By Billie Lafty
Information Technology (IT) is known as a male dominant field. According to the Muse, a recent survey by Women Who Tech shows that only 25% of IT jobs are currently held by women, and while 82% of men believe that companies spend enough time addressing diversity, only 40% of women agree. These shocking numbers demonstrate the dire need for more diversity in the IT world.
This lack of diversity within the workforce has affected other communities as well. For example, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey completed in 2011 showed that transgender people are two times more likely to be unemployed than the general population and four times more likely to be unemployed if they are African American. Furthermore, transgender people are four times more likely to earn a household income of less than $10,000 per year as compared to the general population. These numbers clearly demonstrate the strong prejudice against the transgender community that is still rooted in the minds of employers and in our society as a whole.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with a good friend of mine, Jessie Ridge. Jessie is a transgender woman who has worked with the same company both pre and post-transition. She is a true inspiration for women, having worked her way up from Fry Cook to Senior Security Engineer for a large corporate company in just seven years. Jessie has broken glass ceilings and continues to grow as a person and employee, regardless of the adversity she faces on a daily basis as both a woman and transgender employee.
I have known Jessie both pre and post-transition and noticed a positive change in her almost immediately after she began the transition process. In fact, due to the insecurities she felt pre-transition, I barely heard Jessie speak. It wasn’t until her transition began that I really got to know Jessie as a person, and in the four years that we have been friends, I have never seen her more alive. Jessie is not only a hard-worker and self-taught IT professional, but she is also a talented photographer with a growing portfolio on her website MadCat Images.
On a personal level, Jessie is an extremely supportive and loving individual who constantly strives to put others first. It was my absolute honor to interview such an inspirational individual, and I truly hope her bravery and honesty positively resonates with our Project GirlSpire readers.
Tell me a little bit about your transition. For example, when did you realize who you were, and how long did it take for you to get comfortable with transitioning?
I realized that something was different when I was a kid; I just didn’t know what it was. As a teenager, I started to learn about transgender people, but during the late nineties, trans people were perceived very poorly – in the media, they were sex workers or victims on Law and Order. Very rarely would trans people be shown as professionals or normal people. During most of my twenties, I just didn’t think it was possible to transition and not lose everything. It wasn’t really until my thirties that I decided I was at a point in my life where it was safe to transition. So it wasn’t really a matter of when I knew. Knowing and deciding to go through the transition were two different events for me.
How did the traditional portrayal of transgender people impact your own view of yourself while growing up?
I felt like there was something wrong with me. As I said, transgender people were basically shown as sexual perverts or sexual deviants. Being trans was not well understood and it was certainly not respected as something that is part of an individual. It was seen more like a cross-dressing fetish that the individual couldn’t keep under control rather than an internal identity. I definitely think that concept has changed and is still changing now.
When did that public perception of the transgender community start to change?
I noticed a change around 2005 or 2007. Also, I think in 2007 being trans was finally reclassified from a mental illness in the current DSM (Diagnostics Standard Manual), which was used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental health issues. After it was reclassified, states started putting protections in place, and more people began to realize that this is not a mental or sexual preference but instead an identity. That is when I started to see more positive representations of transgender people in the mainstream media. I believe Rent came out around that time – the transgender character in the musical was portrayed as a person and not a fetish.
When you decided to make the transition, you chose to remain in the same company. Can you provide some details on your experiences in the work environment both pre-transition and post-transition?
The biggest difference that I noticed post-transition is that people treat you differently. There’s an assumption, when I am meeting new people and vendors, that I am not technical. I had a meeting recently with a new client who suggested we get somebody technical to walk him through some of the changes and I said, “Well actually, I introduced myself as the Senior Engineer. I am technical. I can walk you through this.” Likewise, I tend to get talked over more now in meetings. I think being perceived male seems to give your voice or opinion more weight. My reviews now constantly include comments about my appearance. My appearance, or wardrobe, or whatever. Pre-transition, I very rarely received comments about my appearance in the workplace unless perhaps I forgot to iron a shirt that day. I generally wouldn’t get comments based on what I was wearing as a guy. People wouldn’t notice. People notice now.
How do you respond to the different ways people treat you in professional settings, now that you’re female?
It varies from person to person. Sometimes, people who don’t perceive me as technical upfront will soon change their opinions when they realize that I know what I am talking about. However, I can’t change everyone’s opinion. I have noticed that people who would approach me for certain things in the past will go somewhere else now, and I find it kind of depressing when I see that happen. It’s just a matter of me having to speak up for myself now. I worry a little bit sometimes now. When you are assertive as a guy you come off as confident. Being a woman in a technical profession, you have to be assertive or people will overlook you. It is much easier to be perceived as unpleasant if you are assertive as a woman, so it definitely was easier to work with people prior to my transition. There can be some prejudice there, not just because they perceive me as a woman but also because they perceive me as transgender.
Would you mind elaborating a little on that?
Being perceived transgender in the workplace can go two ways. Initially, because I transitioned at the same job, people were a little standoffish or guarded. Over the past year however, I noticed there’s a distinct kind of divide. There are some people, I think, who were positively impacted – realizing that, despite being transgender, I am still just a person, and they don’t have to tip-toe around me. On the other hand, it has become clear that there are some people whose prejudiced views will not change, even after working with me for over a year.
What are some differences you have seen there in your personal life, post-transition?
I am not treated, by the people who accept me, too differently than I was before. I find it sometimes harder to make conversation with people. I’ve noticed that some people will change a little bit of what they will talk about around me. Others have been very accepting, though, and I don’t notice any real change at all. I will say that in general, maybe not specific to this question, working as a trans woman in a technical field that is very male dominated, I feel like I’m held to a slightly higher standard. I need to project a more professional image – in how I interact with others, in how I present myself. Since transitioning, I have really strived to make sure that I project a professional and confident image overall.
You work with quite a few external vendors. Do you notice any differences in the way that they communicate with you now?
I don’t know a lot of vendors now that I necessarily worked with before transitioning, so I can’t comment there. It really depends on if they know I’m transgender or not. I have one vendor that I work with very regularly who does know that I’m transgender and has not changed their opinion of me at all. On the other hand, I had a recent vendor whose representative was so unwilling to work with me that I had to dismiss them from the contract and get a replacement. It can really go both ways.
Knowing what you know now, is there any advice you can give to some of our younger readers who may be afraid to transition?
First off, don’t feel rushed. You have to take your time and go for it when you are ready. At the same point, the world is a very different place now. Some people will accept you and those people will be your true friends while some people will not accept you. Some people will change their minds and will come around, but there definitely will be people you’ll have to let go. Ultimately, you should live a life that’s true to yourself. Do it on your own time and do it how you want, but ultimately, don’t deny yourself and be who you want to be.
If you would like more information or resources for the transgender community, visit the GLAAD Campaign.