At Work in Two Genders

Observations from accomplished trans women about power and leadership in the office

“I want to literally make people smarter by jamming things in their brains,” Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neurophysicist and entrepreneur in Berkeley, California, told me. “Of course, that involves discretionary brain surgery.” So most of the time, Ming focuses on what comes before the operations, closely studying the physical components of the brain  in an attempt to target the approaches most likely to find success. After all, said Ming, “the space of what could be true is so enormous,” but what’s actually true is precise.

Finding truth is not just a research pursuit for Ming; it is also intensely personal. What happens, for example, when a young Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon, holds their fiancée close and says, “Do you want to know my deep, dark secret?” It had been a secret for more than a decade: “I want to be a woman.”

For Ming, that truth did not bring relief or joy when she first knew it or when she first told it. The epiphany arrived back when she was a high-school freshman. She was on the football field when it “suddenly crystalized: I was playing for the wrong team.” It didn’t make anything easier, she said. “Life got worse with understanding.”

Before attending Carnegie Mellon, before a fellowship at Stanford, before working with Google, before inventing dozens of devices, and all of the work that would come to define her, Ming flunked out of college, lived in a car, and was in serious debt. One night in her 20s, with a gun in her hand, Ming darkly thought that in her case suicide would really be euthanasia, a mercy killing for a depressive who would never be happy and who was making no particular impact on the world.

“I needed a reason to be alive,” Ming said, and what she realized freed her: “It didn’t matter if I made myself happy; it mattered if I lived substantively.” According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, a shocking 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide, compared with 1.6 percent of the general population. Ten years after that night, when she was in her 30s, Ming transitioned. Following that, she eschewed lucrative job offers and dedicated herself instead to work that she thought would have the most impact on the most people. “Gender transition isn’t about gender,” said Ming. “It’s about literally making yourself a better person, because you know that’s a better you.”

At work, women leaders experience more sexual harassment, lower pay, and less respect than their male peers. But what about transgender women at the tops of their fields? What is their experience of gender discrimination at work? What I found among the various accomplished trans women I spoke to was that, for them, leadership and professionalism aren’t functions of gender; they are a matter of making sure that one’s inner life and public life are in harmony.

“Authenticity resonates,” said Michaela Mendelsohn, the CEO of Los Angeles’s Pollo West Corp., one of the largest franchisees for the fast-food empire El Pollo Loco. “Finding my voice as a woman gave me new strength, and now I get more respect than I did as Michael,” Mendelsohn said. It’s not about being a man or a woman; it’s about “integrating as one whole person.”

“I never felt comfortable doing business as a male,” said Mendelsohn, who told me her life as a man—she transitioned in her 50s—was “hyper-masculine.” “There was always a feeling of being out of place,” she said—being a successful “businessman took a concerted effort at all times.” But when she finally “got a handle on my gender issues,” Mendelsohn said, “for the first time in my life, my body and mind were working together.” It used to be that going into work, she said, “every day I had a gigantic hill to climb, and for the first time, that hill leveled out.”

Rachel See, a lawyer specializing in technology who manages a litigation arm of the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., transitioned in her late 30s. When I asked See about her work, she told me proudly, “I’m a Fed.” Notably, See and her colleagues are suing McDonald's on behalf of fast-food workers, arguing that the company should be jointly liable for their franchisees’ pay and treatment of employees.*

She told me how she thinks she has changed as a lawyer now that she has transitioned. “There’s some things I do the same, but my comfort and confidence is different,” she said, adding that her “high energy comes more naturally,” and in that sense, her presentation style has changed. “I’m comfortable as me,” she said. Based on their post-transition experiences and jobs, See and Mendelsohn would probably have a lot to talk about.

Ming, too, said she is now more comfortable as a leader at work, and she was quick to point out the ways in which society perceives different leadership styles: “I don’t know that leadership should be gendered, but [transitioning has] clued me in to how we define leadership.” To her mind, both as neuroscientist and as a person who experienced transitioning to a woman, estrogen is nothing short of a wonder drug. (“Everyone should do this,” she said, half-jokingly.) “My approach to leadership is different,” Ming said. “I was very aggressive and confrontational. Now I’m a very collaborative person. I’m a better leader, and it’s not because I’m louder or more commanding.” However, Ming said she is definitely over hearing the occasional back-handed compliment: “I like you so much more now!”

Being authentic and a better leader, of course, does not insulate trans women from sexism. But the women I talked to said they experience sexism differently—as a contrast with life as a man.

“Almost overnight, they stopped asking me math questions,” said Ming. During her transition, she was working as a scientist, and her colleagues thought highly of her skills. She had even developed a unique, complex algorithm as a grad student—an algorithm she used to create an artificial intelligence that learned to hear, which she then put into a neuro-prosthetic cochlear implant. (She’s not kidding when she says she wants to jam things into people’s brains.) But after her transition, nobody asked her about math anymore. This was a striking moment for a person who had grown up with the “arbitrary privilege” of being male: “Nobody told me I couldn’t do math or be a scientist,” she said.

See is a “computer geek and lifelong techie.” Her work has always circled that world. “I distinguish myself legally by being the lawyer who can explain tech to the other lawyers and the judge,” said See. And when she looked “like a nerdy Asian guy,” there was an immediate “assumption of competence—the exact opposite presumptions of competence that a female lawyer has.”

See said she was made acutely aware of those presumptions a couple years ago, when she was walking around a legal-tech trade show. She asked the person manning the booth at one of the displays if she could talk to the engineer. “Maybe I can answer your question,” the booth-tender replied. That had never happened before. As an Asian man, when See asked to talk to the engineer, See got to talk to the engineer. “I’m the same person,” she said. “I do the same kinds of work.” Now she goes through two rounds: First, she asks her question of the person who greets her, who invariably says, “Yeah, I’ll get the engineer.” Then, she asks the question of the engineer.

But the benefits of being an Asian male had worked in her favor for the majority of her career so far. “I had a level of male privilege—unquestionably,” See told me.

Mendelsohn used the same language: “I got where I got with male privilege, and I recognize that.” It was an insight she learned quickly. “The first time I walked into a boardroom as Michaela, I was invisible.” Previously, Mendelsohn had had a “macho, physical way” of getting her point across. “I used to speak authoritatively and command respect,” she said. At first, going from “one box to another, in some ways, was worse,” she said. Mendelsohn did ultimately find her way as a woman and earned back that respect—although sometimes she still finds herself reaching for that tough guy: “I can’t back down,” she said. “I’m lucky guys don’t want to hit a woman!”

To be sure, gender bias goes both ways. Ming told me about a time, after transitioning, when she was walking down the street in Berkeley. She saw a woman with a baby in one arm and a bag in the other who was having trouble folding a stroller. Ming offered to help. She assumed the woman would ask her to fold the stroller. Instead, Ming found herself holding the child. “Free baby!” she joked as she related the story. “She would never have done that with a strange man.”

There are also logistical elements to transitioning at work, as See found. “H.R. is afraid of people like me,” said See. And See, who really likes what she does, did not want to jeopardize her job. So before she transitioned and came out at work, “I knew my legal rights down cold,” she said. Of course, See is also a lawyer. In Washington. “I knew on an OPM level of detail,” she said, referring to the fine-grained prescriptions of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

See also laid the groundwork really well: She had done high-quality work that year, she was well-liked, known for navigating contentious issues without being disagreeable, and her colleagues appreciated the results she got. Plus, she made sure she didn’t reveal her plans to transition until after her annual review, and, she said, “My bosses are good people.” It all put her, she said, “in a real position of power. That’s a privilege. No doubt it’s a privilege.”

But most trans people don’t have that kind of power. “White-collar trans issues are working out better,” Mendelsohn said, “because they realize now that inclusivity is better for business. But that isn’t trickling down.” In fact, transgender people are, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, four times more likely than other Americans to have a household income under $10,000 and more than twice as likely to be unemployed.

In response to findings like this, Mendelsohn started the California Trans Workplace Program, whose mission is to help California become a trans-positive workplace state. CTWP joins forces with the restaurant industry, which Mendelsohn of course knows a little something about, to create entry-level positions with pathways to management for transgender employees, so they can be out at work—something Mendelsohn thinks is invaluable. After successfully pitching one initiative to  the state government, the CTWP now partners with restaurant owners across California, connecting them with jobseekers, who are mentored and whose first 60 hours on the job are paid for by the state. For trans people who need a chance, “being their authentic selves in the workplace is deeply meaningful to them,” said Mendelsohn, who was recently asked by the mayor of Los Angeles to join his workplace-development board.

Ming, meanwhile, takes a more numbers-driven approach to advocacy. She is working on a project assembling data to eliminate bias in the workplace; 90 percent of trans people experience harassment or discrimination on the job or hide their identities at work. Ming knows: She lost a prestigious position when she transitioned and is attuned to bias at every level. No doubt one day she’ll make a bias-eliminating widget that can be shoved into everyone’s brains.

Ming is busy with other things, too—all of which, like See’s and Mendelsohn’s employment work, is an attempt to create parity and opportunity, both for trans people and others. Using Google Glass, she created technology to teach autistic kids to read faces and learn emotions. She also created a facial-recognition technology that maps neural networks—so now refugees and their families can find each other in a matter of hours by looking at 100 or so photos on a computer, instead of losing weeks poring over the United Nations’s database of 50,000 photos. And when Ming’s son was diagnosed with diabetes, she invented a device that not only tells her his blood-glucose levels, but predicts them.

She’s currently working on an app that teaches people how to parent. She wants the technology to intervene in order to change children’s lifetime trajectories, and, in the bigger-picture, help produce a generation with more productive employees, fewer people in jail, and lower crime rates. “When the standard techniques are misleading, my job is to point people in the other direction,” Ming said.

Ming’s fervor about helping people reach their potential is intimately related to her own journey. She told me about her elite education, her loving family, and the resources she had growing up. She is acutely aware that despite her good fortune, at one point she was failing at life—and almost took her own. “And I had hundreds of opportunities,” Ming said. “How many had three chances? How many had none?”

Back at her office pre-transition, See’s human-resources department held a special training for all employees. See took a male colleague to lunch to talk to him about it all and she was extremely nervous. “I said, ‘You know how there’s that trans training? Well, that’s me,’” See told him, preparing for the worst. But he replied, “‘With all due respect, so what?’” See laughed. “That’s the goal we should be striving for: So what?” Maybe when Ming invents the bias-eliminating widget to shove in everyone’s brains, the world will even get there.

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* This piece originally stated that See and her colleagues won a case against McDonald's. We regret the error.