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Transgender Workers in the Global Context: Reflections on Progress and Tips for Employers

by Liesl Theron (she/her)

National Coming Out Day was recently celebrated on October 11th – a day that celebrates people coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+). Although it originated in the United States in 1988, it is now on the global calendar.

With increased LGBTIQ+ visibility in the public sphere, more legal protections afforded to LGBTIQ+ people now than ever before, and with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts taking off in the US and other countries, one would expect progress toward more transgender inclusive workplaces.

So, how are transgender people faring with regards to workplace protections and finding fair employment opportunities?



In a landmark research in the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, a study which comprised of over 27,000 transgender and gender-diverse study participants from all 50 states, revealed some staggering numbers about employment. Trans and gender-diverse adults in the U.S. experience 15% unemployment, which is three times higher than the rate of the general population, which was 5%. Meanwhile, of those who have ever been employed before, 16% experienced loss of a job specifically because they are trans or gender diverse. In the previous year, 27% of those who held or applied for a job during that year, reported being fired, denied a promotion, or not being hired for a job they applied for because of their gender identity or expression. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of those who had a job in the past year reported other forms of mistreatment based on their gender identity or expression during that year, such as being forced to use a restroom that did not match their gender identity, being told to present in the wrong gender in order to keep their job, or having a boss or coworker share private information about their transgender status without their permission.


A 2019 research study carried out across 9 Southern and Eastern African countries with almost 3,800 LGBTI participants -- of which nearly a quarter (23%) self-defined as transgender or gender non-conforming -- found that 55% of both the trans women and trans men respondents are unemployed, while 37% of the gender diverse participants are also under-employed. A further 24% of trans women, 21% of trans men and 35% of gender-diverse respondents have informal employment, and more than two thirds of trans women (71%) and trans men (70%), and more than half of gender-diverse people (57%) did not have enough money to meet their basic monthly needs.


A 2018 study on LGBTIQ+-based discrimination in China, the Philippines and Thailand indicated that trans women and trans men face double to triple the amount of discrimination at work when being out when compared to their gay and lesbian counterparts in the same study. In the Philippines, for example, 20% of cisgender men (gay and bi) face discrimination and bullying, while for trans men (regardless of their sexual orientation) the rate is at 61%.



Term for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth. The term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy, or how one is perceived in daily life.


Two recent independent studies out of the English-speaking Caribbean highlight not only the LBTQ unemployment rates there, but also the importance of conducting independent, targeted research that unearths more realistic data about peoples’ lived experiences. The World Bank’s 2020 report on the Caribbean unemployment rate of the general population at 8.2%. However, From Fringes to Focus, a study released in the same year, surveyed over 1,000 lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans masculine respondents in 8 Caribbean nations, finding that 23% were unemployed. Over-Policed, Under-Protected, a 2021 Caribbean study with 120 trans participants across 11 countries indicated a much higher unemployment rate of 42%.

Unemployment in the Caribbean, comparing citizens in general, LBQTQIA+ citizens and trans and gender-diverse citizens, based on the studies cited above.


Let us look take a quick look at international Human Rights guiding tools and platforms to gauge if there are any specific directives to take note of.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) launched a report in 2020 – Report on Trans, Social, Economic, Cultural and Environmental Rights – which states that the human right to work under just, equitable, and satisfactory conditions is broadly recognized within the Inter-American system, which the United States is part of. The IACHR has emphasized that one of the substantive elements of the right to work is that jobs can be freely chosen or accepted, which means that each person can pursue their vocation and dedicate themselves to the activities in accordance with their potentials and skills. However, the information received by the Commission indicates that exclusion from work as experienced by trans and gender-diverse persons is a region-wide phenomenon, including but not limited to the United States.

To make the right to work a reality for trans and gender-diverse people, the IACHR suggests that all inter-American countries address the issue with a series of balancing measures, emphasizing the following:

  • Enact a workplace anti-discrimination regulatory framework

  • Implement public policies aimed specifically at inserting trans persons into the labor market

  • Adopt measures to involve the private sector and businesses in the strategy to include trans and gender-diverse persons in the labor market

  • Promote the participation of unions in the area of addressing discrimination based on gender identity and expression, and

  • Adopt positive measures to reverse the effects of decades of exclusion and marginalization.

The Yogyakarta Principles, which were developed in 2006, address a broad range of international human rights standards and their application to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity issues. It is a universal guide to human rights which affirms binding international legal standards to which all countries must comply. The Principles promise a different future where all people born free and equal in dignity and rights can fulfill that precious birthright. Principle 12 “The Right to work” gives the following guidance:

Everyone has the right to decent and productive work, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment, without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”


  • Review Employment and Organizational Policies. Are they too vague or do they not directly address in their language inclusion and protections for trans and gender-diverse people?

  • Raise Awareness. Through training, regular communication, and celebrations, create understanding about the issues trans employees face throughout the organization and among all employees.

  • Get Outside Perspective. It is almost never appropriate to ask a trans or gender-diverse employee to educate their own colleagues, managers, and bosses about treating them with respect and dignity. Invite one or more guest speaker to present or facilitate sessions on trans-inclusive awareness. It is more objective and helpful if a person or group comes from outside. It is a good idea to consider an activist or non-profit organization for this role.

  • Create a Culture of Respect. Encourage a work culture where all employees make use of name tags and pronoun introduction at meetings (virtual or in person) or any other relevant spaces. This will help to steer unwanted attention away from trans or gender-diverse employees (who are otherwise regularly called the wrong name and pronouns) and will become the norm for everyone to follow.

  • Create a Culture of Accountability. Support and encourage all employees to try and ensure that they respect pronouns as indicated to them by their fellow employees and correct them when they don’t.

  • What’s in a Name? Everything. Openly support trans employees in their process to change the gender on their legal documentation and make sure their old information is protected as extremely private and possibly damaging information.

  • Create Access. Allow and facilitate the use of sex-segregated facilities that correspond to trans employees’ gender and support them when they do so – if a cisgender person has a problem with sharing a restroom with a trans colleague, the cisgender person should be invited to use alternative facilities.

  • De-gender Fashion. Dress codes should be modified to avoid gender stereotypes and should apply consistently to all employees. Trans and cisgender employees alike should be allowed to dress in accordance with their gender identity.

  • Writing Rules for All People. When reviewing company policies, rules and codes, the best measure is to adjust it in such a manner that there is no extra attention on the trans and gender-diverse employees but becomes a general rule for everyone.

  • Get Outside Support. Ensure a smooth process for trans inclusion by considering contracting a DEI consultant or consultancy team.

Writing this article, the author would like to give credit to:

Carrillo, Kennedy and Liesl Theron. From Fringes to Focus – A Deep Dive into the Lived Realities of Lesbian, Bisexual and Queer Women and Transmasculine Persons in 8 Caribbean Countries. COC Netherlands. 2020.

James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. (2020). Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights. Informe sobre personas trans y de género diverso y sus derechos económicos, sociales, culturales y ambientales. (Par 43) 7 de agosto de 2020. releases /2020 /282.asp

Müller, A., Daskilewicz, K. and the Southern and East African Research Collective on Health. (2019). ‘Are we doing alright? Realities of violence, mental health, and access to healthcare related to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in East and Southern Africa: Research report based on a community-led study in nine countries. Amsterdam: COC Netherlands.

Over-Policed, Under Protected. (n.d.) UCTRANS and OutRight International.

The Yogyakarta Principles. (2007).

UNDP, ILO. (2018). LGBTI People and Employment: Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics in China, the Philippines and Thailand.


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