HR departments across Australia are increasingly being prompted to offer gender affirmation leave (often labelled ‘gender transition leave’) to their trans and gender-diverse employees. Having access to leave dedicated to facilitating transition is a welcome improvement for trans people at work, historically and continually a place of discrimination. Implemented correctly, gender affirmation leave has the capacity to alleviate some of the biggest practical barriers to affirming one’s gender identity and is symbolically significant.
For trans and gender-diverse people, the workplace has long been a place where structural disadvantage has viciously manifested itself. Coming out at work exposes trans people to significant discrimination. 33 per cent of trans people report facing workplace discrimination, including being fired or denied promotion because of their gender identity. Those who don’t feel safe to come out at work—an estimated 65 per cent of trans people according to English studies—are forced to work in a perpetual state of discomfort. Discrimination before being hired is even more severe, as gender diverse people are unemployed at a rate over triple the Australian average. Interpersonal challenges are exacerbated by structural deficiencies in the workplace best exemplified by the need to jump through unnecessary procedural hoops, like obtaining medical certificates when changing one’s name, pronouns, and title in internal databases.
Gender affirmation leave offers a partial remedy to these problems. Gender affirmation isn’t an easy process to undertake: attending to a string of medical appointments and administrative tasks to affirm one’s gender in law can be time-consuming. In lieu of the potential for discrimination and the impossibility of being allowed enough time off work, many trans people are forced to quit work to pursue gender affirmation. Given the difficulty of re-entering the job market, gender affirmation leave offers a vital support structure that assures trans and gender diverse people of a job when they are ready to restart and in turn longer-term financial security.
For the significant number of people financially unable to quit their jobs, and therefore unable to undergo gender affirmation, paid leave of sufficient length offers the necessary time to transition. This would greatly improve quality of life, giving them control over the process.
However it occurs, gender affirmation leave increases the likelihood of a trans employee being able to openly transition while retaining their job. In this sense, the monetary support is transformative in both personal and financial terms.
The less obvious consequences of offering time off can still greatly improve trans people’s quality of life. The emotional labour involved in transitioning can be substantial and compromises the ability to work in a positive frame of mind. Being able to spend energy coming out to people in other areas of your life or even just to relax can reduce the emotional burden of transition. Ideally, colleagues could educate themselves about these issues during leave, which would additionally improve the experience of being trans at work.
Beyond its more concrete benefits, gender affirmation leave acts as a show of support by employers to their gender diverse employees. Opponents of offering gender affirmation leave as a distinct class of time off claim that affirming one’s gender is a natural part of life and should be pursued through existing annual and sick leave allocations. In offering gender affirmation leave, workplaces can recognise in a tangible form the trans experience at work, and acknowledge that—since only trans and gender-diverse people require leave to affirm their gender identity—they should be paid while doing so as a matter of equity. A workplace that affirmatively acts in the promotion of equity is naturally one in which trans employees will feel more comfortable.
Given this, the economy-wide trend towards offering gender affirmation leave is pleasing. Progress has been particularly notable in the tertiary education and financial sectors. Staff at the University of Sydney were recently granted a comparatively generous thirty days of paid leave to be used across the course of their employment. The University of Tasmania, Deakin and UNSW each offer ten days of paid leave and the possibility of unpaid leave. The Northern Territory Civil Service, Westpac, and Salesforce offer four weeks. The fact that institutions offering leave of this nature is newsworthy or qualifies them for inclusion in a list of this type shows how much work is yet to be done. Nevertheless, the more such provisions are offered, the easier it becomes to put pressure on other employers to follow suit. There is now a precedent for change, and a greater choice of supportive workplaces for gender-diverse workers.
Unions have an important role in pressing for these changes. The National Tertiary Education Union has been prominently advocating for the leave across the sector, and the results are self-explanatory. Without collective pressure, there is often little incentive for institutions to listen to the less powerful voices of trans and gender diverse staff.*
The leave allowances presently offered aren’t entirely adequate for those who chose to undergo surgery in affirming their identity. Given a conversative estimate of recovery time for bottom surgery is six weeks, it’s hard to see anything less than annualised —an allowance that grows for every year of employment—accounting for the time needed for some to transition. Annualised leave also symbolically represents an acknowledgement that gender affirmation isn’t a one-time process whereby people jump from one side of the gender binary to another. Transition is necessarily a non-linear and individual process.
Nobody should be able to dictate how and when trans and gender diverse people affirm their gender, least of all employers. Gender affirmation leave is a positive step towards reducing the barriers those transitioning face and comes at only minor expense to employers. Whether this struggle achieves its emancipatory potential will depend on unions and employers listening to trans and gender-diverse staff voices and equitably meeting their demands.
*This was written before NTEU leadership amended a motion to remove criticism of gender critical ideology, a form of transphobic feminism. The article has been released without amendment as the gender affirmation leave initiative remains important, but it should not be taken to endorse the NTEU leadership position on trans rights generally.
Image: Ted Eytan