STEM Jobs are More Trans Friendly than They Once Were, But There’s Still Work to Be Done


Earlier this month in Florida, Cindy Sullivan, a trans woman who works in IT, testified against a bill that would, among other things, affect her job security. According to the Human Rights Campaign, five out of every six trans men and trans women has experienced employment discrimination.

It is no secret that there is not much diversity in STEM jobs, but the conversation about diversity and STEM jobs usually centers around the lack of women and people of color, and rarely, if ever, acknowledge the needs of others, including tran smen and trans women. Nor is transphobia in the STEM fields a new thing; the most famous example happened to Dr. Lynn Conway, who, despite her significant contributions to computer architecture, was fired from IBM after transitioning. Even though Conway went on to revolutionize microchip design and win multiple awards, she was still afraid her employers might terminate her because of her identity.

Recently, there has been good news: many STEM companies have added nondiscrimination policies that address gender expression, including Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. The Human Rights Campaign, as part of their research on how friendly LBGT companies are, reports that some STEM companies, like Electronic Arts, have received perfect scores on equality. Moreover, Dow Chemical has revamped their health care plans for the US employees to address transgender needs. Even Conway’s former employer, IBM, has been named the World’s Most LBGT-Friendly Company.

I wanted to get a sense of the realities on the ground, as it were, but I struggled to find anyone to interview. I started working as a science writer a few years ago, and despite going through many of my science contacts, many of them reported to me that they didn’t even know any trans men or trans women in STEM – though many acknowledged that was an issue they thought should be addressed. I then went through all of my LBGTQ contacts, and found a similar lack of interview subjects. I started cold emailing possible interview subjects, but to no avail. And I can’t say I blame anyone for not talking to me. Considering how easy it is for reporters to out their subjects, something I’m personally scared to death to accidentally do, I could see why no one would talk to me. I probably would not want to talk to a reporter either.

I finally found one person to interview, Kale Edmiston, a trans man and PhD candidate at Vanderbilt in neuroscience. Edmiston told me that he thought employers needed to, among other things, institute “dress code policies that recognize and affirm non-binary genders,” training for management that addresses “explicit and implicit bias,” and “partner benefits that recognize queer family structures” since “trans people can also be LGBQ.” In addition, Edmiston said that employers should let “trans people shape the conversation as much as possible.” This is important because “some trans people might want the company leadership to share [in] their transition” while “others might want to come out to people one by one, and others may choose not to be out at all.” Edmiston added that “all [are] valid, personal choices” and that “letting each individual trans person make them is critical.”

LBGTQ organizations also still have suggestions for employers to ensure the safety of trans employees. Workplace Pride reports that while many companies have good policies, they fail to assess their own policy-implement. Workplace Pride also notes that while companies have implemented LGBTQ networks, companies rarely tap this valuable business resource. Moreover, LBGTQ employees still do not have full legal protection. Despite the Senate recently passing a non-discrimination bill that covers gender expression, it still has not been signed into law.

Numbers and support, or lack thereof, matter. While it is true that some STEM companies, like Google, have diversity pages that give statistics, these numbers usually give a limited picture, and do not include statistics about how many employees identify within the LBGTQ umbrella. While this may easily reflect a desire to keep employee information private, which is an overall good thing for employees, for a trans woman, these statistics might leave her with a lot of questions. She might be happy to see that there are a significant number of women at a company, but given the unfortunate number of so-called feminists who exclude trans women, a trans woman who wants to be a scientist or engineer might still not be confident that she would have allies on the job. Nor do women in STEM programs specifically address cis privilege. There are numerous efforts to encourage girls and children of color in science, but what good might those efforts do if you are a teen who cannot come out to your family as a trans woman, and thus cannot access women-centric resources?

While progress is great, it is still not enough. The conversation about diversity in STEM should not be limited to just people of color and/or women, especially since many of us still assume women means cis women. Diversity in STEM programs should think carefully about how their organization may accidentally discourage trans women and trans men from approaching them. Additionally, STEM companies need to prioritize safe, comfortable environments for transemployees.

If you are trans or otherwise genderqueer and would like to speak with us about your experience working in the STEM field (even on the condition of anonymity), please get in touch at

(image via Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

Courtney Hilden is a poetry reader and series editor for Bayou Magazine. She has been published numerous places, including Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media.

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