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How to invalidate transgender CEOs in a single headline

Even at the top, transgender women still face discrimination.


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You’re a transgender woman who has been lucky enough to achieve success in your field, but despite your achievements, can you ever escape the fact of your birth? According to Business Insider, the answer is no. In an article for the site, Henry Blodget recently wrote about how few women reach the ranks of CEO. His proof is right in the headline: “The Highest Paid Woman CEO Was Born a Man.”

The title comes from a piece by Claire Caine Miller published in the New York Times. In the article, Miller discusses the Equilar rankings of the top 200 highest paid C.E.O.s, writing:

The highest-paid woman on the Equilar list was born a man.

Martine Rothblatt, born Martin Rothblatt, was the married father of four children and started Sirius Satellite Radio, now SiriusXM, before undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 1994. After one of her children was diagnosed with a disease, she founded United Therapeutics in 1996 and helped develop a drug to treat the illness. Last year, she was paid $38 million in compensation, most of it in stock options, putting her at No. 10 on the list. She declined to be interviewed.

What, exactly, does she need to be interviewed for? None of the other women were interviewed. The language in the original article sounds almost as if she were under investigation, as if being there atop the list were wrong. It’s the kind of language one typically sees employed when referencing politicians embroiled in political scandals. Speaking from personal experience, I’d probably have declined an interview if I knew that the focus of the interview were going to be my sex designation at birth, as it seems to be here.  

The fact that Martine Rothblatt was designated male at birth is not a particularly relevant detail and posting her former name certainly is not relevant to the issue Miller is trying to discuss. She is correct that women face barriers that men do not when it comes to achieving positions of power and influence (like becoming a CEO), that maleness is privileged in our society, and that the implicit biases in favor of maleness lead to unequal opportunities and compensation for men.  

However, noting that “the highest-paid woman on the Equilar list was born a man” serves no purpose except to say “the highest-paid woman on the Equilar list is not really a woman.”

To her credit, Miller uses the correct pronouns in reference to Mrs. Rothblatt, but the fact that she is transgender, and especially her former name, are completely tangential to the issue at hand—the pay gap between men and women and the glass ceiling that systematically prevents women from achieving positions of high status.

When Business Insider ran the story, they not only made Martine Rothblatt’s sex designation the title of the story, but buried the lede with an introductory paragraph that described her transgender status, her transition, and the assertion that she was “born a man” as a “startling fact.”  Again, the message seems to be that this “startling fact” about Ms. Rothblatt is that she is not actually a woman, that somehow her status atop the rankings deserves some sort of qualification or asterisk.

Martine Rothblatt is a woman, despite her designation at birth. If her position atop the list of wealthiest female CEOs is at all “startling,” it’s for reasons that these articles fail to touch upon. Transgender individuals are not typically wealthy and do not find themselves in privileged economic conditions, first of all.

According to a 2013 survey, the unemployment rate for transgender individuals was more than double that of the general population, with the rate of unemployment for trans people of color even higher still. Transgender people are also nearly 4 times more likely than the general population to earn less than $10,000 a year. In all but 17 states and the District of Columbia it is perfectly legal to discriminate against workers on the basis of gender identity.

If Ms. Rothblatt’s position is “startling,” it’s because she is an extreme outlier in a culture that through systemic discrimination relegates transgender individuals to poverty. Delegitimizing her identity as a woman only contributes to this culture of discrimination in which transgender identities are not respected. Pointing out the fact that she was designated male at birth doesn’t show that she succeeded because of some latent maleness, it shows that she succeeded because she was lucky enough to defy the odds.

If those statistics weren’t enough, another recent study shows that transgender women who transition on the job actually suffer a loss in both pay and status, while trans men who transition on the job typically gain status (and in some cases, higher wages). These findings show that regardless of sex designation at birth, differences in how workers are gendered can either create or tear down barriers to higher status, and for trans women, more often than not, transition creates barriers to their success.

There is most certainly an opportunity gap between men and women in our society. This gap persists even for women who were designated male at birth, however, and the data confirms it. Delegitimizing the identities of trans women by painting the highest paid transgender CEO as somehow not a real woman does nothing to remedy the systemic inequalities faced by all female-identified individuals. Furthermore, it obscures the unique difficulties that transgender people face in addition to systemic sexism.

Although it’s implicit, these ideas further the view that trans individuals are illegitimate, their identities tied inextricably to a doctor’s assumption of their identity at birth, and always subject to overrule by that doctor’s assumption. This only reinforces the toxic ides that our society has about trans people that make even finding employment and a living wage difficult. They do nothing to address the gender pay gap.

Instead of erasing the identities of trans people, we could focus our energies on addressing the systemic devaluation of women across the board and addressing those mechanisms that elevate male status at the expense of anyone perceived to deviate from the male norm. If we want to increase diversity in positions of status and wealth, we must take an intersectional approach that attacks the barriers preventing all women from rising to the top.

All women, even trans women, deserve the same opportunities to succeed and to not be discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity.

Kat Haché is a transgender woman, artist, and writer from East Tennessee. She is passionate about transgender issues and is an ardent feminist. She enjoys retro video games, internet culture, ukulele and coffee in copious amounts. She tweets frequently at @papierhache.

Photo Adam_T4/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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