This post was updated on June 11.
On a recent Saturday in May, the atrium at Cleveland’s Metro Health Hospital was the site of a typical-looking job fair — people in suits shook hands and swapped business cards with company reps who sat behind tables adorned with mounds of branded freebies. Among the 24 companies, there were some big names including Starbucks, PNC Bank and Progressive Insurance.
Floating from table to table, leather portfolio in hand, was Nicolette Baldwin. After about 90 minutes, Baldwin had spoken with reps from nearly every company there.
“I’m a social butterfly,” she said, raising a tote bag stuffed with free corporate tchotchkes as proof.
What made the event different than most, however, is that it was geared specifically towards transgender jobseekers like her. Metro Health started hosting the annual event a few years ago, and organizers say each time, the number of recruiters keeps growing; the first year, there were only eight.
While looking for a job can be difficult for anyone, it can be especially tough for transgender people. According to a 2016 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, roughly 30 percent of trans people surveyed said they’ve been denied a job, a promotion, or fired because of their gender identity.
But there are signs that an increasing number of businesses are reaching out to the trans community.
“From executives down to individual contributors … we have some pretty high hiring targets for this year,” said Lisa Jackman, who works in HR at Hyland, an Ohio-based enterprise software maker. She said the company is hoping to recruit folks that normally might not apply.
“At the end of the day we don’t believe that we’re seeing a diverse enough candidate pool that we know is out there,” Jackman said, “so it is incumbent on us to really go search for it.”
Although anyone looking for a job was welcome to attend the fair, the event was advertised on flyers and social media as a Transgender Job Fair.
Nicolette Baldwin said it’s refreshing, because she’s had some bad job search experiences. She recalls one time she interviewed for a position selling makeup at a mall. At first, she thought it was going well. But suddenly, the woman asking the questions stood up, and walked out of the glass-walled conference room.
Baldwin saw the woman go over to her co-workers, whisper something to them, and turn to face her.
“They’re looking right into the room, laughing as soon as they see me,” Baldwin said. “It’s like I’m in a fish aquarium. You know, let’s go look at the exotic fish in the room.”
Advocates say hiring discrimination against trans jobseekers remains a big problem, but there is evidence that the private sector is opening up to the trans community.
In 2012, 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies had policies against gender identity discrimination, according to a survey by the LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign. Today, nearly 85 percent do.
“They look at transgender inclusion, not only as the right thing to do, but as a smart business decision,” said Beck Bailey, Deputy Director of HRC’s Workplace Equality Program. Such policies send a signal, he said, to potential recruits and current employees, as well as customers and investors.
On top of that, 58 percent of Fortune 500s also offer “transgender-inclusive health benefits,” which can include things like sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy, according to HRC’s 2018 Corporate Equality Index. That’s a big change from early 2000s when those kinds of corporate policies were mostly nonexistent, Bailey said.
That so many of the world’s largest businesses are trying to demonstrate their inclusiveness is also a reflection of evolving public attitudes, said Jillian Weiss, an attorney in New York who specializes in workplace discrimination cases against trans people.
“In the last five years, we’ve seen a lot of difference in how accepted transgender people are,” Weiss said. Despite that, she said, navigating the workplace as an out trans person can still be risky.
Most states do not have legislation that bars employers from discriminating on the basis of gender identity (although 21 states and the District of Columbia do, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank focused on LGBT policy). And even though the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission continues to accept complaints based on gender identity discrimination, the Trump administration has also exhibited a hostility towards transgender rights in the workplace, in schools, and the military.
“If you bring it up too early, it’s kind of weird,” Weiss said. “It’s this kind of personal thing that doesn’t have anything to do with your work.”
“On the other hand, what happens if they do a background check and they see different names? Then they’re kind of wondering, ‘Who is this person?’” she said. That awkwardness could be avoided if employers give candidates the option on job applications to self-identify as transgender, she said.
Natalia Hodlik, a Senior Technology Specialist at PNC, said the decision of whether to come out as transgender can be even more complicated for trans people who are already employed.
“My previous employer, the one I transitioned at, I’ll never forget the day I came out to them,” Hodlik said. “I was shaking like a leaf.”
The reaction from several of her co-workers was hostile, she said, eventually driving her to leave that job in 2016. In looking for a new gig, she eventually found herself at Metro Health’s Transgender Job Fair. There, she made connections that eventually led to her current position at PNC.
“It’s been a perfect fit,” she said.
As for the folks who attended the job fair this year? The organizers say at least four people have already gotten offers.
This story was produced by the Marketplace hub at the ideastream newsroom in Cleveland.