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Navigating Gender Identity and Expression During a Job Search

A job search is anxiety-producing enough without also having to deal with such issues, writes Lauren Easterling, who offers some insights and advice.

June 24, 2019
 
 
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For most of my life, I was constantly struggling with my own gender identity before I came out as transgender. But during all of my job searches, I never once had to question how others perceived my gender. I learned the rules and expectations that others taught me about how males were supposed to act, dress and present themselves in job interviews: smile, iron your shirts, wear a smart suit and tie, speak firmly, and shake hands with others just as firmly.

After coming out as a woman who is transgender, I told myself that once I learned the rules and expectations -- which seemed to be many, many more than those I'd learned before -- navigating a job search would be the same. But based on my own experience and that of other transgender and non-binary people, that has not been the case.

A job search is anxiety-producing on its own, without also having to navigate issues of gender, identity and expression. As a career-development specialist, educator and advocate on transgender issues, I will share some of my insights about navigating the different issues that may arise when our own sense of gender identity and expression doesn't match the perceptions of others during a job search.

Critical Terms

Since I know readers of this article will be diverse -- those seeking jobs, those supporting them, those who are transgender and those who are not -- let's review terms I will be using. I recommend resources provided by the National Center for Transgender Equality as starting points for understanding transgender (trans for short) and non-binary people. I also often use the educational materials provided by Trans Student Educational Resources, especially on the importance of pronouns, the struggles transgender students encounter and many other issues trans and non-binary people face.

According to the national center, a transgender person is one "whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be when they were born." For example, at birth, a physician declared based upon the evidence available to her that I was boy/man, though it was only as I began to develop that I realized that I was a girl/woman. The word transgender uses the Latin prefix trans--, meaning across or on the other side of.

The opposite prefix is cis--, meaning on the same side of. That is why the word cisgender refers to people whose gender identity matches the one assigned at birth.

For some people, their gender identity does not follow the male-female binary, and we use the term "non-binary" to describe people with this identity. Sometimes non-binary persons identify as transgender, and sometimes they do not. That is why I talk about trans and non-binary people, even though both have experienced a life where their gender identity does not match with their sex assigned at birth.

Caring for Yourself in a Job Search Process

While I often encourage the students and postdocs with whom I work to trust the job search process at each company, university or other organization to which they apply, this is easier said than done. It is more difficult to do so when you as an applicant are feeling anxious, isolated or without support. I strongly encourage job seekers to have a good network of mentors, colleagues, friends and others who can provide emotional and professional support and advice.

This is extremely important for those in any underrepresented group in a potential workplace, and for trans and non-binary people, it is essential. There will be recruiters or interviewers who will misgender us, make honest mistakes or intentionally call us by names or pronouns that we do not use. I wish that acceptance and support for diverse gender identities were the norm, but unfortunately they aren't. Having a group of people -- friends, family, coworkers, healthcare professionals -- to encourage and support us will help us through the job search.

Being Out in a Job Search

A first step in navigating a job search is to decide whether or not you want to be out as transgender or non-binary during the job search and hiring process. Some people do not want to be out during this process, and that is okay. But if they decide not to be out, they should have a plan.

I was out during my most recent job search, but not my prior one. For my earlier search, in 2012, I was looking for universities where I knew I would be supported if I decided to come out and start living my life as me. But I was not socially supported and emotionally ready to both conduct a job search and be out as trans to potential employers. In contrast, for my most recent successful job search in 2015, I had been out and living my true life for over a year and a half, and I had a professional and social support network to help me apply and interview for positions.

All this said, the decision to be out in a job search is important, and it is personal. Only you can decide if you are in a place to be out while you look for a job.

Names Matter

Names are an important first point of contact in the job search. They can also be terrifying for some trans and non-binary people, because our true names -- those we use to describe who we really are -- don't always match our legal ones. Some individuals may never be able or want to change their legal names, and this creates room for possible pain and confusion in a hiring process. Others, like me, are able to change their names, and different questions arise. For example, I needed to address why I used two different names in my publications and presentations. My solution was to add an asterisk before each item with my previous name -- my deadname -- and include a footnote stating that these items were published or presented under a previous name.

Be as much of yourself as you can be at that moment. Employers are looking to hire whole employees, and our gender identities are part of that identity. There may be times where we cannot use the names of our true selves -- for fear of rejection by friends, family, partners, professional references, academic institutions -- and we do what we are able to do. It does not justify the potential reactions of others, but it acknowledges who we are and are capable of being in a moment. If you can use your true name, then that is part of who you are and should be used -- that will only help you project authenticity in your job search.

If you are applying to jobs that require submitting all materials under a legal name -- usually positions in government units are required to do so by law or regulations -- follow the requirements, but rework your documents, if possible, to include your true name and pronouns. Again, do this only if you are comfortable or able to do so. You can list it somewhere after your legal name on your resume or CV or in the first paragraph or sentence of your cover letter. That allows you to express who you are while following requirements.

Using Your Pronouns

The pronouns that we ask others to use to refer to us can be incredibly powerful -- and crucial during a job search. Often a job application and selection process is formal, with many "Mr." and "Ms." salutations used in abundance. I include my pronouns in my email signatures and have started to add them on my CV and resume below my name, or in the first line of my cover letter, usually in parenthesis. I want no one to doubt what my pronouns are. This is comfortable for me because I am both out in my organization and a vocal advocate on this topic.

For other people, just putting the pronouns they use on a document can feel intimidating. But including our pronouns -- as we are able to -- is one way to clearly define who we are in the job search process and reduce potential confusion.

Interviewing Well

The interview phase of a job search can bring a different set of challenges. I despise phone interviews and find my anxiety level spiking to exponential levels. Though others say that my voice is fine, I am not happy with it and don't feel it communicates that I'm a woman. I've invested time and money into voice training, but my voice remains affected by decades of testosterone in my body and is the part of me that I most wish I could change. As a result, I try, though not always successfully, to request video interviews to help keep me focused on the interview rather than on monitoring my own gender presentation.

I would advise you to request adaptations, as well, if you have similar concerns. Be aware, however, that they may not always be available because interviewers usually try to keep the playing field level for all interviewees and not give one person an advantage over others. Finally, for in-person or remote interviews, I encourage you to use your preferred name and pronouns as you are comfortable.

Professional Dress Remixed

What to wear can be another terrifying thought, especially for people whose gender identity does not fit specific cultural expectations for what constitutes professional dress. As with names, I encourage you to do what you're comfortable doing. At the same time, a job interview should not be the first time you wear a different type of clothing in public -- you want to become comfortable with how you move, walk and feel in it, so you can internally manage how other people react to your appearance. I suggest this for practical reasons -- I must confess that the first time I wore heels in public was for a day-long event I was hosting, and I was not prepared for how much my feet would hurt!

Also, if you don't fit into clothing binaries, I encourage a remix approach. Take what is considered professional dress within the binary. Then, after you have worn them at least once and are comfortable, combine them in a way and add a casual touch that allows you to be yourself yet is still professional.

Being an Authentic Future Employee

My own experience was one of having no idea how to determine whether people perceived me as I wanted to be perceived, or if they doubted or denied that I was who I was. My greatest fear was being perceived as a fraud in my own gender, of being what someone in my past called a woman "wannabe." In the end, my solution was to be myself -- to be authentic. Yes, I needed to be and am a professional. But I am a professional because I am who I am and I am not hiding anything about my gender identity.

For me, hiding and monitoring my gender identity and how others perceived it was a form of labor that made being my best in the workplace or a job search more difficult. When I do not hide and am myself, I have more energy to focus on my work, and it hopefully shows.

My hope is that the advice I have provided can be a starting point -- I could say much more on the topic -- for both trans or non-binary people navigating a job search, as well as for those involved in managing such a search.

Bio

Lauren Easterling (she/her/hers) is director of trainee services at the Indiana University School of Medicine and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. Her work focuses on providing high-quality career development and learning experiences. 

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