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Coping with transphobia in Dublin’s Silicon Docks

Oracle gave work to Maja after problems with Facebook, Amazon and a Vodafone contractor

Dublin seemed like a logical destination when tech entrepreneur Maja Stanislawska decided to leave her native Poland in 2013 to start again as a woman.

Trying to transition at home in conservative Poland would have been difficult so Maja did her research about where would be best to relocate to live and work in peace. She had offers for work from Berlin and Paris, but Dublin felt like a better fit. It had a small but vibrant trans community and Maja thought it might be easier to get a job there given that the Irish capital is home to a growing number of global tech companies, which tout themselves as inclusive and equal-opportunity employers.

“I was still a man, but I was already wearing make-up and I was looking for company where I could transition”, says Maja, who is 43 now. “Ireland looked like the best choice because it appeared to be the strongest in terms of trans rights”.

Unfortunately, Maja believes she has been discriminated against and that she was offered better jobs and more money as a man. Despite there being a huge demand for software developers in Dublin, Maja was out of work for a year. Apart from illness, she had never wanted for work or job offers as a man.

Maja has an impressive CV and her two-decade experience stretches from software development, to networking, infrastructure, internet-service provision, web development and voiceover internet protocol. She has started several companies and was co-founder and chief technical officer of Open-Net, an internet telecoms start-up now listed on a stock exchange in Warsaw with 150 employees.

When she came to Dublin as a man, Maja decided to take the first job offered, working as a Quality Assurance consultant for a Vodafone contractor so she could get on her feet before transitioning.

Problems started to emerge a month later when Maja began experimenting by wearing make-up and mascara. “At one point, one of my colleagues started to demand sexual services”, she says. “And when I rejected, I was told people like me should be allowed only to be beggars or prostitutes”.

Maja complained to Vodafone and told she was only a sub-contractor. She tried to quit but they forced her to work her two-week notice period. The colleague relocated to London, but continued to hassle and bully her by phone and email and tried to get her to do more menial work. “I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to do”, she says. “Before I took this job, I looked at Vodafone and the contractor’s website and they are claiming they are equal opportunity employers. This story has since repeated itself many times in Ireland”.

A spokeswoman for the subcontractor, didn’t reply to repeated emails and calls from Village seeking comment. A spokesperson for Vodafone Ireland said it didn’t comment on individual employees or third-party contractors. “However, Vodafone Ireland has a strong programme in place which celebrates and supports diversity of all kinds, and in particular for LGBT+ employees”, the spokesperson said. “In addition, we have a policy, and gender neutral bathrooms in place, to support gender transitioning”.

From Chrzanów, a small industrial town in Southern Poland with a population of about 50,000 people, Maja had a good upbringing but felt more like a girl from the age of about eight.

Her parents are both doctors and her brother is a doctor. “I probably developed a hatred towards the medical profession as I was harassed by doctors trying to fix me as a kid”, she jokes. “After a while, I decided to keep my feelings to myself”.

From an early age Maja pursued an interest in computers and the nascent Internet. “Subconsciously, I was seeking people like me online”, she explains.

When she was 12, she took over a computer that her parents had bought so her brother could play chess, and started writing software and making adventure games.

As a young teenager, she once fled unaccompanied across the country on a train to the city of Lublin, located four hours away, in order to buy a modem. At school, she used the modem to set up a BBS (Bulletin Board System), a server where people could dial up to a network and exchange mails and download stuff. This was well before the World Wide Web and AOL became mainstream and at a time when about only 200 people in Poland were involved in the Internet.

Later at University, Maja came up with a business plan for setting up an ISP (Internet Service Provider) in her home town on the basis of her BBS. Maja found an accountant and a group of investors and set up Open-Net in 1997. She remains a shareholder in to this day and worked with up until 2014. “I brought the internet to my hometown”, she says. “We started with the dial-up services, which was revolutionary because we were cheaper than the national telecom provider”.

Open-Net became bigger after merging and acquiring other telecoms and internet companies.

However, not much of that experience has helped her career in Dublin. In fact, some recruiters have advised Maja to lower her expectations and ditch most of her CV. The same recruiters also started putting her forward for jobs worth €40-50,000 instead of the €60,000-90,000 range she commanded as a man.

Maja’s concern goes deeper than just transphobia. She believes that sexism has also hampered her career development. “It’s hard to know sometimes how much of it is plain transphobia and how much is plain sexism”, she says.

Maja retains an old email address from when she presented as a man and received at least two approaches this year from Amazon about potential roles, but didn’t make headway when she applied as herself. However, an Amazon recruiter did call her about a graduate testanalyst role worth about €20,000. Amazon says it has investigated Maja’s case but found no evidence of discrimination.

Maja is constantly being offered low-paid jobs in QA (Quality Assurance) despite only have limited experience in testing. “There is a pattern here that women in tech in Ireland must be in QA”, she explains “As a female on the job market in Ireland, I can only be a tester or at best a developer – not even an engineer.”

At her last employer in Dublin, Maja had transitioned and started to come to work in a skirt. That’s when her colleagues suddenly started questioning the quality of her work. “They started to treat me as a woman and my design and code began to be extensively checked before it was approved to the main code base,” she says. “I was accused of obfuscating the code on purpose”. Maja declined to name this company as she is plannning on taking legal action against them.

Maja says there is a small number of trans people working in the industry in Ireland, but many choose not to be identified as transgender. “Many of us can pass as a woman and choose to work without revealing our history, but there is always a group of people who recognise us and they are usually very aggressive”, she says.

Maja applied for a role at Facebook in Dublin as a software development manager, but was turned down and told she couldn’t be considered as she didn’t have enough experience managing teams of three to five people – when in fact had been managing much bigger teams.

“Instead they offered me a technician team lead role in a date centre, where the guys who are locked up carrying heavy things and the public can’t see you are trans,” she said. The role she applied for would have been in Facebook HQ and facing lots of people.

A month or two later, Maja was invited to a diversity and women in tech event in Facebook. She approached a speaker and discussed her experience trying to get hired by the US tech giant.

“The speaker conducted her own investigation and said there was no evidence of transphobia in my case, but she advised me to hide that I was trans,” says Maja. “There is a trans lady working in Facebook in Dublin. I asked about when she was hired and I was told she was hired as a man and then came out”.

Fiona Mullan, vice-president international for HR at Facebook, declined to say whether she advised Maja to hide her trans identity.

“Following Maja’s initial interest in a role at Facebook, we continued to have an ongoing conversation with her about suitable opportunities”, says Mullan. “Diversity in our engineering teams and across the company is important to us and we have hiring programmes in place to ensure we achieve this goal. We were one of the first Fortune 500 companies to publicly release data around our LGBTQ employees. In fact, our internal LGBTQ community have helped developed products for Facebook such as ‘Custom Gender’ which is an option for users who do not identify as ‘male’ or ‘female’”.

Another common occurrence that Maja faces is that the job has been filled internally. She has applied for jobs freshly announced and then she is informed the next day it has been filled – even though the role is still advertised by the same agency or a different agency.

A year ago, she applied for a job at Accenture’s Dock incubator as a development operations manager after attending Ireland’s first Trans Leadership Summit at Accenture on Grand Canal Square.

There was even a question at the event about references and one of the recruiters said it is best to be upfront if a candidate is transgender. Maja applied for the job and heard back the next day that the role had been filled internally. A month later, a recruiter contacted her via LinkedIn about the same role at the Dock. “The job description was the exact same and the recruiter said it’s impossible is has been filled, she says. “I checked Accenture and it was still open and remained so for months”.

Caroline Douglas, a spokeswoman for Accenture, declined to comment.

Maja, who has been without employment for almost a year, doesn’t regret coming to Ireland and hasn’t given up hope of landing a job that meets her experience.

“If someone like me with 20 years of experience give up and takes a low-level job, it means nobody else in my tribe has a chance to make it”, she says.

On a day-to-day basis, Maja says she doesn’t experience transphobia in public apart from the occasional danger of being harassed by aggressive teenagers on the street.

“The main problem transgenders face is in employment and having no one believe we are capable of doing anything serious, that we can’t be trusted and that are a walking bomb of mental emotions”, she says. “We can’t be given any responsibility because we can’t handle anything as we can hardly handle ourselves and prone to breaking down and crying whenever anyone questions our gender. This is obviously not true”.

Yet Maja never gave up and her story ends well. After hundreds of job applications and hours of interviews and tests, she was hired by Oracle in Dublin as a Network Operation Centre manager in its IaaS Cloud Division. Maja says Oracle were “very cool” throughout the hiring process and she is looking forward to a long career there.

Transphobia is not exclusive to the tech scene in Dublin. A survey undertaken by European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014 shows that more than a third of trans people are discriminated against because of being trans when looking for a job, while 27% of respondents reported discrimination at work.

Amnesty International estimates as many as 1.5 million people across Europe are transgender, meaning that their gender identity differs from the one indicated on their birth certificate. In 2015, Ireland passed its Gender Recognition Act, which allows people over the age of 18 to determine their own legal gender. Elsewhere the process requires judicial consent or even the diagnosis of a mental disorder. Switzerland, Greece and 18 other, mostly eastern European, countries have a final hurdle: sterilisation.

Transphobia is even commonplace in the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley, according to Holden Karau, who lives and works there. Karau, a software development engineer and a frequent conference speaker around the world, is also a trans woman and has worked for some of the biggest tech companies in the world, including IBM, Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

“Many of my trans friends in San Francisco, which you would think is more accepting, find it very difficult to find even basic work when historically as men they were mid to senior level,” says Karau, who was in Dublin in late October speaking to hundreds of delegates at the Spark Summit conference at the Convention Centre. “Recruiters reached out to their old email addresses, but once they mentioned their transition, it ended the conversation.

“Personally, I have been very fortunate because I happened to write one of the earlier books on the technology that I work in and that’s made it a lot easier, says Karau. But looking at my friends, it’s a little bit scary if I was working in a different part of the industry without having that recognition when I was a man.

Karau has been to many diversity events organised by tech giants and listened to many presentations on how inclusive these companies are but, like Maja, she says they don’t always practise what they preach.

“It’s very easy to get money for to appear to be diverse but if you look at how individuals are treated at multinationals it’s often not great, she says. “Everyone wants to appear to be amazing without putting in the time and the effort”.

Bob Lee, an expert on how and why the world’s best employers use workplace cultures to drive competitive advantage, says hiring and integrating transgender people remains a bind-spot for the global tech companies.

“Big tech giants like Facebook are now cool with hiring and having gay and lesbians and integrating them within their corporate culture,” says Lee, author of the Amazon best-seller ‘Trust Rules: How the World’s Best Managers Create Great Places to Work’. “But trans is another challenge and it’s very much the next frontier”.