The transgender work experience? “People need to feel safe.”

Simple courtesies can go a long way. For one participant in our new study,  Being transgender at work, the option to add a preferred name in addition to a legal name on a student ID made a world of difference. “It meant that I didn’t have to awkwardly email professors before the semester started,” the participant said. “It was done automatically. That was incredible.”

This sort of inclusive action is just a first step. Our new report is based on US government data, McKinsey research, 500+ online surveys, and in-depth interviews. It provides first-time insights into the participation, plight, and precarious existence that transgender people have experienced in the workplace and in their lives.

David Baboolall (they/them), a McKinsey associate partner, led the research. David is one of three children born to a mother from Namibia and a father from Guyana. They grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and attended the Bronx High School of Science. “It was the turning point in my life,” David says. “It was demanding, with three hours of commuting a day, but it prepared me well and opened up my future.”

The transgender work experience? “People need to feel safe.”
A childhood photo of David and their sister, Samanta.
The transgender work experience? “People need to feel safe.”

At Carnegie Mellon University, they earned degrees in engineering and computer science and following several internships joined McKinsey, where they serve private-equity clients and lead projects on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

David was inspired to take on this research in addition to their consulting work. “There had been some shining moments of inspiration in the research, but far more evidence of steps backwards,” David says. “The research findings paint a picture of a community that is marginalized, poor, and living with a high level of stress. And this year, we saw the highest number of transgender murders to date. With all of this oppression, now is the time to fight for rights.”

In the US, according to the new report, 29 percent of transgender adults live in poverty compared to less than 8 percent of the US population as a whole. Transgender adults are twice as likely as cisgender adults to be unemployed; and when they do have a job, they earn one-third less than cisgender people, even with an equal or higher level of education.

More than half of transgender employees say they are not comfortable being out at work. This may lead to limiting themselves to certain industries, with 59 percent of survey respondents citing safety as a concern. Once hired, they are more likely to report a sense of alienation and insecurity among their colleagues and managers. The feeling of not being able to bring their whole selves to work can induce a sense of stress that can inhibit them from fully participating.

David Baboolall, (they/them), McKinsey associate partner
David with a friend from Carnegie Mellon University.
David Baboolall, (they/them), McKinsey associate partner

“I decided a while ago that I’m just going to get through work until I can retire,” explains one worker in a manufacturing plant. “The goal is to not be fully out–it’s just to not feel unsafe, like I did in my previous job. I can survive being closeted for now.”

Greater transgender inclusion in the workforce would benefit everyone, David explains. “If everything was equitable in terms of pay and employment between cisgender folks and transgender folks,” they say, “we projected that there would be an additional $12 billion in consumer spending.”

But to develop more inclusive cultures requires a better understanding of the transgender experience, which can mean education and training.

An icon for inclusivity across sexual orientations overlaid on city buildings

Being transgender at work

Although corporate America has stepped up its public support of LGBTQ+ rights, it still has a long road ahead to foster a truly inclusive environment for transgender employees.

For instance, one of the questions in the survey was: What types of training and/or education would be most helpful for you related to trans inclusion? And what questions do you have? “Twenty percent of cisgender respondents said they would absolutely not be open to attending any learning courses, seminars, and so forth. I was shocked by the vehemence of some of the responses,” says David.

They add: “I think this points to some ignorance when it comes to sexual orientation, and then more specifically to gender identity. I believe many individuals, not only across the US, but across the world, have never had a conversation about it. Awareness and education are blatantly missing. This research is hopefully one first step.”

The report outlines initiatives that companies can take to create a more inclusive culture including recruiting, onboarding, benefits, and cultural and management training. Several participants' responses described their value. “Support groups and communities,” said one response, “can be instrumental to feeling accepted and included in a company, in society.”

You can say, ‘I’m committed to making you feel included and ensuring that you can bring your whole self to work every day.’

David Baboolall (they/them), McKinsey associate partner

An opt-in community of some 60 trans people at McKinsey meet monthly to share information about their projects, resources, and opportunities. “People need to feel safe at work to be fully engaged. Today there is not enough momentum or energy in the world to create those spaces for transgender people, so they need to do this for themselves,” says David.

Our research has shown that if companies can step up to create more inclusive environments, the reward will be more fully engaged employees. It’s a complex and nuanced challenge for any leader. “It can start with having a candid conversation with the transgender person who’s on your team,” offers David. “You can say, ‘I’m committed to making you feel included and ensuring that you can bring your whole self to work every day. And I’d love to work with you to ensure that that happens.’”

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