Tag Archives: diversity

On Transition and Unemployment

Today marks the year anniversary since I was laid off. One year ago today, I was given my severance and told to hit the road.

It honestly wasn’t that bad of a day. I talked with my co-workers, wrapped up some loose ends, had an excellent burrito at Mex-I-Can, and had some hope for the future. I had just started a publication with my partners in crime who had stable work themselves, I was going to build an excellent guitar, I’d have some time off of work to lounge around and transition in peace. It honestly looked like it was going to be a good year, but it wasn’t.

Inatri started slow; honestly we were discouraged by the response to the second piece. My guitar came together but was a lot of hassle. My mental health started to change drastically come summer. My transition progress was slow and I wasn’t making the gains I wanted to. Lastly, when I started to look for a job, I found nothing. Most of my responses were instant rejection, or failure to contact.

As the months dragged on, I lost hope. Where before I had looked for jobs in my field of study, now I was just looking for anything. When I thought about commuting, it felt alien and weird to me. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that normal, ever being one of the nine to five workers again. I began to feel strange and detached, like I was less than others.

Unforgiving Job Market

It’s not a good time to be unemployed, especially when so many are underemployed. In Canada, youth unemployment is 13.9%, but youth underemployment was found to be 26.4%1. Admittedly these are 2013 numbers; however, the unemployment rate in Canada has been a fairly consistent ~7% with a few dips as low as ~5%2. This may not mean much to a lot of people, as the youth bracket is defined as 14-28 years old, but I am at the top end of the bracket and this experience is consistent with my friends and I.

Because of high underemployment, job opportunities that would normally be available for the unemployed are now receiving interest and applications from the underemployed. These individuals are often looking to move up from their current position or to step sideways from a similar position into a new company or environment which would offer full time or higher paid work. We are overqualified for our jobs.

The jobs I was applying for over the last year, were not jobs in my field, nor were they jobs that suit my qualifications. I am a Political Science graduate looking for mostly administrative or secretarial work. I was laid off from an administrative job in finance paying $16 an hour with no benefits and no future. I was part of that underemployment statistic.

There is also a rather worrying shift in Ontario from full-time to part-time work, which dramatically increases underemployment. Furthermore, there is a growing trend of involuntary part time work; extra jobs individuals are taking to make ends meet due to a lack of well paid full time employment3. The shifting ideas of employment in Ontario have done me no favours over the past year. Competition for full time jobs is fierce, and that will not change any time soon.

Let’s be clear: I’m not applying for anything above my reach, I’m applying for entry level jobs. Most of the entry level jobs I’ve found have asked very clearly for experience doing that job. Most of the people I know have assured me that the experience requirement is just there to deter non-confident individuals from applying. More than once in the last year, though, I’ve been rejected on the basis of lacking experience.

One of these rejections was fairly recent. It was for an educational software company looking for QA testers. This is a basic entry level contract job for most developers. The required experience was one year as a QA tester. I did not have that on my CV, but I did make it clear that I have had similar experience with my former employer when our Oracle system went live and we had to create routines, test the limits of the system, and design processes as we were thrown head first into a shark tank. Seven hours later I got a rejection saying I lacked the required experience.

Whether or not my rejection was based on a different reason, the justification being used was the lack of experience. Lack of experience for an entry level job that, in essence, should require little to no experience but rather job training and mentoring. However, with a job market so glutted by capable individuals looking to move up from part-time or unsatisfying work, even in an entry level position experience can matter greatly. To get a job in this market, you need to have a job.

Throwing Trans Into the Mix

Things really get tough when you start throwing any marginalization into the mix. Transgender individuals face higher unemployment and more barriers to employment than cis[gender]4 individuals. As a demographic, 37% of us are employed full time, 15% are employed part time, and 25% are students. Our unemployment rate is 20%5. Bear in mind that’s the overall trans population; trans youth unemployment may skew higher since youth unemployment tends to be higher than the general population.

If finding a job were based on qualifications alone, the statistics would look very different. A study by Trans PULSE found that 71% of trans people in Ontario have post-secondary education6. That’s nearly 3/4 of the trans population who have qualifications and training above and beyond high-school. These are individuals with expertise in their fields, and diplomas to back them up. However, to get a job you often have to do an interview, and this is where being transgender will most likely ruin any chance you have at getting a job. In a TorStar article, a transgender woman noted that no-one would give her a second interview and that occasionally interviewers would make up excuses as to why they couldn’t conduct an interview5. I’ve had similar experiences myself.

There is a certain level of transphobia I’ve experienced in interviews. I am a femme leaning trans woman and because of this I feel immense pressure to conform to cis-normative beauty standards. I’ve only been on HRT for 14 months, my hair has not grown out nearly as long as I’d like, and I still see things I hate about myself when I look in the mirror. I feel like because of these, because of my failure to meet normative beauty standards, that I tend to be judged harshly by hiring managers most of whom only see gender through a binary lens. Since interviews are just as much about appearance as they are about qualifications, trans individuals who do not embody cis-normative beauty standards are often judged harshly.

Being a marginalized individual in any way makes it hard to be confident. Even if there’s no overt vibes of transphobia, I find it very difficult to be put in centre stage and judged on appearance, demeanour, and confidence. I don’t believe I conform to cis-normative standards and I don’t believe that people are taking my identity seriously. This very much hurts my confidence.

I’m very sensitive and care a great deal about what others think of me, so negative comments about my appearance, my gender, my genitals, my height, my weight, my lack of wardrobe, always have a huge impact on me. I take all of these comments to heart, even when I know they’re untrue and even when I know people are just looking to get under my skin. I internalize these thoughts and it completely erodes my confidence. Where I was once assured of the truth, the negative comments will eventually wear away at me where I’m simply full of self doubt, and this is baggage that tends to weigh heavily on me during an interview.

Conclusion

My experience is not unique, and this is a problem. In a generation that is constantly attacked as entitled and lazy7, we sure as fuck don’t seem to have a whole hell of a lot in terms of gainful employment and market power. Most of us are incredibly overqualified for what few jobs are available.

We were sold a narrative that the baby boomers would retire and leave a vacuum in the job market. This is yet to happen; the boomers have yet to retire8. What this means, however, is that we face incredibly high youth unemployment rates, almost double the overall population. It also means that marginalized individuals are more likely to be left out, competing for jobs in a market scarce of employment opportunities.

In a game that rewards confidence and conformity, being different often hinders an applicant’s ability to compete. Especially for trans people, the lack of conformity could become a huge hindrance to the pageant portion of a job application. Trans individuals may find themselves passed up for a cis applicant simply because they do not fit into a strictly binary and cisnormative model of gender, even if they possess similar or greater qualifications to a cis individual. Eventually, the discouragement faced by these individuals becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; when you’ve been turned away so often from interviews because of your appearance, you become less likely to apply in the first place.

I think it’s about time we start to think both about who we have as hiring managers, and how the hiring process is conducted. Hopefully when we’re given the reins of power we can have an honest discussion about hiring and decrease the amount of sway a hiring manager with appearance based prejudices could have on the hiring process.


Endnotes:

  1. Alex Paterson and Claude Dumulon-Lauziere, “It’s not unemployment, it’s underemployment,” Canada 2020.
  2. Canada Unemployment Rate,” Trading Economics.
  3. Robert Benzie, “Ontario’s job market undergoing ‘seismic shift’ from full- to part-time jobs,” Toronto Star.
  4. Cisgender, as opposed to transgender. Individuals whose identity (closely) matches the “sex designation” they were coercively assigned at birth.
  5. Transgender unemployment is a result of discrimination, advocate says,” CBC News.
  6. Helen Wolkowicz, “Transgendered Ontarians struggling with jobs and equality at work,” Toronto Star.
  7. Margaret Wente, “Inside the entitlement generation,” The Globe and Mail.
  8. Lydia Dallett, “Hard-Charging Baby Boomers May Never Leave Their Jobs,” Business Insider.

On Forms and Personal Information

I am deeply frustrated right now. Yet again, a tech organization has failed horribly at requesting gender information. Their attempts to “fix” it are not an improvement. It’s troubling how frequently this happens. It seems like organizations aren’t learning. This is my attempt at turning my frustration into education.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on any of this. I strongly recommend consulting people from impacted groups for feedback.

Requesting personal information

Are you an organization that requests personal information from people? Maybe you run a conference and want attendee information. Maybe you develop software and want to learn about your users. Whatever your use case, asking for personal information should be done thoughtfully.

Being thoughtful should include asking a lot of questions:

  • What information do you want?
  • Why do you want this information?
  • What information is required? Why?
  • How will you format requests for information?
  • How will you communicate requests for information?
  • How will requests impact the people you are asking?
  • How will this information be stored? Who will have access to it? Is it secure?

Let’s break each of these down and talk about why they are important.

What information do you want?

Start by making a list of personal information that you want to request from people. You need this for the other questions.

Why do you want this information?

Evaluate why you want each piece of personal information. If you cannot come up with a good reason, you should not be asking for it.

What information is required? Why?

For each piece of personal information, evaluate if it should be required or optional. If you cannot come up with a compelling reason for it to be required, it should be optional.

How will you format requests for information?

For each piece of personal information, consider how you will format a request for that information. Will you give the person a text box or a list of options to choose from? If the latter, how will you populate that list?

Many organizations prefer to use a list of options because it allows for information to be formatted in a uniform way. However, lists are a common source of problems. This post was prompted by an organization failing when requesting gender information by using a list.

An open text box requires more work to aggregate information, but it often provides a better user experience. If you do not have the time to aggregate the information, really think about if you should be requesting it in the first place.

Carina C. Zona’s excellent talk, “Schemas for the Real World,” discusses this and provides some great examples. I recommend giving the talk and slides a look if you want to learn more.

How will you communicate requests for information?

How will you communicate to people why you are requesting this information and what it will be used for? Personal information is important to many people, and they want to understand why you want it and how it will be used. Thoughtful communication not only informs people, but can assuage worries about privacy or even make them feel good about your organization.

How will requests impact the people you are asking?

Think about how your requests will impact people. Consult with people from impacted groups to test things out and get feedback. You should care about this. It is a part of the user experience for your event, product, etc.

Some requests can lead to a negative response. Will requiring private personal information make them less likely to use your product? Will a poorly constructed list make someone feel unwelcome at your event?

Some requests can lead to a positive response. Will asking people about their dietary needs make them feel welcome at your event? Will providing an open text box for personal information make people excited about your product because they can express themselves accurately?

How will this information be stored? Who will have access to it? Is it secure?

For each piece of of personal information, evaluate if it is personally identifiable information (PII). PII has security (and sometimes legal) implications. I am not an information security expert or a lawyer, so I am not qualified to expand on these implications. If you are asking people for PII, you should consult with experts about these issues.

Gender

Gender is the piece of personal information I most frequently see organizations get wrong. One such failure prompted this post, so I want to expand on this.

Many organizations request gender information when it is not needed. Sometimes out of laziness. Sometimes out of habit. Really think about why you are requesting gender information. If you don’t have a compelling reason, don’t ask for it.

Assuming you have a legitimate reason to request gender information, you need to be thoughtful about how you do so.

Let’s start at the beginning. Gender is not binary. If you give two options: male and female, you are doing it wrong. Let me repeat. GENDER IS NOT BINARY.

Some organizations want to indicate they are inclusive of transgender people and try to do so in their gender form. This often goes terribly wrong. For example, look at Grace Hopper Celebration 2015’s registration form below.

on-forms-and-personal-information--ghc-reg01
Original gender input for Grace Hopper Celebration’s registration.

They get a point for understanding that gender is not binary, but fail pretty badly by including “MTF” (male to female) and “FTM” (female to male) in a narrow set of options. While some transgender people prefer to identify this way, many would find this a frustrating and upsetting choice to make. For example, a transgender woman is a woman and would likely want to select the female option in the dropdown.

After receiving criticism about this, they modified the form as seen below.

on-forms-and-personal-information--ghc-reg02
Modified gender input for Grace Hopper Celebration’s registration.

This version of the form is about as bad as the previous one. While some transgender people may be ok with this, many are not and find it problematic. This form makes them choose between their gender (e.g. female for a transgender woman) and sharing the information that they are transgender. Most people use transgender as an adjective or modifier, not as their gender. I am a cisgender woman. Some of my friends are transgender women. We are all women working in tech, and we find this gender dropdown unacceptable.

Both iterations of the form can make people feel obligated to disclose that they are transgender. For many, this is information that they do not want to disclose for a wide variety of reasons including privacy and safety. This requirement may upset people and make them feel unwelcome or unsafe at an event. The organization’s interest in obtaining this demographic information should not trump the comfort and safety of potential attendees.

How do you handle the complexities of gender and make sure you do the right thing? Use a text box! Below is an example of the gender input on the registration form for Open Source Bridge 2015. They also make it optional, so that people are not obligated to share this private information.

on-forms-and-personal-information--osbridge-reg01
Gender input for Open Source Bridge’s registration.

Why are you picking on Grace Hopper Celebration?

Here I am, yet again, writing a blog post about how Grace Hopper Celebration has failed. I’m not happy about it, but they leave me little choice. I expect more from an event that bills itself as “the World’s Largest Gathering of Women Technologists.” An event run by the Anita Borg Institute, a prominent organization with a budget of several million dollars. I am not picking on them. I am trying to hold them accountable. As a member of the demographic they supposedly serve, I expect more.

As a note, they published an explanation and apology about what happened, but I find it lacking. I expect more.

We recognize that a write-in box for gender identity that allows participants to simply mark their own gender identity is the optimal solution, but are currently unable to provide this service given our current resources.

Conclusion

Please be thoughtful when your organization requests personal information from people. Ask a lot of questions. Only require information that is critical. Be thoughtful about how you ask for information. Communicate why you want the information. Empathize with the people you are asking. Get feedback before you move forward on a path that may end badly. Make sure you have the resources available to address problems and make changes in the case that you make a mistake.