OPINION: Companies must act to support trans colleagues in the workplace

by David Baboolall | McKinsey & Company
Thursday, 23 December 2021 09:30 GMT

LGBTQ activists and supporters hold a rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears arguments in a major LGBT rights case on whether a federal anti-discrimination law that prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex covers gay and transgender employees in Washington, U.S., October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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"Companies ought to improve the experience of trans employees because it’s the right thing to do", writes David Baboolall.

David Baboolall (they/them) is an associate partner in McKinsey & Company’s New York office.

I am biracial, queer, and trans. I grew up in an inner-city suburb of New York City. At the time, it was impoverished, crime-ridden, and centered around gang activity, a relatively dangerous place for the average resident, and especially dangerous for someone like me. And for the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of working at one of the world’s leading consulting firms – the safest environment I’ve ever found.

I still have to be careful. My colleagues are caring and supportive, but I must make deliberate choices every day anchored in my safety. Should I serve this client or travel to that city? Should I attend a certain team or client outing? Will “coming out” be the safest option? In any situation, I have to wonder whether being my true, authentic self would bring more harm than happiness.

While other marginalized groups strive to be included in the workplace, trans people long to feel safe. Many say how safety – physical, mental and emotional – is their biggest concern in their decisions not to work in certain industries.

According to the data, those concerns are warranted. At least 45 trans people in the United States were murdered in 2021, the deadliest year yet, according to Human Rights Watch. They face many other challenges:

- Trans adults are twice as likely as cisgender adults to be unemployed

- About 29% of trans people live in poverty, compared with fewer than 8% of the U.S. population at large

- Cisgender employees earn 32% more than their trans colleagues with similar or higher education levels

- Always being on the lookout for stigma, discrimination and danger makes many trans people wary and anxious, which can harm their mental health and lower their productivity

- More than 100 bills meant to limit the rights of trans people have been proposed this year, the most in U.S. history; more than a dozen have passed.

Companies ought to improve the experience of trans employees because it’s the right thing to do. Being committed to diversity, equity and inclusion means being committed to uplifting all marginalized communities, not just some of them. This is now a mainstream view. In January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order implementing a landmark 2020 Supreme Court ruling that protected LGBT+ people from workplace discrimination.

Making progress won’t be easy; it takes time and the steadfast support of senior leaders.

Transgender inclusion requires awareness and education, typically beginning with vocabulary. It extends to targeted recruiting, trans-affirming benefits including mental health and hormone therapy, and trans-inclusive policies and programs such as revisions to dress codes, the elimination of gender-specific language, and the installation of gender-neutral bathrooms, for example.

Senior executives could model inclusive behaviors by asking people which pronouns they use and using a range of pronouns themselves, such as she/her, he/his and they/them, in their email signatures, videoconference screens and so on.

My shift in pronouns from he/him to they/them has created opportunities to improve awareness, education and understanding in my firm and with clients. As a resilient leader in a senior role, I’ve had the luxury of responding to the occasional scoff with an invitation to move from ignorance to insight.

Our research shows that if companies can increase the representation of trans people in their workforces and provide them with more development opportunities, the annual household incomes of those workers could increase by 28% or nearly $15 billion, which could mean a more than $11 billion increase in consumer spending each year.

In my view, the economics are just a footnote. Everyone should feel welcome, valued and safe at work, in our neighborhoods and at home. That’s not too much to ask in a nation as rich and diverse as ours.

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