From Michael to Megan: being transgendered in the workplace

Megan Wallent works in the management ranks at Microsoft. Until a few weeks ago, she was called Michael Wallent. She writes a blog chronicling her transformation. It tells you something about Microsoft culture, or indeed U.S. West Coast culture, that seeing her back to work as a woman wasn’t a big deal for any of her coworkers.

And yet. As beautiful and strong and amazing as women are, the workplace is not where they call the shots. Not even the U.S. West Coast workplace. Steve Ballmer is not a woman (and it would be real interesting news if he discovered his inner femininity). So, this is where I’m puzzled, and I know it’s not going to be politically correct of me to write this, but, as sympathetic and supportive I am of Megan, there’s also something I don’t understand.

It is: it’s hard for me to understand how, in a corporate environment, one would choose to put oneself in a position of lesser power.

It’s tough out there, as women know. Beauty can help somewhat, perhaps. Adam’s apples are ugly, and Michael’s had to go, and so it did. But notice. I don’t know if Michael was a tall guy, but Megan looks like she’s a tall woman. Michael didn’t go to the surgeon in San Francisco complaining about his height and asking “make me a petite”. (For the sake of clarification: I wouldn’t have expected him to.) So, no change in the height department. Tall with boobs is even more imposing than tall with no boobs.

Megan’s voice is also the same as Michael’s voice. That helps, for example on the phone, in conveying power. And I’m pretty sure Megan hasn’t started phrasing her statements with the questioning upward slant that makes so many young American women sound terminally indecisive. No, my guess is Megan has a remarkably decisive voice. I don’t thing she giggles.

So, it will be interesting to see if Megan’s new feminine features help or hinder her power in the organization. My bet is: it doesn’t help to look like a woman. It’s a burden and an excuse for men to treat you, unconsciously or not, worse than you deserve. (Just ask women at investment banks from Morgan Stanley to Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein; no wonder Morgan Stanley prefers to settle its women brokers’ class-action suits out of court). Megan made a conscious trade-off between corporate status and other things that were more important to her, and she hedged her strategy by retaining and using those masculine features and mannerisms that sustain her standing in the workplace. Smart choice, Megan.

For those if you less interested than I am in the dynamics of power and politics in the workplace, here’s something else. If you’re like me, you will recall from your childhood The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. It’s a classic, and even today Megan reads it to her son at bedtime.

Think about this: have you become the kind of butterfly you dreamt of in your caterpillar days?

Does anybody, ever, really?

6 thoughts on “From Michael to Megan: being transgendered in the workplace

  1. I found your site on google blog search and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. Just added your RSS feed to my feed reader. Look forward to reading more from you.

    – Sue.

  2. Hi Paola,

    I don’t think there’s a loss of “power” thing for some of us, which may be hard to grasp for some people … You may be right about a “trade-off,” but I don’t know about the “hedging.”

    Kindest regards,

    Stephanie

    P.S. Cool blog, Paola

  3. I’ve advised a lot of male to female transitioners over the years…….one thing I tell them if they do so on the job in the business world. You’ll know as soon as they accept you as a woman, they’ll move heaven and earth to move you out the door. Sadly, I’ve almost never been wrong in this.

  4. Hi Paola –
    A couple of answers to the questions that you pose above, from the simple to the hard:
    – Am I tall? Yes, I’m six foot two.
    – Butterfly? Well, I’m more moth than butterfly these days, or a butterfly with part of my cocoon still on, but JEEZ, I’m lovin’ those wings!

    As far as the work tradeoff – I was *hoping* that work would be ok w/my transition, and I thought it would be. But, I chose not to optimize around that.

    I didn’t/don’t think that I was/am intentionally putting myself in a position of less power. I was showing on the outside who I had been on the inside basically forever. In many ways, I believe (and others have commented on) that in fact I have *more power* than I had before, because I can now lead from a truly authentic place. There’s a bunch of books and references to “Authentic Leadership”, and boy, this is it!

    As far as mannerisms go – no, I don’t think I’ve gone over the top, but they are slightly different.

    As for my voice, this choice had zero to do with work, and power at work. I chose not to do voice training or have risky voice surgery because my voice is *too personal* to change. I’ve written about this (or tried to) a lot. I like my voice – its not super booming or baritone – and its all mine.

    At least at Microsoft, I have no sense that anyone is trying to move me out the door. In fact, since I transitioned I got a different role, with more responsibility, and an improved career track. I’ve had nothing but awesome support, and already, people are seeing past the whole TG thing, and seeing me for the past and future results I have and will provide.

    At least at Microsoft it has far less to do with gender than “style” – just like issues of racial injustice have more to do (in many cases) with class (monetary power). Is that “masculine” style? Maybe more men that women exhibit that, but I haven’t seen it be localized to one gender.

    Thats a whole long discussion there, and I’ve already taken enough of your time.

    Caio!

    – Megan

  5. Thanks Megan for addressing these questions – I’m amazed you’ve been taking the time! Please keep blogging about what happens at work. Wishing you all the best! Paola

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