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NewsOct 3, 2019

Where’s the T? Career counseling for transgender people

Professor Sue Motulsky’s award-winning research offers practical advice for serving the transgender community

Sue Motulsky smiling between two people.

In the 2000s, even as the LGBTQ community began to occupy more of the public conversation, Counseling and Psychology Associate Professor Sue Motulsky found that the T (transgender) in LGBTQ tended to be underrepresented, if represented at all — particularly in career counseling.

As research and advocacy for the trans community grows, Dr. Motulsky is gaining recognition and accolades for her work in the field. This year, Motulsky and her co-author Emily Frank won the 2019 Career Convergence Recognition Award from the National Center for Development Association for their article “Creating Positive Spaces for Career Counseling with Transgender Clients.”

Motulsky, who has a private practice in career counseling in addition to teaching, found that treating transgender and nonbinary people the same as lesbians and gay men didn’t address the challenges and stigmas they faced in the workplace.

Sue Motulsky
Sue Motulsky is giving career counselors the resources to help transgender people in the workplace.

“For lesbian, gay and bisexual people it’s about their sexual orientation, with trans and nonbinary people it’s about gender identity,” Motulsky explains. “I felt that as an ally, I needed to step up and do something, so I started this series of presentations.”

She soon began speaking on the topic to career counselors, advisors and consultants, emphasizing the need for them to respond to their clients in culturally sensitive ways.

“Transgender and nonbinary people experience incredible rates of discrimination and stigma,” says Motulsky. In addition to examples she’s heard from her transgender friends, Motulsky cites a 2011 survey that found 97 percent of people experienced discrimination or harassment at work. People in career services, she says, can and should be advocates who help their clients navigate challenges like bullying and restroom access while also pressing employers to create more equitable work environments.

“Career counselors are on the front lines of helping people with job hunting, helping people with workplace issues, and they really need to have more knowledge of the issues and the huge stigmas that face trans and nonbinary people around employment.”

When she began to present on the topic, Motulsky drew a small audience, until transgender people began to become more visible. “Orange is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox, a trans woman, made the cover of TIME Magazine and career counselors began to see a growing number of trans students in their offices. As a result, research began to grow, and in 2017, when Motulsky and Frank presented their work at the National Career Development Association’s Global Conference, 50 career practitioners filled the room. That presentation also sparked their award-winning essay, which includes recommendations for counselors to meet the unique needs of the population, from advising trans and nonbinary clients to “dress professionally for their gender identity” for job interviews to becoming an “outspoken ally.”

Motulsky says it’s important to learn as much as possible about the community and not to treat people as though they only have one identifying characteristic. “That’s not the only thing going on,” she explains. “Disability, race, etc., you have to look at all of those factors.”

Plus, “counselors have to explore their own gender identity and their own assumptions and biases,” she says.

Motulsky will continue to focus on both practical application of and research on career counseling for trans and nonbinary people, particularly studying career change in the community during her forthcoming sabbatical. There is still much work to do, she says.

“I think career counseling and career practice still has a pretty long way to go in understanding and being able to provide trans-affirming career counseling to people.”