Masculinity vs. Femininity: Gender Discrimination in the Workplace

Examining the relationship between cisgender men and cisgender women leads to the conclusion that masculinity is a strong predictor of workplace treatment and outcomes: those who are masculine end up having a better experience in the workplace than those who are not. The experiences of gender-diverse people complicate this simple conclusion.

Lacking Masculinity

The experiences of the six trans women, all of whom transitioned away from hegemonic masculinity, demonstrate basic support for the theme that masculine is superior. Every one of them, with the exception of of one, noted that after transitioning they perceived themselves as having less privilege than they had before transitioning. However, these trans women were perceived in many different ways.

All of the trans women reported being perceived as cross-dressers during some point of their transition process, if not still currently, and thus were viewed as highly deviant men displaying an intensely alternative masculinity. Other times, they were seen as women, and experienced discrimination on the basis of their femininity and ability to perform, specifically, cisgender femininity.

Still, other times they were seen as women, but as trans women—and accordingly faced trans status discrimination and unique stereotypes about trans women. If the worst experiences were reported by those who were seen as cross-dressing men, and the best experiences reported by those who were seen as the “right” kind of trans woman, then it cannot be said that masculinity is always and without exception better than femininity.

For many of these trans women, it was highly advantageous to be categorized as women, rather than men, in any scenario. We take note of this interesting observation for now and move on.

Privileges of Masculinity

The experiences of the four trans men interviewed add further complexity to the idea of hegemonic masculinity. To begin with, a legitimate masculinity was available only to those trans men who passed as men—usually requiring masculinizing hormone replacement therapy to do so. For those trans men who were able to pass, a hierarchy of masculinities was clearly observed in which trans men who were able to embody hegemonic masculinity. They enjoyed privileges head and shoulders above those of men embodying subordinate or alternate masculinities. Trans men who embody hegemonic masculinity are inducted into the “boy’s club,” men’s networks and circles where same-gender camaraderie—what sociologists would call “homosociality”—maintained exclusive workplace environments.

Pressure to Perform Hegemonic Masculinity

Trans men who fail to live up to this standard are teased, mocked, disparaged, and delegitimized by others in the workplace for not being “man enough.” To gain entrance to the highly selective ranks of hegemonic masculinity, a trans man must not only appear conventionally masculine—be sufficiently tall, have a sufficiently low voice, and display secondary sex characteristics like facial hair—but also act conventionally masculine in terms of speaking styles, clothing choices, and mannerisms. This is a high bar to meet, but also for many trans men is an inauthentic goal to strive for. There is accordingly a large range of possibilities in which trans men uniquely compromise between the authenticity of gender and desired workplace treatment.

Complexities of Butch Womanhood

Finally, the stories from butch women (and those who at some point identified and worked as butch women) provide strong support for the mixed results in the research literature.

Overall, every person who reported a workplace experience while working as a butch woman described how butch womanhood was valued over feminine womanhood in most ways, if and only if the butch women in question were able to keep their masculinity within a blurrily defined range.

Butch women who were too masculine are seen as threatening and lose many of the perks they receive due to their butch womanhood. Additionally, some interviewees spoke of negative experiences associated with presenting as a butch woman in homophobic environments, due to the associations of a butch gender presentation with a lesbian identity.

Masculinity Vs. Femininity

In general, is masculinity advantaged over femininity? Perhaps. From the stories of trans men and trans women, we saw that hegemonic masculinity was advantaged compared to subordinate masculinities, of which “deviant masculinity”—frequently assigned to trans women perceived as cross-dressing men.

Butch women faced an interesting paradox in which the more masculine they presented, the better they were treated in the workplace—yet, if they were seen as “too” masculine, they faced heavy social sanctioning.

Trans women faced their own paradox: those who did not present in feminine ways were typically viewed as men, and sanctioned due to possessing a “subordinate masculinity,” yet the most “hyper-feminine” of the trans women interviewed were likely to be read as cross-dressing men, and accordingly faced extreme discrimination.

How can we make sense of these patterns? One explanation may be that the far extremes of masculinity and femininity are safely accessible only by cisgender men and women, respectively. Assigned female at birth people have more license to access masculinity than assigned male at birth people have to access femininity, due to the higher status of masculinity in society —for this reason, AFAB butch women are treated better than AFAB feminine women, while AMAB feminine men are treated worse than AMAB masculine men.

However, assigned female at birth people cannot safely access the extremes of masculinity unless they are perceived as cisgender men. We suspect that assigned male at birth people cannot safely access the extremes of femininity unless they are perceived as cisgender woman, a difficult feat for any assigned male at birth person after adolescence. This was something none of the trans women interviewed were able to achieve.

Excerpted from Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace (Praeger, May 21, 2018).

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