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Trans femmes in tech: Part II Women built the industry - so why isn't the industry built for them?

Illustrated pictures of Lynn Conway, Sophie Wilson, Angelica Ross, and Jamie Clayton (aka Nomi Marks) in a collage. The title on top, in all caps, reads Trans Femmes in Tech: Part 2

The future, as designed by trans femmes in tech

If the Netflix series “Sense8” (written/produced/directed by trans siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the team behind films such as “The Matrix” trilogy, “Cloud Atlas”, and “V for Vendetta”, among others) has taught us anything, it’s that it’s likely that a badass techie trans femme (“Nomi Marks” played by Jamie Clayton) will be a key player in saving the world as we know it. I’m thankful to finally be seeing representations of trans women in media that don’t replicate harmful tropes, and instead reflect their complexity and brilliance.

A line drawing of "Nomi Marks" from the Netflix series Sense8, with and illustrated green and blue circuit board in the background.

Jamie Clayton as “Nomi Marks” – hacker and hero from the Netflix series “Sense8”. Illustration by Sara Williamson and Jesse Blanchie.

In the real world, trans femmes will continue to push the bounds of the tech industry, just like they always have. If what we’ve seen so far are examples of what trans femmes can accomplish in workplaces that feel impossibly toxic, can you imagine what might be possible in an environment where their energy can be spent on creativity and innovation rather than on safety and survival?

Some people in the industry are taking matters into their own hands.

Social innovator and founder and CEO of TransTech Social EnterprisesAngelica Ross, has created a training academy for trans people in tech to develop their skills without facing the transphobic discrimination.

*(The title of this video is taken a bit out of context – respect to anyone who does sex work by choice, circumstance, or for survival.)

Shifting culture, one open-concept tech office at a time

Aside from creating trans-specific social enterprises, how can everyday tech employers make meaningful change?

I asked some trans femme friends who are in the industry, “If you could give 3 recommendations that you think would have the most impact in terms of shifting the culture of the tech world (let’s say, beyond having accessible bathrooms, open-ended gender options on forms, and using your name and pronouns consistently, etc.), what would they be?” In their words, here are some ideas:

1. Resist “Brogrammer” culture.

Tech has a long history of being a boys’ club, laced with all the misogyny and “gentle” joking inherent in that. Even if you don’t think there are women around, cut out the misogyny and transmisogyny. Your spaces can’t be open to trans women without being open to women in general. How you talk about women when you don’t perceive we are present speaks volumes to how you will treat us when we are. Which leads into the next point…

2. Don’t assume you’ll know whether there are trans people in a space.

We’re secretly everywhere – we may not be out to you, and we may not even be out in general. That trans woman who’s still pretending to be a guy at work is never going to stick around (let alone come out to employers/co-workers) if your workplace doesn’t feel safe. Ditch the “cis-until-otherwise-stated” approach, and instead, build practices into your work that make it clear that all a/genders are welcome. These practices (even the basics of having accessible washrooms, creating opportunities to state one’s name and gender regardless of what is on legal docs, not being super sexist/transphobic etc.) will enable us to be open about our gender if/when we feel safe to do so.

3. Put/keep trans people in leadership and decision-making roles

And not just on your diversity committee.

After coming out as trans, it’s not uncommon for trans femmes to be reassigned to lower-level, behind the scenes jobs, or let go without cause – the assumption being that our femininity somehow undermines our capacity to perform important intellectual labour that will have high levels of influence (this should always be reserved for dudes, obvi). Put us in decision making roles, and keep us there no matter how our presentation or identity shifts over time. Our experience as trans people gives us a unique vantage point from which to problem solve beyond binaries (hehe), and that’s an asset to any leadership team.

A line drawing of Angelica Ross with and illustrated green and blue circuit board in the background.

Angelica Ross, founder of TransTech Social Enterprises. Illustration by Sara Williamson and Jesse Blanchie.

“I shouldn’t have to say this, but we are worth it.”

As one friend in the industry so eloquently put, “You need us, so make your spaces accessible, damn it!”

Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler (founder of TRANS H4CK) also supports that, “energy must be directed towards incorporating race and gender educational frameworks alongside ‘learn to code’ initiatives, as the cultural costs of microaggressions that devalue queer people of color, greatly outweighs the financial cost of investing in work that challenges racist, sexist and transphobic thinking.”

It’s time to invest in shifting work culture – and for trans and gender non-conforming folks in tech, it can’t happen too soon.


All art created by Sara Williamson and Jesse Blanchie

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