8min. read

A Trans Perspective: What It’s Really Like For Women In Tech

Cassondra Foesch shares her experience as trans woman working in technology

Does your company have a trans policy? Maybe none of your employees identify as trans so you don’t think it’s necessary. Well, we’re here to tell you that it’s absolutely necessary.

For women in tech, being the only woman in the room is a common occurrence. But for the transgender community, being confident to be your full self in the workplace can be a struggle. Cassondra Foesch has worked at some of the biggest tech companies in the world including Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Acting as the Trans Coordinator at Microsoft, we were keen to hear about Cassondra’s experience of being a trans woman in tech, and what advice she could offer to companies, colleagues and peers:

Caoimhe Sweeney

Content and Community Manager at Xena

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Let’s start at the beginning, tell me where you come from and how did you get there?

I really started programming very early on around age 13, or 14 or so. I really wasn’t into computers before I started programming on them. So one of my first introductions to computers was programming. Before that I always wanted to be a mathematician. The joke’s on me, I’m still doing math. But I think what really helped from coming from that math background is that I had an understanding of just playing with math.

I’d always been playing with math, but right around the fifth grade, they had me take a test to see where I should be in the education of math.  I rated two and a half grades higher than what I actually was.

At first I was working on computers as a hobby. It was just a fun thing to do in my spare time.  I started getting involved in the free and open-source software community. But then off the back of that I got offered a position at Microsoft. That led to my whole professional career, working with computers.

Why did you decide on a career in technology?

All the way back to kindergarten and in my spare time I played with math puzzle books. I was learning about math and playing with math on my own. Before I really got into my education I already had a foundation of wanting to play with and understand math. Then in the fifth grade I learned, I’m good at it. From that point on, I was really focused on learning as much math as I could and expecting to become a mathematician. But then when computers came on the scene I decided I’m going to do this instead.

What elements of being a Backend Developer are most exciting to you?

There’s a whole lot of stuff that I really enjoy. Because of my background of just playing with math, working with programming languages is very similar to algebra. I’ve always been detail-oriented, If you tell the computer to do something wrong, it will do that. So you, yourself are the check imbalance on what the computer is doing, and you need to make sure the computer is doing the right thing. That requires a lot of attention to detail. That’s just kind of my personality.

How have you found working in the tech industry in Europe vs in the US?

So it’s actually kind of funny because when you’re in the US the perks that you’re offered are a gracious vacation policy of 10 or 15 days, health insurance, generous sick leave, policies, unlimited fruits, cereals and drinks. Then you come here and companies have to offer you that stuff. Those aren’t perks, we have to give you this except for the free drinks and that stuff. So that perk carried over. But all the other perks that come in the USA are what you get from being employed in Europe. And I’m a bit of a social democrat. So that very much appeals to me that the government is looking out for the workers and not just rich people and stockbrokers. 

You have extensive experience working in some of the biggest tech companies in the world such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon. What has been your biggest achievement throughout your career?

I think there’s three boxes that you can put achievements in. There’s professional achievements that are visible and there’s professional achievements that are personal. Then there’s your personal achievements that I always wanted to do. Like I mentioned earlier, I always wanted to move to Germany. So that has been a great accomplishment for me right now.

“Professionally I was a part of the Windows Server 2003 Service Pack Two release. I was involved with that in many ways and there were a lot of very interesting and challenging problems that we were really facing trying to get the product out. I learned a whole lot while doing that. And not so visibly, in my personal goals I’m so glad that I’ve been able to work for these big companies. A lot of people have said you know, Google has been one of those life goals for me.”


What has been some of the biggest roadblocks/challenges in your work?

A lot of my biggest roadblocks have been reasonably personal. I do struggle with depression and it’s complicated my career in many ways. Especially in the early days I had some burnouts. Combining that with the depression really made it kind of impossible for me to work for about five years.

“From a professional standpoint, taking a five year break is a big deal especially in technology. Things change so rapidly. When I left the technology world before the depression, the cutting edge cell smartphone had keyboards on it. Now they’re completely touchscreen, and faster than my computer was back then. So there was quite a bit of an adjustment coming back into the tech community five year later after my depression.”

But there have also been interpersonal conflicts. Roadblocks of struggling to be recognised as having the expertise that I really do. People feeling free to challenge me in ways that maybe they wouldn’t have if I had still been a man prior to transition. I did work for a short period at Microsoft as a man. I noticed that everybody treats you differently once you are no longer a man. Suddenly being forceful and confident makes you a bitch rather than a role model. So there were a lot of changes that I had to make personally.  I dealt with people because you can’t be House as a woman. When you’re a man you can just kind of be that force of nature personality of, I’m right, and you’re wrong. You don’t have to give an explanation. You can just say, I’m right. And people will kind of accept it. I think very quickly that foundation crumbled away from me. So I definitely couldn’t stay there now that I had transitioned to being a woman. But then I realised that I didn’t really want to be that way anyway.

Do you feel that when you were a man in tech you were challenged less than when you were a woman in tech?

I mean really being challenged about my work? It’s nothing so obviously direct as to absolutely say, oh, that’s outright sexism. It’s just a different colour. It’s a completely different world that you have to navigate because of that. It does make things harder. It’s no secret that women are a minority.

“Men are expected to be confident, even when they’re not sure. And they don’t get challenged on it either. So if a man is confident about something, even when they’re not they don’t get challenged on it. But as a woman, even when you’re confident you get challenged. People question, are you right? And it’s generally expected that women have that sort of deferral, or deferring personality, where I’ll give you my opinion and then you can choose to use it or not. But in reality society has conditioned us to not be as confident even when we’re absolutely certain of what we’re talking about.”

The kind of funny thing about my name is, you know, she’s a Greek person from Greek mythology. She tells the truth, she sees the future, but no one will believe her. It’s not like I didn’t understand anything more or less when I was a man or a woman. It just came down to people believing me. So as I was a man, I would say, I can see down the road this is the problem that we’re gonna face. And people would believe me. But now, the same exact skill, same exact person really. And I say, look down the road, we’re gonna run into this problem. And people are like, “I don’t think so”. And then we hit it, just like my name.

“One final thing I wanted to say is there are a lot of people who will say the tech industry isn’t discriminatory against women. But every trans person you’ve ever talked to will tell you that things are better as a man than as a woman. There’s no question about, oh, patriarchy isn’t a thing. And male privilege isn’t a thing. Every trans person knows that it absolutely is a thing.”

You mentioned you were on the Diversity Board at Microsoft. Can you tell us a little more about your experience on this board? What was your role? What expertise did you offer?

I transitioned while I was working at Microsoft and as part of your transition usually there was a messaging list that you could join as a trans person. But there was the transgender coordinator and they would generally meet with everybody before they added them to the mailing list. You had to protect yourself, especially at that time. Transgender issues and people were just kind of starting to come to the consciousness of society as a whole.

When that person who was a transgender coordinator left she actually invited me to pick up the role. So I picked up the role and mostly it involved managing the mailing list and vetting people to be added to it. But there was a lot of meeting with the Diversity Action Committee. There was an LGBT group who are looking out for all of the queer umbrella issues at Microsoft. These were elected people from the community who were entrusted to cover these issues. While the transgender coordinator wasn’t elected that meant that it wasn’t a voting role. So I didn’t have any influence on any policies or statements that came out directly. But sometimes there are observing members of a legislative body who are there to cover the interests of a group of people even though they don’t actually have any voting rights. Their purpose there is to be a voice for it. And so my job was to provide some insights into trans issues and considerations that these people were all in.

We’re all in the boat together, but we are still different people, and none of them really understood male to female trans issues. Some of them had some ideas around female to male transition issues because it was still fairly acceptable for a lesbian woman to be butch and basically act like a man. A lot of these people have learned now that you can be a man. So, I mean, there is that difference of position of backgrounds. And so it’s nice to have that voice and a person with that perspective to come in and provide a touchstone for the people to talk about.

I really did work hard trying to get the medical coverage to cover a bigger amount of surgical costs. Because they had reasonably good coverage for what the bottom surgery for trans women cost. But any trans man who wanted to get a bottom surgery, it was entirely insufficient to cover that surgery. As well facial feminisation surgery, the coverage didn’t cover it A, but B, wouldn’t have put a dent in the costs anyway. So I was working hard to change this.

“People said, you know we have one of the top 10 best coverage of trans health issues of the world. And I said you could give every trans person a penny and you’d be in the top 10 right now. At the time it was very progressive that Microsoft was even covering hormones, therapy and surgery at all. But I was still vocal about it being good that we’ve made these first steps and we’re a big way there but there’s still more to go.”

How did Microsoft support you during your transition?

When I started I wasn’t aware that I was trans. Looking back, it should have been obvious. But at the time I didn’t have any clue what it meant to be trans or gender dysphoria or any of this terminology.  As I was transitioning they were really covering a lot of the medical interventions that are sometimes important when transitioning. Not everybody wants to or needs to transition or have medical interventions. But if that’s what they need then it should be covered.

Microsoft really was great about covering a lot of that. They covered the therapy, the prescriptions and all of this. They covered it the same as they would any other therapy, doctor’s visits and medication. So it wasn’t treated as less than, it was treated totally equally. So there was a lot of support there. There was a fair amount of policy that had already been developed to consider the protection of trans people. Washington State had very recently also codified that gender identity was part of sexual orientation. Their terminology wasn’t great but at least it got us the sort of legal protections on employment discrimination and retaliation or any of these concerns. So there was already a very great safety net for me before I even started transitioning and I said great, we’ve made good progress. Let’s make it better.

What advice would you give to tech companies who are developing their diversity and inclusion policies? How can they ensure that they are inclusive of the trans community?

Be open to the diversity of transitions

Just even having any kind of a policy can be a very positive thing. While I was at Microsoft supporting someone through a transition can be difficult in some ways. You also want to support the person to become their real self. So thinking ahead of time about how to handle the transition can be a really big thing. A lot of trans people who are transitioning at their job, they’re the first person transitioning or maybe the second or third person transitioning. They’re somewhat left on their own to find a transition policy and work through the plan with the company on their own. It’s a good thing that every trans person can transition on their own terms. But as well having a support network of options that are available to you can give a lot of structure and support to somebody who’s in the process of transition.

I think a lot of things that also do get lost are that gender is not a binary. We’ve learned, and that not everybody’s going to go to the same amount of transition as everybody else. When I was transitioning it was just kind of expected everybody was gonna go the whole way. There’s kind of this binary trans model that you’re either cis or you’re trans and trans people move from one to the other. But it really is that you’re starting over here, and I want to be over here. You need to support that person getting to where they want to be and not push them to go further, or hold them back from becoming what they want to be. Just support them on where they want to be, and where they want to draw the line because everybody’s going to draw the line of what they need, and what they want in their transition. So be open to the diversity of transitions.

Prepare structure transitions

Preparing structured transitions that people can use as a skeleton or a model to work from during a transition can be a big benefit. But it can be hard for companies who think, oh we’re gonna spend all this time working on transition policies and then no one at the company is going to transition. So it can be difficult to justify spending that time. But maybe you have a bunch of trans people working for you that you don’t even know. Having that sort of support done will let them know that they can transition where they’re at and that they don’t have to go out and seek another company to work at because honestly, one of the best ways to transition is to end at one company, and start a new company. Then there’s just a clean break between the two. You don’t have to worry about people knowing you as your previous self or deadnaming you.

Take pride in your employees

I think there’s an important part of the company that can be proud that people are able to be open and that they don’t have to be in the closet or hide who they are. If so many of your discriminated against individuals feel confident enough to proudly be who they are, and not hide anything that’s something that a company should be able to take pride in.

What can co workers do as an ally to support the trans community in work?

If you use the wrong pronouns correct yourself and move on

Educating yourself about trans issues, and non binary issues because trans and non binary are really kind of smeared together in many ways. Because it is a spectrum. So be aware of what micro aggressions are there? How can I avoid making them? The funniest micro aggression is not using the wrong pronouns, it’s overly correcting about it and making a really big deal about it.  People are going to make mistakes. We understand that, we’re not evil overlords who expect perfection from everybody. Mistakes will be made. It’s important to understand that unless you’re doing it intentionally or not even trying to fix yourself then that’s when it’s the big issue. So if you make a mistake of pronouns just correct yourself and move on.

Don’t ask questions about being in the wrong

Make corrections in public as minimal as possible, fix it and move on. Unless it was really egregious, and then you need to apologise. Educating yourself about the issues that they face, expecting a minority to explain why something is wrong can be as emotionally taxing as the wrong thing happening. If someone tells you you made a mistake, correct yourself and move on. Don’t get defensive.

Speak out against transphobia

The most important thing allies can do is to speak up when actual raw transphobia, homophobia, racism, sexism is being laid out in front of you. Let the person know that, that’s not cool. If you don’t confront it they won’t get any feedback that what they’re doing is wrong and it’ll compound and grow.

What advice would you offer to hiring managers who are trying to improve their gender diversity strategy?

I know that women in tech face a lot of resistance. Even getting into the process. Once you’ve really proven yourself and you have the big names on your resume things flow pretty easy.

Every woman in tech has had to go through a gauntlet and every one of them are brilliant, absolutely top of their game. Because they wouldn’t be here anymore if they weren’t. You can’t just coast into tech as a woman usually. There are some women who have been lucky enough to do that. But there are a lot of men who just coast in. So men haven’t gone through as rigorous selection as women have. Women are going to have to have all these soft skills. I don’t like the word soft skills because it says oh, it’s not important for your job, or it’s not your job description. But they are totally your job. Your job is not to just sit there at a computer and write code all day. You’re supposed to design stuff and work with other engineers and get things done as a team. These soft skills are then absolutely part of your job. Every woman in tech has had to develop these so well. They’ve had a complete gauntlet of experience dealing with other people around tech. Unfortunately, it’s all too often true, that if they don’t feel confident enough at tech to be a programmer, they’ve been pressured out of pursuing tech for their own self-interest.

Start believing women in tech. If they’re here, they’re here despite going through a gauntlet. They’ve already had to prove so much to even be here. Then they’re asked to prove themselves. Women don’t need another gauntlet. With the pressure and the gauntlet involved every woman is a diamond in the rough. They’re already awesome by just being here.