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Transgender opportunities: employers must play a lead role

The recent Women and Equalities Committee inquiry reveals the issues facing transgender people, and how employers can help

For many of us work plays a major role in our economic, physical, and emotional wellbeing and the role we play in our families and communities. Yet for some people significant barriers remain in getting, keeping and progressing in a job. A recently published inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee shines a light on the compelling issues that still blight transgender people's opportunities for full inclusion in society.

While no specific recommendations were made to employers, the overall changes required will be of great relevance in the workplace. To fully include the wide range of trans identities the committee has recommended:

"Government should be moving towards ‘non-gendering’ of official records as a general principle and only recording gender where it is a relevant piece of information. Where information on gender is required for monitoring purposes it should be recorded separately from individuals’ personal records and only subject to the consent of those concerned."

Employers can play a lead role in helping this culture shift take place by examining their own practice, identifying where gender identification is irrelevant to the purpose of holding personal records, and beginning to offer a 'non-gendered' option on employment forms.

The inquiry also uncovered the challenges to people who are transitioning. Trans people encounter significant problems in using general NHS services, due in part to the attitude of some clinicians, GPs and other staff. Employers can support their employees in these situations by ensuring they not only meet their legal requirement not to discriminate against them for transition-related absence, but also by taking a flexible and supportive approach to transition, in much the same way that good practice already accommodates disability.

The inquiry found that individuals experience high levels of transphobia on a daily basis (including in the provision of public services) with serious results. About half of young trans people and a third of trans adults attempt suicide. The role of HR departments in supporting staff is already recognised as best practice by most good employers – revisiting and refreshing these support services with a view to ensuring trans-specific support is available would be a good move forward.

It is telling that there is a lack of good quality statistical data about trans people in the UK. The committee’s inquiry report indicates that some 650,000 people are “likely to be gender incongruent to some degree”, but more can be done to ensure data and databases are fit for purpose.

Concerns about and misunderstanding of the data protection aspects of the Gender Recognition Act inhibit the collection of data on trans people for the legitimate purpose of monitoring inequalities. Lack of inclusion in employer surveys due to fear of falling foul of the Act simply leads to a paucity of data, allowing organisations to ignore the issues trans people face.

It is important to recognise that collection of data for this purpose is clearly permitted under the Act, provided that the data subject has given explicit consent or the data is anonymised.

Protection for trans people under the Equality Act 2010 was a huge step forward. However, the terms 'gender reassignment' and 'transsexual' in the Act may not cover members of the wider trans community. The recommendation is that the protected characteristic should be amended to that of 'gender identity'.

Many trans people still face discrimination in employment and other aspects of their lives. Now is the ideal time to refresh your employment policies and organisational culture. While it is for government to take a leading role in the legal and policy changes needed to improve the lives of trans people, employers and HR professionals can also make a valuable contribution. That's why I believe this should be high on your agenda.

Caroline Waters is deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission