We spend about a third of our lives at work. And what we do for a living can become the foundation of our social lives and even our sense of identity. In the last few years, many workplaces have shifted to make an effort to support the mental and physical wellbeing of their employees. But for the trans and gender diverse (TGD) community, workplaces can be a fraught environment to navigate, particularly as one begins their gender affirmation journey.
Gender affirmation generally refers to the shift from living as the sex one was assigned at birth to living as one’s true gender. This is sometimes divided into ‘social' (changing name and pronouns etc) and ‘medical’ (hormones and/or surgeries). Both can go on for years and take their toll on a person. This is why, in 2021, it’s so important for workplaces to do what they can to accommodate the process.
Gender affirmation is not a one-step procedure. It is a complex process that occurs over a sustained period of time. The exact steps involved in gender affirmation vary from person to person, but it's never simple. It can include some or all of the following steps: telling one's family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing and/or grooming differently; changing one's name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and can involve one or more types of surgery.
Thankfully, we are seeing major companies take steps to make workplaces more inclusive for TGD workers in Australia, including Salesforce, Allianz, Origin Energy and Woolworths. Recently, telecommunications company Telstra joined them, announcing that it would be taking steps to support its trans workers with the introduction of Gender Affirmation Leave — where eligible permanent employees based in Australia who wish to affirm their gender can access eight weeks of paid leave to take the legal, medical or social steps they need to be who they are.
" Transitioning is not simple or easy for most," said Maddie Sumner, a Telstra employee who underwent her own gender affirmation journey. "On one hand, the ‘chains are off’ and you’re free to be yourself, but who is that? Your identity, reality changes, and people around you act differently."
What Sumner highlights — what we so often take for granted — is the need for care on a holistic level. Surgery or physical changes alone do not make up the entire process, and arriving at the other side of those changes isn't without its emotional and psychological plight.
"Everyone’s journey is different, and that means how someone may affirm their gender is completely personal," she explained, adding that hers was more positive than most. "For me, I felt comfortable transitioning while working, changing my body and undergoing surgery. I used the entirety of my accumulated sick leave to do so."
For someone to have to choose between being who they are and having a career, or even just a stable source of income, is the reality for many TGD people around the world. For some, it can be a matter of life and death.
With 43% of trans people in Australia reporting that they have attempted suicide, being able to live a life that feels true to them is not a luxury but a necessity. But even those who are ready to begin their gender affirmation face plenty of hurdles. Not everyone can fund their transition easily, or are in a position where they can take unpaid time off.
For Salesforce, the offer goes beyond leave. Not long before Telstra, the software company announced that they would be introducing a range of benefits for their trans employees, including over $50,000 for any required surgeries, $500 for a clothing allowance to appropriately express their gender, and $1000 to cover any legal costs associated with the process.
But while it's unquestionably wholesome to read about businesses putting their employees' health and wellbeing on par with their bottom line, there is so much more that needs to be done for those in the TGD community that are not a part of large workplaces like these. Work can take many forms, so there's still a need for better systems that offer financial help for those who work casually, in unregulated industries or on a freelance basis.
Of course, even for companies that do offer these benefits, the stipulations need to be clear. Though the fact that these programs exist feels celebratory, it's important that workplaces avoid pigeonholing the trans experience by assuming they know what the process should involve. Instead, enabling employees to have the space and resources to utilise what they need is the key to making a workplace meaningfully inclusive.
“By not restricting leave to specific actions, it allows people to use it most effectively to suit their personal needs," shares Sumner. "Some TGD people may benefit by taking leave at a milestone in their journey, whereas others will need time to recover from surgeries and not worry if they have a job to return to.”
Knowing there are rights in place for the people to not have to choose between being who they are and being able to make enough money to live, let alone set themselves up for the future, is the kind of institutional change we need to be seeing more of.
As Sumner says, "Policies like these set a new standard of acceptance and understanding across the company.
"It’s comforting knowing that my workplace supports who I am, and understands how I affirm my gender results in a better, safer employee. Personally, I probably won’t need to use this new policy but other TGD people can, and I am super proud to work here for it."