Being trans in engineering

Te Herenga Mātai Pūkaha continues to celebrate Transgender Awareness Week with a feature on our people and their experiences of being trans engineering students and engineers.

There is currently a lack of statistical information on Aotearoa’s gender diversity. Even as our Rainbow community continues to seek representation in nationwide census data, this information may not be available for another several years. The Youth ‘12 Survey by the Journal of Adolescent Health however revealed that 1.2% of New Zealand youth identify as transgender, with a further 2.5% being uncertain.

This indicates that there are over 56,000 transgender people in Aotearoa New Zealand, and we acknowledge the value in providing our trans communities with platforms for adequate, authentic representation. We ask an engineering graduate and two students about what it’s like to be openly transgender.

Angela Zhang (she/they)

Angela is a University of Auckland BE(Hons) graduate in Civil Engineering and Geotechnical Engineer at Tonkin + Taylor.

When did you first realise that you are genderqueer?

It was more of a gradual discovery than a one-off realisation. I think I have always found it unsettling to live in a world of gender reveal parties and blue and pink Kinder Surprise Eggs. As a kid with short hair and a love of baseball caps, I found myself gravitating towards male characters in video games, because I just related to them so much more. I didn’t really start seriously interrogating these feelings until recently, and have so far settled on the term genderqueer. I prefer it over the oft-used term non-binary, because non-binary implies that there is a gender binary to begin with.

If there’s one thing that everybody should (make an effort to) understand about trans and gender diverse people, what do you think it should be?

Trans and gender diverse people have existed for as long as people have existed — whakawahine, tangata ira tane, fa’afafine, hijra, muxe, chibados and two-spirit people to name just a few! For all of recorded history, cultures across the world have recognised more than two genders. Our intolerance of trans and non-binary people stems largely from our colonial history.

What are your perceptions of how inclusive engineering is (or isn’t)?

There has recently been a big push to get women into the engineering industry, which has been awesome. As someone who relates to some of the experiences that women have, I have found myself riding on the coattails of this wave. However, women-friendly spaces often don’t explicitly include trans women or gender diverse people (who are comfortable in spaces that centre the experiences of women). It always feels a bit strange to be in spaces touted as “diverse and inclusive” that don’t actively include or even acknowledge people who would really benefit from being there. I think the engineering industry is doing some great things, but there is definitely room to improve.

“There is a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that neatly sums up why we should all be using our privilege to uplift others: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly’.

What can people in the engineering industry do to support trans and gender diverse people?

Ask for people's pronouns instead of assuming. An easy way to do this is to work it into introductions at meetings. It's a simple but extremely meaningful thing that you can do as an ally. I've been pleasantly surprised and quite touched this year by colleagues who have asked for my pronouns without any prompts. Somebody also made my day by suggesting some gender-neutral terms in an email discussion with mostly women, after an initial chorus of “hi ladies” (which is probably my least favourite greeting after “hi gentlemen”).

Why is it important to have trans and gender diverse engineers?

Engineers generally have similar skillsets that are taught in higher education and developed on the job. They include analytical problem solving, technical skills, project management, ability to work in a team and good communication (as well as a healthy dose of common sense). The best engineers are also creative and understand the communities that they are working for. This extra edge comes from thinking differently to other people, and also having a lived experience that reflects different communities.

When we are recruiting with ‘diversity’ in mind, we are simply recruiting in a way that represents the world around us. There are many trans and gender diverse people in the world, but there are comparatively few in the engineering industry. It's important that the engineering industry puts its best foot forward to combat the pressing problems that are upon us — global warming, overpopulation, mounting social inequities. We need to harness the ideas and power of a diverse workforce now, more than ever.

Chiaki Fenemore (he/him)

Chiaki is a PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering.

When did you first realise that you are trans?

Growing up, I always wished I could be a boy and never thought it was possible, but my lightbulb moment was while I was on holiday with my friends - all girls - just before second year. We took lots of group photos and it suddenly became very obvious to me as we looked at them that I was trying so hard to be something I wasn’t just to fit in with them. I definitely freaked out a little bit — it’s not a realisation that you expect to have when you’re trying to have a relaxing holiday!

Did this affect your decision to continue studying Engineering?

I definitely had doubts about whether I should keep studying. I really didn’t want to be known as “that guy who’s trans”, and I also didn’t know if I could handle studying on top of the emotional (and logistical) work involved in transitioning. But I stuck with it, and I had really supportive friends, including those same girls, which helped. And I think if I needed any proof that transitioning was the right decision (because I was afraid it wasn’t), my grades improved significantly after coming out. Fast forward five years and I’m studying for a PhD and talking openly about being ‘that guy who’s trans’.

How was your experience of transitioning and/or coming out?

I think what surprised me the most was how much of a non-issue it was. I was terrified the whole time — and remnants of that fear still stick around, because coming out isn’t a one time thing. But hardly any of my fears eventuated. I lost some people, but the people who mattered the most to me supported me, and did their own research if they weren’t totally sure about things, which I really appreciated. But I was also quite lucky that it was fairly simple for people to grasp: my gender is 100% male, I had always been fairly masculine to begin with, and I only asked people to change pronouns, not my name. Trans women and non-binary people tend to have it harder, because, you know, misogyny.

What are some positive and negative aspects of being openly trans in the engineering community?

These days, people don’t immediately know that I’m trans unless I tell them, even if they see me at a Rainbow event. So it hardly comes up at all in my academic life, although again, I was surprised at how much of a non-issue it was for my supervisor and other academics I talked to about it. But being open and involved with advocacy in the Engineering space is amazing — it’s been great to see the push for diversity from industry over the last few years, and I really enjoy meeting the new trans and non-binary students that join Engineering. It’s kinda nice to know I’m not the only one.

The only real negative aspect is my anxiety over people finding out and being transphobic, which definitely still plays a role, and I chose to stay in the closet while working in the industry.

Were there differences between your initial perception of how inclusive engineering is and the reality? What improvements can be made?

My only experiences in industry have been in small, white-male-dominated businesses, which definitely fit my expectations, hence why I never discussed being trans. But I’ve seen in larger businesses that there’s a big commitment to diversity and pride, which is a surprise (a very good one).

“I think any changes that are made need to be done everywhere at once — it’s impossible to change a culture by bringing in new and diverse thinkers without ensuring that they’re supported from the top. And I think it’s about culture and education: high school leavers are so much more open and diverse with their identities and it’s up to the engineers who’ve been in the industry for years to continually learn and challenge their way of doing things.”

What would your message be to those who may have trouble accepting transgender people?

We’re not dangerous or disgusting, and our lives aren’t up for debate. We’re just different, and our expression of our authentic selves doesn’t have any bearing on your life at all. Trans rights don’t impose on the rights of cis people, and that includes trans women, who do not impose on the rights of cis women, and I’m tired of seeing this argument everywhere.

If there’s one thing that everybody should make an effort to understand about trans people, what do you think it should be?

Being transgender isn’t a mental illness that needs to be cured or fixed, and that line of thinking is dangerous. Conversion therapy doesn’t work, but people still think that forcing gender roles on a trans person (or anyone, really) will fix them. The most effective way of treating gender dysphoria is to transition, whether socially or medically, and that’s backed up by a large majority of medical and mental health professionals, so don’t think that you know best.

Aria Wren (she/they)

Aria is a Part III student in Engineering Science.

When did you first realise that you are trans?

For the longest time I (incorrectly) thought that trans people just naturally knew that they were trans without having to think about it. I finally learnt that this was wrong at the end of my first year of engineering, and spent the next few weeks questioning instead of studying for exams. In hindsight I definitely should have realised years earlier, but just needed to be told that you’re allowed to question your gender.

Did this affect your decision to continue studying Engineering?

It took months before I even considered the fact that being trans could affect my experience, specifically in engineering. The only other option I had considered when deciding what to do at the end of high school was a science degree, but all STEM fields tend to be equally (un)inclusive, and I still couldn’t think of any other options so I didn’t have any reason to consider stopping.

How was your experience of transitioning and/or coming out?

It took me over half a year before I got the courage to even tell anyone my name, and still feel a little hesitant now — out of fear — that someone will react poorly. On top of general social anxiety, I ended up avoiding lectures and almost all social interactions for too long, which made group projects worse than they usually are.

Separately, waitlists for healthcare are frustratingly slow. I had to wait almost a year after making an appointment to get hormones.

What’s something you’d like to see people change?

The most frustrating thing to see someone say or write is ‘he or she’. ‘They’ is faster to both write and speak, and actually correct, the first just doesn’t include some people. It seems to be quite common in course notes that haven’t been updated in years, and also seems far more common in stats courses.