Schrodinger’s Gender

Today’s guest blogger is a PhD statistician, mother of two, and thirty-something transgender woman. She works in the medical device industry as an applied statistician, with specialization in the areas of experimental design, statistical process control, product reliability, and bad math puns.

An on-the-job gender transition is fraught with uncertainties. Or at least mine was. In the months leading up to my coming out at work, my mind was quite skilled at dreaming up transition-related uncertainties for which I could not provide good probability estimates.

  • Will my consulting work suddenly dry up if my scientific colleagues are uncomfortable working with a trans woman?
  • Will there be massive riots regarding the restroom I use, as anticipated by my very nervous HR representative?
  • Will I be tolerated as a quirky and benignly amusing math nerd?
  • Will I be accepted for who I am, and be allowed to thrive in my career as both as a professional statistician and a (trans) woman?

In the 11 months since my coming out at work, the vast majority of my colleagues have fallen somewhere on the spectrum between tolerance and acceptance. No bathroom riots have broken out, no lurid gossip has been floating around, and none of my most important colleagues have ceased working with me.   Not only was there an absence of disaster, but there was a deluge of kindness in the days after my coming out. Many colleagues wrote me heartfelt emails of support, and the vast majority quickly honored my request to call me by my new legal name and my desired (female) pronouns. A few brave colleagues were even willing to stand up for me when, shortly after my transition, they heard a non-supportive individual casually dropping some transphobic slurs behind my back. The colleagues immediately challenged the language and later reported the incident to the relevant manager. These outpourings of support left me quite overcome with amazement and joy.

To be sure, there were challenges in the transition process. It was something of a logistical nightmare to time my legal transition to be on track with my changing body, and to navigate the IT and HR bureaucracies regarding my name change.   Health insurance coverage has been an ongoing battle. As a final logistical hurdle, there was no corporate funding to provide education on transgender issues, so my allies and I had to organize our own education session shortly after my coming out. Despite the challenges I faced, being a trans statistician has largely been a non-issue. Being a female statistician, however, is an ongoing adventure.

As hormones have helped my appearance to align with my own (female) identity, my colleagues’ behavior toward me has changed in subtle yet pervasive ways. Transgender women provide a rather unique lens into sexism and women’s issues, given that we essentially form our own controlled gender experiment of size n=1. That is, I have all the same mathematical skills as I did before transition, and I would argue I’m an even better statistician now that I’m not distracted by the angst of gender dysphoria. So the differences I notice between my male and female working lives are likely clues to the subconscious structure of workplace gender. A few negative observations include

  • When I teach classes within my company, there often are one or two guys staring at my body rather than listening to my lecture. To be clear, the majority of my students are entirely respectful, but the change in behavior is noticeable.
  • I teach exactly the same classes as I did before transition. My teaching has always garnered good reviews in class evaluations, but only after transition have I noticed outliers (usually 1-2 people per class) who give me negative feedback. Overall, my post-transition reviews are still fantastic.
  • In large meetings, I need to work harder to get my voice heard, especially if I am the only female present.
  • Even with my PhD, occasionally guys (with very little statistical education) attempt to “man-splain” to me some statistical concepts that they don’t actually understand. My statistical knowledge is doubted more now, especially by men who never knew me before transition.

None of the above issues prevent me from being successful; I just need to work a bit harder as a woman to gain the respect of new colleagues.

The forms of sexism I’ve encountered are infinitesimal in comparison to all the positive changes I’ve experienced in the workplace. Overall, my relationships with my colleagues—both male and female—are much better now that I no longer need to wear a mask at work.  I’m happier by multiple orders of magnitudes than I ever was before, and I believe that my positivity makes me more effective as a statistical consultant. Despite all the jokes about statisticians being boring introverts, I think the most effective ones are actually quite good at building relationships with scientists, and I feel such relief that now I can finally build those relationships on a footing of personal truth. I am so proud to be a transgender statistician, a female statistician, and a statistician who no longer is afraid to speak the truth.

This entry was posted in diversity, empathy, female scientist, happiness, industry, LGBT, sexism, teaching, women in science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Schrodinger’s Gender

  1. SweetScience says:

    I’m happy things are so good for you overall! What kinds of reactions do you have to some of the negative sides of being treated as a woman that you list, such as being “man-splained” to? I find myself wondering if your reactions (internal and external) would be different (perhaps more shocked/insulted?) than another woman who has experienced such things her whole career/life.


    • Schrodingers_Gender says:

      Thankfully, the episodes of man-splaining have been few and far between. But they are maddening. During one recent occurrence, I could feel my neck tense up, and I immediately started arguing my point more strongly. Becoming intensely logical is my first reaction in those circumstances, but I have learned to not push the argumentation too far. It took me awhile to figure out that the other party is not necessarily arguing from a standpoint of logic–it probably has something to do with his own psychology and something to do with workplace power. So I’ve learned to always acknowledge the other’s viewpiont, and to say something like “oh, I bet you’re thinking of X, not Y. What you just said makes perfect sense under these circumstances. But here, we are talking about . . . .” Thankfully, I have a pretty good reputation among those employees who have worked with me for a long time, so the man-splaining only occurs among new hires, if at all.

      A statistician is often in a supporting role, which in some sense matches well with female stereotypes. And my own authentic mode of relationship with others is somewhere within the feminine “norm.” (Well, at least within the “norm” for nerdy females. ;-)) So things usually work out. I have shared my experiences and insights with other female PhDs at my company, and they sometimes look at me blankly. They then say, “oh, yeah, I guess I’ve always just learned to do _____ to deal with the situation. It’s not something I even think about.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David says:

    Regarding the restroom, what do you say to someone who is uncomfortable with your presence? In my building, we have a woman transitioning and several female coworkers have told me that they are very uncomfortable with her using the woman’s restroom. I never know what to say to be supportive of the transgendered woman. Like your work, mine has not done a good job of educating the staff aside from telling the woman about legal obligations.


    • Schrodingers_Gender says:

      Hi David. I’m lucky that I never had to fight much of that battle, so I’m really not sure. Hopefully the concerned cis women will become more comfortable as they further interact with the trans woman. You might bring up a few talking points:
      –Trans people are not as rare as everyone thinks. Probably everyone already has used a public restroom with a trans person at some point in his/her/their life. The cis people probably didn’t even notice. Nobody goes around a public restroom inspecting genitals (I hope), and stall doors close. It should be a non-issue.
      –There have been no recorded cases of a trans woman being abusive in a public restroom. There are lots of cases of trans women being harassed when they are forced to use men’s rooms.
      –If the trans woman is hoping to have a somewhat normative female appearance, at some point it would be totally absurd for her to use the men’s room. The same is true for trans men. There have been trans people trying to illustrate this point through the #wejustneedpee hashtag. Check out the following photos, and see if a trans woman in a men’s room and a trans man in women’s room makes any sense.


  3. Pingback: How to Encourage a Supportive Environment | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s