Transgender Professional Women: Authenticity and Transitioning in the Workplace

MichellleFigueiredoBy Hadley Catalano (Boston)

After a successful managerial climb at State Street, a large global financial services company in Boston, Michelle Figueiredo made the most difficult decision of her professional career. She had her first conversation with the company’s human resources department about her true identity.

“I spoke for three hours with the woman in HR,” Figueiredo, who was professionally known as Michael before she transitioned, recalled. “She said to me, ‘we have never had this happen before, we’ll work with you. We support you 100 percent.”

A similar conversation occurred a year later at the Boston office of the large multi-national law firm Edwards Wildman where Sara Schnorr had been a lawyer for 30 plus years (Edwards Wildman is the successor to Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge). Schnorr, who was named partner at the Boston office in 1987, had made the decision in 2009, at the age of 61, to professionally acknowledge her true identity. The law firm’s senior management, having known Sara as Tom – her given birth name – as an invaluable partner, told her, “of course we’ll support you.”

These two stories of male-to-female transition (MTF) are becoming more frequent in working environments throughout the state of Massachusetts, where the state legislature and local businesses are widening their anti-discrimination clauses. A 2011 law called An Act Relative to Gender Identity prohibits discrimination in several key areas and defines gender identity as “a person’s gender-related identity, appearance or behavior, whether or not that gender-related identity, appearance or behavior is different from that traditionally associated with the person’s physiology or assigned sex at birth.”

Even before the Massachusetts legislature enacted the law and the Governor signed it effective as of July 2012, employers across the state, both locally and those with global partners, were breaking barriers through the implementation of diversity policies, including the freedom for employees to self-identify. It’s a trend that, while not federally mandated, has been included in anti-discrimination polices for many private businesses across the country.

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2013 Corporate Equality Index (CEI) this year has seen 54 new businesses adjust their corporate policies as they relate to LGBT employees, 42 percent of the CEI-rated employers have distinct global codes of conduct or employment standards that are inclusive of both sexual orientation and gender identity, and of those same rated employers 83 percent have a LGBT Employee Resources Group or Diversity Council (as compared to 40 Percent in 2002).

State Street, where roughly 28,000 employees are spread out over 100 geographic markets worldwide, has a similar distinct global code and Figueiredo became the company’s first transgender women to transition MTF on the job. Her journey began by first explaining her true identity to family and friends. With the encouragement of her closest supporters she inquired with her company’s human resources department and was surprised and delighted to hear about their progressive diversity policy and support of her decision.

“I wanted to tell my co-workers personally,” Figueiredo explained, noting that the pivotal point in her determination to live her life as her true self was based on a promotion to a new managerial position. “I was nervous, but I wanted them to know that I was confident and proud of who I was.”

Coming to Work as Her True Self

Figueiredo’s staff, the senior VPs, and most importantly her good friend, mentor and direct manager were all fully supportive of the transition.

“I remember my heart was in my throat when I told my director I wasn’t Mike, I was Michelle. He said to me, ‘I don’t care what you look like, as long as you’re doing the awesome job you do’,” she said, noting that her co-workers appreciated her honest and open communication. “Then I had a meeting with my peers and HR came in and explained that they supported my transition and if anyone said or did anything negatively or to harass, they would be disciplined up to termination.”

Figueiredo told her story: she had struggled since 1975, when at the age of four, she knew her true self wasn’t going to be molded by the sports equipment she wore or despite her efforts to be the best (and only) son to her parents. How she met people in college with similar stories but still continued to struggle with the knowledge of her identity after a threat of termination from a boss at a previous job, the fear of disappointing her family, and being ostracized. Then after a year of therapy and the support of her best friend and mother, Figueiredo came out at work.

Then on September 15, 2008 Figueiredo came to work as her true self, in black pumps, a black skirt, white button down blouse, pearls and makeup, and despite some “prairie-dogging” at the office, it was business as usual.

Over the course of the next two years Figueiredo legally and physically completed her transition (and after a repeal, her insurance paid short-term disability). With her international colleagues she took the time to call people and personally explain her transition story, establishing a trust and a level of comfort that has helped her professionally. She continues to feel supported and validated by her co-workers – some of whom have furthered their own education on LGBT issues, while others joined the company’s Global Inclusion group, a group where Figueiredo is a committee member. She is also a board member for MassEquality and a member of SpeakOUT Boston.

A Personal Journey

SaraSchnorrSara Schnorr had an equally public, and professionally supportive, transition in the summer of 2009 when she transitioned MTF in the office of the law firm where she practices commercial real estate development, permitting, finance and operations. Schnorr, a graduate of Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School, focuses her practice in affordable housing and community development, with added experience in biotech/life science and telecommunications industries.

Since the age of four Schnorr had, similar to Figueiredo, questioned her true identity. The feelings continued throughout college, marriage, and children, and transpired into a strong desire to dress in women’s clothing, a secret that Schnorr kept deeply hidden. Through her wife’s disapproving discovery of her clothing “hobby” but willingness to turn a blind eye, the pain and depression for what Schnorr had termed a “personality defect” led her to overcompensate at work and act overtly masculine and macho.

Schnorr’s need to present as a woman continued to fuel her internal struggle and in 2008 she sought intensive therapy, where she was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (GID).

“Simply put, even though designated at birth as male, my innermost identity and the feelings and sensibilities that I use to deal with life are those of a genetic woman,” she said, explaining that counseling led her to seek the friendship and advice of other MTF professionals. “Through social support groups I spoke with people who had transitioned within their careers, including an architect, a neuropsychologist, and a fellow Harvard alumna.”

In developing a treatment plan, Schnorr and her gender therapist followed the medically approved set of Standards of Care for GID, including public presenting as a woman, growing her hair long, taking lessons to feminize her voice, and taking estrogen, under the care of an endocrinologist.

“By 2009 I was living full time at home and socially as Sara,” she said. Then through an LGBT-friendly lawyer she processed the guidelines of her firm’s progressive non-discrimination policy. Since it only applied to employees, not partners, she sent a letter to her firm’s managing partner and the 33 other partners that serve on the firm’s two key management committees explaining GID, seeking to rely on her strong working relationships and her years of valuable contribution to the firm in asking for support of her transition. (Schnorr also wrote about her personal coming out journey in the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1970’s 40th Reunion Report.)

“They said of course they would support me,” Schnorr said, explaining that the firm would give her time, starting in the fall of 2009, to sort out her surgeries. They forwarded her explanatory email to the remaining staff, detailing the transition process, and that upon return from her first facial feminizations surgery, in the fall of 2009, she would professionally and legally be Sara.

“I explained in my letter that it was my desire to remain conservative and unassuming in my professional presentation, and since I am barely 5’2” it was easier for me to do so,” she said. “Then I received about 200 emails in return saying that I had full support from my colleagues and they hoped all went well.”

Over the four years since her transition, Schnorr’s co-workers and clients quickly adapted to her female identity, using appropriate pronouns and even forgetting (as was the case with one partner) that she used to present as Tom. Schnorr also took her three most significant clients out to lunch individually and personally explained her situation.

“I was concerned how they were going to react, but their only real concern was if I was still going to be their lawyer. It was very gratifying to know that they saw me for my creative and problem solving skills,” she recalled. “Of course they said it would take some time for them to get used to it.”

Authenticity and Professional Success

For both women, the transition not only lead to happier and healthier lives but increased their productivity at work as well.

“Looking back every year since my transition my lawyer metrics, my collections, have grown 10 to 12 percent a year. Once this internal battle in my head was over I had more energy and focus professionally,” said Schnorr. This sentiment resonated with Figueiredo as well. Where her ability to commit energy to her job – as oppose to hiding her identity – enabled her to receive another work promotion.

Not everyone has the same progressive workplace advantage as Figueiredo and Schnorr, and the struggle to transition professionally has kept many transgender people from coming forward with their true identity.

“I know how fortunate I am and I know that I am a good lawyer, so I use my connections to go and set up appointments at the state house to lobby for transgender support,” said Schnorr, who serves on the Boston office’s diversity committee and is also a member of the Founders’ Circle of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project, SpeakOUT Boston, and the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association, and Fenway Community Health’s Board of Visitors.

It is the national statistics, recorded by the HRC, that show that, “transgender people face disproportionate amounts of discrimination in all areas of life especially in employment and heath care,” and this stat is compounded by an unstable job market. Outspoken advocates such as Figueiredo and Schnorr are sharing their stories to help combat misinformation and help lift the nation’s educational knowledge on transgender lives and gender identity to help secure and pass federal protections such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and Comprehensive Civil Rights, and generate understanding and acceptance in the workplace.

“I’ll always remember what one woman said to me,” said Figueiredo, who recalled one of her first conference room meetings during her transition. “She said ‘welcome to our side of the glass ceiling,’ and I said in response, ‘I’m going to help break it down’.”

1 Response

  1. Mechelle and Sara are outstanding examples of the ease and grace that some successfulul and experienced professionals can experience in the workplace. The work that they continue to do in support of others is awesome both in the big picture of continuing to fight for more rights and acceptance and for their work in supporting other indivuduals navigating their journeys of authenticity.