Gender Bias In Hiring: Interviewing as a Trans Woman in Tech

Being trans brings an entire new layer of bias and discrimination to play in every interview.

by February Keeney on February 1st, 2016

A year of job searching.

Many phone screens, filtering down to a smaller number of on-site interviews, a handful of multi-round interviews. I got consistent positive feedback. Yet when it came time to make an offer, every company would decline.

“I am so sorry, but we don’t feel you are experienced enough.”

More than once, the recruiter called me to apologize. They felt the company was making a huge mistake: I was exactly the candidate they had been looking for, and the feedback was all positive.

None of this is too surprising. It’s really hard to get a job as a woman in tech. The interesting thing is that for the first 15 years of my career, if I was brought in for an on-site interview, it always resulted in an offer. Every time.

But for those first 15 years of my career I was perceived as a male. For I am a trans woman.

Insidious Bias

Shadows of people walking along a street.

Photo CC-BY Qhairizad SayHello, filtered.

We know a lot about bias in hiring. Study after study confirms the very real phenomenon of bias against women, against people of color, against LGBT candidates. A fascinating phenomenon has shown up in some of the more recent studies: those who have very little explicit bias often have a lot of internalized implicit bias. That is to say, those who externally and consciously seem the least discriminatory, tend to be more likely to discriminate on a subconscious level.

My life has played out what many of these studies have simulated by replacing names on resumes, and other sleights of hand. The same exact candidate, in one instance presented as male and another as female, had not just slightly different results in the job search, but radically different results.

My career has become an A/B Test in gender. With the clear “winner” being male.

Being Trans

Being trans brings an entire new layer of bias and discrimination to play in every interview. In many circumstances I can avoid being read as trans. But almost never in a technical interview. Get me talking about tech and I will subconsciously drop voice. If the interviewer — almost always male — had suspicions about me prior to that, they have now been confirmed.

At this point a whole new set of factors come into play. Do they find me repulsive? Or worse, do they find me attractive? You can almost see the internalized homophobia in their eyes when this happens; that moment when they realize they are attracted to a trans woman. You see the fear in their eyes as they think “does this mean I am gay?”

I want to yell at them, “No! That is not how that works! It makes you straight! But even if it did make you gay: what’s wrong with that?”

Instead I sit there and hope they don’t sabotage me in their interview feedback. How often do these feelings translate into “not a good fit” or “she made me uncomfortable”?

On a couple of occasions, I noticed a clear antagonistic shift when the interviewer realized I was trans. The questions got unfairly difficult and the tone more deeply interrogatory. It is not hard to ensure a candidate does poorly on an interview if you are really determined to undermine them.

Devaluation Cycle

Swirling whirlpool of muddy water.

Photo CC-BY flikr, filtered.

I had begun looking for a new job when the situation with my existing employer had become dysfunctional and arguable abusive. For most of my career, if a job started to become emotionally unhealthy, I was able to just go out and get another one. But now I was trapped. I was in a bad situation, and the only way out was to expose myself to discrimination and rejection.

But if there is one thing being trans forces you to be good at it, is to face discrimination and rejections in order to escape bad situations.

So I pressed on. Interview after interview, with all the stress of having to arrange time off work, to ensure my presentation gave me the highest chance not to be read as trans. The waiting.

And then the rejections.

The easy ones to take were the ones where the interview clearly hadn’t gone well. The hard ones, were the ones where it had. I have been in countless interviews on both sides of the table. I generally have a good sense of when things are going well and when they are not.

The times I knew it went well hurt the most.

At the end of all this cycle of searching and rejection I was completely emotionally defeated. My attempts to improve my situation with my employer had only shifted things into a different  bad situation. My attempts to find a new job just left me wondering if it was merely that being a woman in tech is incredibly difficult, or if being a trans woman in tech meant I was intrinsically unhirable…

Either way I was trapped. I was devastated and empty. I went through the motions of life.

But I was dead inside.

Demanding Change

So how do we change this? What can we do? Bias doesn’t just impact women. It impacts anyone without the privilege of being a white male. The tech industry’s self-propagating homogeneity is an insidious beast.

But we have a voice. We can speak out. This is not always safe. It is not always the best career move. But without our voice, things will not change. We should speak out both within our companies and in public forums. We should call people to task when they are propagating discrimination and toxic cultures.

At one of the companies that turned me down, two women spoke out about it. They looked at the feedback and saw that there was no empirical reason that an offer was not extended to me. Another role at the same company came up, and I was very quickly offered a job.

Sometimes our voices can change things.

There is a long road ahead of us. Companies are starting to understand that “Diversity and Inclusion” impacts their bottom line. But they are still going about it in terrible and half-assed ways. We need to leverage the fact that they are doing anything and teach them how to do better.

We know better ways. We know that using a standardized process and rubric works really well in putting a stop to insidious bias vectors such as “not a good fit”. We know that training interviewers to be aware of common unconscious biases helps reduce the impact of these biases. The data exists. We know what to do.

But it takes work. And it takes people who care enough to make it happen.

It’s not clear if the slow shift we are seeing in tech toward diversity and inclusion is because the financiers believe the data on diversity, or because they want to avoid the bad PR that comes with being a discriminatory company. But, we are starting to see a slow shift. Let’s leverage that. Let’s use these initial efforts to encourage better efforts. Let’s leverage the competitiveness of tech companies to have them fighting for who is the most inclusive.

Let’s call out bad behavior, and let’s make this better.

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