Carolyn Weiss, founder and president of Transgender Business Services, could not have asked for a more supportive work environment when she began her gender transition process in 2011.
At that time, Weiss was working for the City of Los Angeles and her boss hired a trans woman who specialized in trans awareness training for businesses, in order to give Weiss the support she needed and help her colleagues understand what she was going through. The experience was invaluable, for both Weiss – who like any one going through the difficulties of a gender transition process, needed all the support she could get - and her team. It inspired Weiss to set up her own consulting practice to give businesses the tools they need to in turn support employees who are transitioning, and provide knowledge to their staff.
“I realized, from my own experience, that training staff is critical to anyone's transition in the workplace and I wanted to try doing it myself," she says.
She launched her company in March with the intent of providing in-person training to employees of small-to-mid-sized businesses and has been working with a range of companies to help their staff “understand what trans gender people are about by demystifying the issues surrounding gender transition and breaking down the barriers."
Weiss has also trained nursing students, worked with mental health professionals and is scheduled to do a training program at a high school in her area in January.
And just a day after she launched her business, a local company that produces and markets e-learning courses and webinars contacted Weiss, asking her to partner on a video based on her training program material.
“Our intent is to try to get that out into the marketplace nationwide and instead of helping a few dozen businesses a year, we could use it to help hundreds across the country provide their staff with the training they need," she says.
But even if Weiss is encouraged by the openness of businesses, both large and small, to support their transgender employees and educate their workforce on transgender issues, her own, positive experience may be a unique story.
Many transgender people have a tough time in the workplace, she says, and they're often up against strong discrimination. Because of this, many are reluctant and afraid to transition while working for fear of losing their standing or their jobs.
That's exactly what happened to Ann Thomas.
She began transitioning slowly in 2000 but immediately ran into problems at work.
“I was working on an organic farm, the company was very conservative and told me not to do it but I did and I lost my job," Thomas says.
On a personal level, too, things were very tough for Thomas.
“I dressed kind of female during the week but during the weekend, I would have to dress male to see my kids. After my wife died in an accident in 2009, I went back to dressing 100% as male because my daughter had just lost her mom - she was 16, it was very hard and I had not come out to her as yet. It was the worst time in my life, though, and I felt like dying."
Thomas stuck to the course, though, and was finally able to transition three years ago and pursue new opportunities. After appearing in episodes of Glee (she sang with the transgender chorus featured in the show) and Transparent, she realized how keen the entertainment industry is in featuring transgender talent. While agencies do represent transgender individuals, there was a need, she says, for a dedicated enterprise, and so she set up Transgender Talent.
Just like any business that's getting off the ground, Thomas launched hers on a shoestring budget. Crowdfunding helped a bit, but she's still working a day job and “I'm hoping that I can land some bigger gigs for people from bigger businesses that would pay more," she says. “Overall, though, I have a very optimistic outlook for trans people in the entertainment industry, even if it's going to take another 10 or 20 years to change the rest of the nation."
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey carried out by National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population. Survey participants also said they also experience higher-than-average rates of violence and psychological distress, which many in the community fear may increase during the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Still, things are changing and business owners like Weiss and Thomas are hopeful for a better future for their community.
“The only time I can see when being a trans business owner would have problems with clientele is when they advertise, as I have, as a transgender-owned business," Weiss says.
“For me, it defines who I am and the services I provide but that is actually pretty rare, as far as I know. I could own a nail salon and no one would know until they got to know me, and by that time I would hope that it wouldn't matter."
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.