Surviving and Thriving in my Information Career

· July 12, 2020

Over on Queeries and Clareification, Clare has been reflecting on their queer career. It got me thinking about my own pathway into the work I do now and how that’s been affected by my own experiences of gender and sexuality.

NB. I have modified the questions Clare answered in their blog post, because I don’t identify as queer.

How have your gender and sexuality influenced your career path?

Surviving: Repressing through study

As a teen and young adult, my coping method for dealing with my gender and body dysphoria was to repress it by burying myself in the abstract intellectual world of study. Focussing on the life of the mind was not only a way of cutting myself off from all the other aspects of life that would have been too difficult to handle, it was also subtly male-coded, and I did well academically. I made it through a Bachelor of Arts with Honours and was halfway through a second Arts degree before my intellectual coping strategy started to break down. I realised how much I’d been repressing and my academic endeavours started to look like unhealthy avoidance rather than like achievements. I started facing up to my gender and coming to terms with what that might mean. The academic career I had planned out didn’t make sense any more, so I dropped out of my research degree.

Surviving: Supporting my transition

I focussed on finding a job so I could support myself and finance my medical transition. I didn’t have the luxury of starting a career, I just needed something that would pay the bills, keep a roof over my head, and give me some security, given that I didn’t feel like I had a safety net to fall back on. My family were not supportive and we were not on speaking terms. Someone on a mailing list for trans guys put me on to a temping agency that was supposed to be trans friendly, so I signed up with them, and they got me a job in the records unit at a public health agency. I started that job as female, but using my male name, and transitioned fully to male on the job about eight months later. During this time, I had no energy for thinking about building a career. All of my emotional and psychological energy was on coping with the ongoing effects of gender dysphoria and the stress of transitioning. None of this happened overnight; this period lasted around ten years, all up.

Thriving: Starting over

I enjoyed a lot of what I was doing in records management. I found it rewarding to work with people and processes, and also satisfying to wrangle data and systems. I wanted to learn more technical skills, such as programming and data analysis, to be able to work with digital records, data, and information. I regretted having made choices about what to study at university when I was only a fraction of a person, and wished I could go back and make those choices again as the man I was now becoming. I realised that, in fact, I could do this, so I enrolled to study a Bachelor of Science majoring in Computational Science by distance. An opportunity to apply for a digital curation role in an academic library came up and I realised that my haphazard background in electronic records and information management and the skills I’d developed through my part-time study seemed to fit it perfectly. It wasn’t the kind of role I’d been consciously aiming for, but as soon as I came across it I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. I was lucky enough to get the job and loved every moment of it.

Surviving: Professional credentials

Even though I loved my job, my partner and I, as two observant Jewish men in a same gender relationship, wanted to move somewhere where we felt we might stand a better chance of finding like-minded religious community. So we relocated interstate and I spent about a year job-hunting. The vast majority of jobs I looked at applying for either required or looked favourably on professional qualifications in information management. Despite having what I thought was plenty of experience and good references, I struggled to get my foot in the door. I decided I might find it easier on the job market if I did have professional qualifications under my belt, so dropped out of the BSc to enrol on a Masters of Information Studies (MIS). I did find work a few months later, and the MIS has so far mostly been an exercise in frustration. Anything out of the box feels unwelcome on the course and whenever I have brought my lived experiences of gender and sexuality to my studies I’ve received grades that were markedly lower than I otherwise achieve. I don’t think the quality of my work on those assignments was substantially different from others for which I routinely receive higher marks, so I have to wonder whether this pattern is a result of marker bias. So, overall, I’m not sure if enrolling on the course was the best decision, but I’ve only got a couple more subjects to go now, so figure I might as well finish it.

Being perceived as gender variant

I spent many years being visibly gender variant in the workplace: being perceived as female while presenting with short hair, wearing standard men’s business clothes. I spent those years in a constant state of hypervigilance. I was never sure how people were going to react to me and dealt with a lot of awkwardness and discomfort in the workplace. Because of constant microaggressions and harassment in public bathrooms as a visibly gender variant person, I spent many years trying to avoid bumping into co-workers in bathrooms out of fear of how they would react to me. This is a fear that persists to this day, despite the fact that I’ve been using the men’s bathrooms for well over twelve years and my co-workers know me as nothing but a man.

Being perceived as younger than I am

Prior to and in the early stages of my transition I was often read as a very young boy. As a professional in my late twenties, having worked in records management with the agency I was employed by for several years, one of the staff I was assisting one day asked me who I’d spoken to in order to get work experience there, because her son was in year 9 too and also had to arrange a work experience placement. Being perceived as a literal child, I was demeaned, patronised, and condescended to on a regular basis. The work I did wasn’t taken seriously or respected as requiring genuine professional skills, because people thought that even a child could do it. As I transitioned this effect lessened, somewhat, but I am still perceived as younger than I am and taken less seriously because of it.

Explaining my resume

It has been hard for me to create a coherent career narrative out of my education and work history that doesn’t look like I squandered my opportunities. On the face of it, it looks like I did really well academically, and then dropped out of uni to screw around in mediocre jobs, before eventually trying to reinvent myself. I have definitely had employers think of me as an aimless underachiever in need of mentoring, given my early academic success and subsequent lacklustre job history. I’m embarrassed about my earlier academic achievements, because, to me, they represent toxic coping mechanisms that I’d rather put behind me, but at the same time it would be silly to leave them off my resume.

Mismatched paperwork

My degree certificates and transcripts for my BA (Hons) and MA use my old name and pronouns, so if I have to show them I have to go through the whole rigmarole of pulling out my name change and gender change certificates too, which I’d mostly rather not deal with. I had to submit them when I applied for the BSc and the MIS, which meant disclosing my gender history to the university administration. I also had to provide proof of my qualifications when I started at various jobs. I was told I could just bring my degree certificates on the day I started and show them to my manager. Rather than doing this, I made arrangements to take my paperwork directly to HR, without anyone from my team or line management having to see them.

References

There have also been times when the people I might have used as referees knew me under a different name and gender. So I either had to come out to them about my gender transition and hope they took the news well, were still willing to give me a reference, and could manage the mental shift necessary to get my pronouns right in the reference, or find someone else to use as a referee.

Do you have any advice to other sexuality and gender diverse people interested in starting a career in your industry?

Career timelines are flexible

The good thing about working in the information professions is that you don’t have to feel like you’re falling behind the standard cisgender career timeline, because career timelines are pretty flexible. It’s extremely common for trans people to be in survival mode, focusing energy on dealing with gender dysphoria, transition, transphobia, and discrimination, before we’re in a place to focus on having a career, and by that time we feel like we’ve fallen well behind our cis peers. There are many people who get into the information professions as a second career, who are just starting out later in life too. In addition, the high proportion of women in this line of work means it’s a lot more common for people to re-enter the workforce after taking career breaks, as women are more likely to take time out of work as full-time parents or caregivers. All of which means that, as a sector, information professions have more flexibility to come in at different life stages, and more of a tolerance for career changes and career breaks.

Question qualifications

Not all of the roles you might want to get into as an information professional require formal qualifications. Check whether this will be necessary before your embark on any formal study. The road to professional qualifications is expensive and, in my experience, aggravating and demoralising for anyone with any kind of life experience that falls outside the cookie cutter mainstream. As trans people, many of us have already experienced chronic traumatic stress and are financially disadvantaged due to workplace discrimination and the costs of transition. You may want to avoid putting yourself through more financial and emotional stress, just for the sake of trying to get formal information studies qualifications if it’s not strictly necessary. Talk to people in the field and find out what your options are before you make any decisions. Work experience and skills can be more important that qualifications, depending on what you want to do.