transitions. This is one of the first articles about transgender people to get into a peer-reviewed economics journal (it may be the first) - which means it will be read by people who produce policy - people who do not necessarily read transgender studies research.
I also work hard to make this research relevant to real people's lives. I have done many "Coming Out at Work" panels at transgender conferences. And I do free workplace consultations for transpeople coming out at work. After my book is done, I also plan on writing an article in a Human Resources journal on successful and unsuccessful workplace responses to open workplace transitions. I strongly support the idea that the onus for a successful reaction to a workplace transition rests on Human Resources and the "head bosses" in a workplace.
7. How do you think about your positionality as a non-trans researcher?
This is a great question. There are always pros and cons of being an outsider to a group you do research with (and to being an insider). When I first began this research, I knew it could be a problem. But I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles doing volunteer work in the transgender community. And, as people got to know me and know my politics, they were more willing to talk with me. I am certainly beholden to a lot of people in both California and Texas who helped introduce me and who were willing to vouch for me. I have always tried to be as open as possible with my research intentions. I am willing in my interviews to answer any questions about who I am and why I am doing this research. I have two friends in sociology who are gender queer who do research with transmen, and in comparing our experiences, they noted that they had NEVER been asked why they were interested in doing this research. I get asked that a lot. But I think it is a fair question, and a question that I think all researchers should be prepared to answer.
In academia, being an outsider is often looked at positively. Because I am not transgender, I think sociologists tend to see me as more objective. I have compared notes with my transgender and gender queer colleagues, and they certainly face more questions about their ability to be objective. It can be a detriment, however. I have tried twice to get access to Southern Comfort to do survey research - which I have done at IFGE twice, at Gender Odyssey twice, and at TransUnity three times - and have never been approved - even after I submitted five references from transgender activists (upon request). I understand the hesitation, but it has precluded me from getting good survey data from the South - and I think regional comparisons in the experiences of transgender people are extremely important to document.
8. What's it like to have such an awesome big sister?
It is amazing. And, I credit you with being an integral support to doing this research! It is pretty amazing to have a fellow academic who works in the same area in my family!!! At the beginning of my research, you and Katy were really the backbone of support as I could bounce ideas off of you and you actually knew what I was talking about!