Gender and the Job Hunt

I have been unemployed for six months now, and just got my first job offer since I was let go by my previous employer. I won’t go into the specifics about why, because it’s not really important and there are a lot of factors that led up to it, though my gender and gender presentation was certainly a factor. I haven’t been unemployed for this long since I was a teenager, and the job market now is very different than it was back then, despite many factors are quite similar. My gender, however, is a huge change that needs to be talked about.

Being a woman in the technology industry is hard, and interviewing into that industry is far more difficult than I ever expected. Of course I knew the stories, but nothing can prepare you for experiencing it first hand. I can’t even say that I’ve had the full experience of being a woman interviewing into the industry, because as a transgender woman there are different difficulties. That isn’t to say being a cisgender woman is easier, merely different in ways that I am unable to experience for myself.

I crafted my resume very carefully when I started applying for jobs, and did so in a way that reveals different amounts of details about me as a candidate depending on how much the prospective employer or recruiter looks into that resume. I can’t say whether my decisions have been the best ones that I could have made, but they are decisions that I am comfortable with.

The first thing that you see when you look at my resume is my name. In smaller text below that is my contact information, though I don’t exactly expect someone to look into the contact information until they decide whether the rest of resume warrants contacting the candidate. After that, are my skills and abilities, which I feel are the most important factors about whether to hire me. My experience in various development languages and technologies are what I expect are the most valuable details about myself to a potential employer or recruiter. Next my personal projects and blogs are listed, followed by my professional employment, volunteering, public speaking, and education. I feel that my personal projects are more important than my professional career, primarily because they reveal who I am as a person. My professional career details simply provide a further more detailed look into my skills and abilities, that I have already covered earlier in the resume.

The very first personal project that is listed is this very blog. It is simply listed as “Mattie.LGBT.”

There are three layers to revealing my status as a transgender woman. First, is my name. I list the name Mattie because that is what I prefer to go by. My legal name is only important should I actually get hired and have to fill out HR paperwork. Mattie by itself should provide some amount of contextual clues that I am a woman. Of course a name isn’t the best determining factor for someone’s gender presentation, but it would be naive to say that it isn’t a start. The second revelation comes from my email address, which has the same domain as this blog. The TLD of “LGBT” reveals that I am at the very least an individual that identifies as LGBT. Lastly, is the link to my blog. I don’t expect a prospective employer to read my blog, but for anyone who is doing their research, they can find out exactly who I am by clicking that link, as well as find my social media presence.

I made the decision to include those details about myself, because I feel that they are important, but I do not believe that every transgender person should feel pressured to do the same. I want to be upfront about who I am. Partially because I spent far too long hiding myself, but also because I don’t want to work for a company that isn’t progressive, welcoming, inclusive, and understanding of diversity ever again.

My full time job since I became unemployed has been applying for jobs. I put my resume out on as many sites as possible. I submitted it to as many positions that I even remotely qualified for, and some that I barely did. At least once a day I get a call from a recruiter, sometimes more often than that. I’ve had countless interviews, done more coding challenges than I care to admit, and was even flown out to New York City for an in-person interview with a prospective employer.

My experiences as a transgender employment candidate have been as varied as you can possibly imagine, but most can be grouped into a few categories. For the most part it has been positive. I can’t possibly describe just how freeing it is to apply for jobs as myself, the real me, and not feel as if I am hiding. Most potential employers and recruiters are respectful and professional, and I greatly appreciate that. Some employers and recruiters try to be respectful, but fail miserably. I assume that the truly problematic ones simply skipped my resume entirely.

More often than not, the subject of gender never comes up and pronouns are ignored entirely. I am simply referred to as Mattie, which is completely fine with me. In an ideal world gender shouldn’t make a difference in the hiring process, and the right person should be selected for the job. Of course this isn’t an ideal world, but I can understand and appreciate an attempt by those doing the hiring to do their best at reaching that ideal.

When gender does come up, it’s as a quick side question.

“By the way, what are your pronouns?”

I can only assume that throughout the course of the interview my gender and pronouns came into question, and rather than assume the interviewer decided to ask. I always appreciate being asked for pronouns and there is rarely a case where doing so causes offense.

Once, I answered the phone for a scheduled interview, and the interviewer introduced himself, followed by offering his own pronouns unprompted. I wish I could tell whether or not this was their standard practice, or they simply read into my resume enough to know that I am transgender, and wanted to be respectful. Regardless of their reasoning, it took me by surprise, but was extremely validating. After his introduction, he asked if I would mind sharing my own pronouns. Notice that they didn’t just ask for my pronouns, treating them as an expectation, but rather gave me the opportunity to decline should I not feel comfortable with such a question.

I thought that would be the best interview experience I would ever have in regards to my gender, but to my surprise the best was yet to come. A particular interviewer masterfully danced around my gender in a way that didn’t even click until I hung up the phone. The entire conversation was so natural, respectful, and well thought out that it couldn’t possibly have been a mistake. The interview started out like any other, with simple introductions and discussions of skills and work experience.

Most interviews tend to feel like I am simply regurgitating details of my resume. Maybe this is one of my failings as a candidate, but it feels so stunted and robotic to be asked questions that could be answered by actually reading the document I spent so much time carefully crafting. This particular interview, however, was different. At no point did it feel like simply being grilled for details that were on my resume, but rather a discussion of the resume. The interviewer would bring up an aspect of my resume, and have me comment on it or elaborate on it. They took interest in details that were summarized, and used my resume as a conversation starter.

In particular they brought up my hobbies. I wish I could remember their exact wording, but it was essentially a comment on how they could tell from my personal projects and reading my blogs that I have a lot of passion for my work and hobbies. At that moment I realized that they had been gendering me correctly the entire time, and had clearly done their research. They followed the trail that I left on my resume, and did as much research on me as an employer would expect that I should spend researching their company.

As the interview continued, it eventually became my turn to ask questions. I always hate this part of interviews, because it never fails that the questions I have prepared to ask get answered through the prior discussions. I’m shamefully bad at thinking on the fly and being put on the spot. There is one particular question I do my best to ask, and that is how the company handles diversity and inclusiveness within the workplace, and what the interviewer specifically does to create an inclusive environment for their employees.

It’s amazing how telling this simple question is. The most common response tends to be dismissive. The answer is usually some non committal statement that they don’t have issues with employees not being respectful and everyone gets along wonderfully, and that everyone is professional. Sometimes it gets people to let their guard down, and in the case of this particular interviewer that is exactly what happened. Not only did they talk about hiring the best people for the job, and that no one gets hired simply because of their gender, race, or orientation, but also that they do their best to make sure that the company as a whole is as diverse as possible. They admitted the difficulties involved with this, and that some departments are better than others, but overall that the company had a great mix of individuals. I will admit that they continued in a more candid than expected manner by talking about how they “don’t hire assholes” and if a company they are contracting with ends up having issues, they do the bare minimum to complete their contract and sever ties. The word “assholes” was used a surprising number of times.

I appreciate the candor, and am the first to admit I curse far more often than the average person. I’m just not entirely convinced that being so blunt about not hiring assholes was the best choice of wording in that particular case. Regardless, the entire interview left me both hopeful for the future, and extremely excited to have an on-site interview. I have never before felt so respected in an interview.

Another story of being respected comes from the most unlikely of sources, and the only company that I will actually name in this post. It may come as a surprise to anyone who follows tech industry news, but Riot games negotiated the subject of gender and inclusiveness in a way that I have so much respect for. While my own gender and pronouns were not brought up directly, the very first interview I had with them asked a question that very few companies would be willing to ask.

They asked if I had read any article about their company on Kotaku lately. I knew exactly what article the interviewer was referring to. If you are unfamiliar with Riot Games, then you should read it for yourself. Riot, known for having an extremely toxic community surrounding their game League of Legends, was revealed to also have an extremely toxic internal company culture.

I knew about this toxicity before applying for the position, and applied largely on a lark. The position was posted in an LGBT chat server, and there have been other articles discussing how Riot was dealing with their internal company culture, and attempting to correct those past mistakes. I saw no harm in applying, and mostly thought it would be an awesome experience to do so.

I was taken aback when the interviewer so honestly and openly brought up the subject. I don’t know if they do this for every interview candidate, or if they did so simply because they did enough digging on my resume to know that I was transgender. If I remember correctly, I stammered something about being well aware of the article, and wanted to bring the subject of myself. I outed myself as transgender, and admitted my concerns about working for a company with that kind of culture.

I actually got pretty far in that interview process, and every person I interviewed with was amazingly candid about their own experiences with toxicity, and how they felt the company was handling the attempted culture change. Of course there was good and bad to be reported, but I came away from the experience having hope for the future of the company. While I didn’t get hired for the position, I am extremely grateful for being given the opportunity to speak with them, and for how they navigated the elephant in the room.

I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t talk about the bad experiences I’ve had.

The worst, at least from a gendered context, is a recruiter that I had a long conversation with about several positions that they had available. The conversation was professional, and ignored gender and pronouns entirely. It was completely unremarkable, but the positions they had available were interesting and I was qualified for them. When the phone call ended, the conversation continued via email. That was when they dropped a bomb on me.

“I understand you are transgender and I want to respect your wishes so when doing this write up for you would you like me to put he or she when talking about your skills and past work experience?”

At face value this email is professional, courteous, and respectful. It’s obvious that this particular individual is trying, but has had no experience talking to people that aren’t cis. Digging deeper, and from the perspective of someone who is actually transgender, there is nothing professional, courteous, or respectful about this email. I can’t fault this individual for trying, but they made several missteps that could have been easily avoided.

Mistake number one is pointing out the obvious. Of course I am transgender. I know that I’m transgender. You don’t have to remind me of this, and pointing it out is as nearly as bad as deadnaming or misgendering me. Just because I am open with my identity in safe places such as my blog, does not give you the right to use it in a way that so clearly others me. Stating it in this way says that the only reason you are asking for pronouns is because I am transgender, and not because you understand what it means to ask someone their pronouns.

Respecting my wishes is so coded in bad faith that it makes me recoil. It is not my wish to be referred to as she/her. I am to be referred to as she/her. It is not up for debate. You are not respecting me by saying this. You are implying that my identity, that who and what I am, is simply a wish and not reality.

Stating that the options are simply “he or she” further proves that this particular recruiter has no idea how to handle conversations with anyone who isn’t cis, or that there is more to gender expression and pronoun use than the binary.

This particular individual clearly doesn’t understand much of anything. I do give them credit for trying, but the wording they decided to use was so flawed that it has left a sting that I will be unlikely to forget.  I wish I could have had more courage in my dealings with them, and approached the content of their email in a direct manner, but instead I simply responded with my pronouns and thanked them for asking. I am, afterall, a coward.

In the end, the best I can do is publish this article, in hopes that it helps future recruiters and hiring managers. I must caution that my experience isn’t universal, and that my opinions and feelings on the subject are my own. I cannot attest that all transgender people feel the same way, or would react the same way. Everyone is different, and the important takeaway is to be respectful and professional.

My personal advice, or perhaps a better word to use is my personal preferences in regards to dealing with the uncertainty of one’s gender in the hiring process is to choose one of the following options, ranked from my feelings of least to most respectful.

  1. Assume gender based on context clues, and be prepared to be corrected and apologize should you happen to be wrong. If you assume incorrectly, don’t linger on the mistake. Correct it and move on, and do not misgender the candidate from that point forward. I honestly don’t recommend this option, but it is an option, whether I like it or not.
  2. Ignore the concept of gender entirely, and keep the conversation strictly professional. While not ideal, it’s honestly better than accidentally offending someone and having to own up to that mistake. The downside is that it can easily result in referring to the candidate in the third person by name far more often than would normally be acceptable.
  3. Just ask for pronouns either at the start of the conversation, or when you find yourself having to use a pronoun and not being certain.
  4. Even better than simply asking for the pronouns, is to provide your own. When you introduce yourself, include your own pronouns as a part of that introduction, and then ask the candidate if they would share theirs.
  5. Research the individual prior to the interview. Most employers expect that a potential candidate researches the company, and I personally expect an employer to research the candidate as well. Of course not everyone has a social media presence or is easily googleable, but for those that are it is often not difficult to discover pronouns through those channels. You can always fall back to #4 if you’re still uncertain.

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