Experience of career-related discrimination for female-to-male Transgender persons: a qualitative study.

Author:Dispenza, Franco
Position:Research - Report

In this qualitative study, the authors examined the experience of discrimination and its relationship to the career development trajectory of 9 female-to-male transgender persons. Participants were between 21 and 48 years old and had a variety of vocational experiences. Individual semistructured interviews were conducted via telephone and analyzed using grounded theory methodology. The emergent model consisted of forms of discrimination and impact of discrimination. These components intersected with the career development trajectory. Participants provided their own suggestions for improving the workplace environment. Counseling, advocacy, and future research implications are discussed.

Keywords: female-to-male, transgender, career, discrimination, qualitative

Considerable attention has been given to the topic of career-related discrimination for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) persons (Chung, 2001, 2003; Chung, Williams, & Dispenza, 2009; Lidderdale, Croteau, Anderson, Tovar-Murray, & Davis, 2007; Raggins & Cornwell, 2001; Smith & Ingram, 2004; Waldo, 1999). However, research on discrimination is still in its infancy concerning transgender persons, a group that is often linked with LGB persons in the counseling and psychological literature. Individuals who identify as transgender, an umbrella term that refers to any person whose gender identity expression does not align with traditional gender norms, do not necessarily associate with the gender they were assigned at birth (Pepper & Lorah, 2008). In addition, the term transgender is used to encompass other related identities, such as transsexual, cross-dresser, transvestite, gender queer, drag queen/drag king, trans-man, trans-woman, female-to-male (FTM), and male-to-female (MTF).

Pepper and Lorah (2008) asserted that transgender persons are a stigmatized population and that their career development processes are also likely affected by discrimination. O'Neil, McWhirter, and Cerezo (2008) maintained that transgender persons experience sex-based discrimination within the workplace, including hostile comments, employee refusal to use preferred names or pronouns, as well as refusal to allow transgender persons to use restrooms that match their gender identity, Despite the current awareness to understand the career development of transgender persons by career counselors and researchers, the experience of discrimination for transgender persons is not well understood in the context of career development.

King (2005) reported that discrimination is a significant stressor that has been associated with psychological distress and even physical illness. Transgender persons are at risk for experiencing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, loneliness, substance use issues, and other compromises to psychological functioning as a result of discrimination and oppression (Clements-Nolle, Marx, & Karz, 2006; Gainor, 2000; Irwin, 2002). Rachlin (as cited in Pepper & Lorah, 2008) noted that transgender clients seek counseling and psychotherapy because of workplace conflicts and concerns. Thus, as a contextual factor, it is important for career counselors and interventionists to understand the different experiences of discrimination and how discrimination affects transgender clients. In addition, it is important to understand how discrimination outside the work environment could potentially have an impact on the career development trajectory.

Although employed transgender persons work in a variety of settings around the world, Kirk and Belovics (2008) contended that transgender persons also endure vast amounts of employment discrimination and unemployment. Minter and Daley (2003) stated that underemployment is another significant issue with the transgender community, because many of these individuals may not be able to find enough work or earn enough money. A report released by Badgett, Lau, Sears, and Ho (2007) from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy provided a summary on LGRT experiences in the workplace. When specifying the work experiences of transgender persons, the report indicated that 15%-57% of transgender persons experienced some form of employment discrimination. They summarized six other studies that were conducted between 1996 and 2006 and found that 13%--56% of sampled transgender persons were terminated from their jobs; another 13%-47% of transgender persons were denied employment on the basis of their gender orientation and expression; 22%-31% were harassed at their place of employment; and another 19% were denied a promotion because of their gender identity (Badgett et al., 2007).

Lombardi, Wilchins, Priesing, and Malouf (2001) collected representative data across the United States and operationalized instances of transgender persons being fired, not hired, demoted, or unfairly disciplined in the workplace as economic discrimination. Lombardi et al. found that 37.1% of transgender persons experienced some type of discrimination in their lifetime. A series of logistical regressions showed that economic discrimination was, more alarmingly, a significant predictor of experiencing other violent incidents (e.g., rape, assault, and verbal and physical harassment). The authors concluded that

while it is possible that economic discrimination could lead to a greater likelihood of experiencing violence, it is more likely that a pervasive pattern of discrimination, and prejudice exists for transgender people which can influence their experiences of both economic discrimination and violence. (Lombardi et al., 2001, p. 98) The results from Lombardi et al. (2001) support the view that being fired and denied employment are definite measurable outcomes of discrimination toward transgender persons; however, transgender persons experience discrimination long before they are ever fired from a job or denied employment.

The purpose of this grounded theory study was to illuminate a model of discrimination experienced by FTM transgender persons in the context of the career development trajectory. Chojnacki and Gilberg (1994) conceptualized work discrimination as multidimensional, or multilayered, and it is important for career counselors and interventionists to understand how multilayered experiences of discrimination may potentially affect transgender persons. Sanchez and Villain (2009) reported that much of the extant research on the transgender community has focused on MTF; thus, it could be argued that the voices of FTM persons are not appropriately noted in the literature. In addition, the experiences of FTM and MTF transgender persons is sometimes combined in research, perhaps obfuscating how-discrimination may be experienced by FTM transgender persons. For example, FTM transgender persons may experience sexism or they may be viewed as challenging conventional patriarchal values of male gender identity and expression. Thus, more research is needed to understand FTM transgender persons' experiences with discrimination and how it intersects with their career development trajectory. The research questions that guided our study were the following: What are some forms of discrimination experienced by FTM persons, and how do these discriminatory experiences influence the career development trajectory?


Research Design

We used a qualitative design to best answer the research query. Qualitative approaches are exceptionally suitable when studying underrepresented or marginalized populations, and qualitative approaches have gained popularity over the years for this reason (Bogdan & Knopp Biklen, 2007; Fassinger, 2005). Given that the research questions were aimed at discrimination, and the current literature refers to issues in the workplace as economic discrimination (Badgett et al., 2007), critical inquiry was used as the theoretical perspective guiding this qualitative study. Composed of a variety' of theories, critical inquiry focuses on the societal power dynamics that interact with marginalized groups, while attempting to further understand how existing injustices are endured by such groups (Grotty, 1998). Finally, there is precedence in the sociological literature that has used both grounded theory and the critical tradition to better understand the experiences of transgender persons (Ekins, 1997). Permission from a university institutional review board was granted prior to data collection.


All five members of the research team had counseling, advocacy, and research experience with diverse groups (including LGBT persons) before this study began. Two members of the research team identified as doctoral students in counseling psychology, another was a master's student in counseling, and the remaining two members identified themselves as university professors. Four of the research team members self-identified their cultural background as White/European American, and the fifth team member self-identified as Asian American. Four of the research team members self-identified as male, and one self identified as female. Although no one on the research team identified as transgender, all members identified as transgender allies. Finally, all of the researchers had been involved in a variety of research projects that included both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, and two members of the research team had previous experience and training with grounded theory methodology.

Throughout a series of working meetings, the first and second authors of this study disclosed their biases and subjectivities prior to data collection and throughout data analysis. Biases were bracketed, and the first author used memo writing as a method of keeping track of these assumptions and subjectivities (Bogdan & Knopp Biklen, 2007). Assumptions discussed were that (a) not all transgender persons will experience the same forms of discrimination and (h) not all discrimination directly relates to the career trajectory. In addition, it...

To continue reading