Melissa Hudson says 30 years of experience in the Toronto business world hasn't been enough to land her a job, despite numerous call-backs on her resume for first-round interviews.
Hudson's difficulties in finding work started after she transitioned from male to female and she blames discrimination for leaving her bankrupt, fighting to keep a roof over her head.
"After transitioning I can't get anyone to give me a second interview," she said. "I've even had interviewers make excuses of why they can't conduct the interview once I show up."
Hudson's last job in the corporate world was at a logistics firm in Mississauga, where she was a self-proclaimed "suit-and-tie" business professional. But she decided to live openly as a transgender woman two years ago.
Her challenges were exacerbated by a cycling accident that left her in the hospital for months and a hospital-acquired infection after gender-related surgery, she said.
Hudson left her job after the accident because of a "toxic work environment" but hasn't been able to find other employment.
"It would have been possible to get through it and get back to work if my gender hadn't been an issue with employers," she said.
Hudson said she isn't alone in her experience.
"I have friends who are very qualified business people who are now worried about paying their rent. It's unbelievable."
Because of the relatively small size of the transgender community and difficulty in reaching members, advocates say transgender employment data is hard to find. But a 2011 report from Trans PULSE — a community-based research project in Ontario — found that only 37 per cent of transgender participants were employed full-time, while 15 per cent were employed part-time. Twenty-five per cent were students, three per cent were retired and 20 per cent were unemployed.
The results were based on surveys of 433 trans people who lived, worked or received health care in Ontario.
Eighteen per cent said they had been turned down for a job because of their gender while 32 per cent said they were unsure if their gender influenced the hiring manager's decision. Thirteen per cent said they had been fired or constructively dismissed for being transgender.
"If you look at the numbers of transgender women who are unemployed, if you look at their credentials, background and business experiences, and that level of unemployment, there is systemic discrimination," Hudson said.
"I never in a million years thought this would happen in Canada," she said. "That's how clueless I was."
Trans PULSE researcher Greta Bauer, who is a professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University, said the project showed the "substantial" underemployment and unemployment in the community.
"Despite being very well educated, we found that trans people have a median income of $15,000 a year," she said.
"It's surprising how often we hear from people that they were told bluntly, 'You won't fit in here."'
The job hunt can also be complicated by university transcripts or references that are under a different gender or name.
Twenty-seven per cent of respondents said there were instances when they weren't provided references because they were transgender.
"Very often trans folks have higher levels of education than the general population and yet higher levels of unemployment, which shouldn't co-relate," said Donna Turner, spokeswoman for Rainbow Health Ontario, an advocacy and research organization focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Turner said societal discrimination often filters into the business world.
"For a lot of people, the types of stories that we hear are that someone starts to transition in the workplace and then they get laid off for other reasons."
In 2012, Toby's Act made it illegal to discriminate against someone in the workplace because of gender identity or gender expression, amending the Ontario Human Rights Code.
But despite provincial legal protections, Turner said transgender individuals are dissuaded from filing discrimination complaints because of the cost and time it takes for cases to be heard.
Hudson said there is also another reason why transgender women don't complain about negative experiences.
"It's complete and obvious discrimination, but it's very hard to prove."
Savannah Burton, 39, had a better experience in the workplace while transitioning because of union support but is considering other job options because of her interactions with the public.
After 13 years in Toronto's hotel industry, she is now pursing an acting career because she feels she is being judged on a daily basis by her customers.
"It really wears you down. You get uncomfortable, you get self-conscious," she said.
Nicole Nussbaum, a Legal Aid Ontario lawyer who identifies as transgender, said she has seen frequent cases of employment discrimination during her career, but there has been some progress.
"Several years ago, trans people were more invisible, the lives and experiences of trans people were more invisible," she said.
Nussbaum said gender-inclusive corporate policies are becoming more common — TD Bank Group for example has a best practices guideline for transitioning in the workplace.
It includes notes on day-to-day workplace issues such as washroom access and the appropriate use of gender pronouns, while also encouraging transitioning employees to seek out support from management.
Nussbaum added that there is a "reinforcing cycle" where employers who don't have inclusive policies are less likely to attract transgender applicants, or have an environment where transgender employees are comfortable being open about their gender.
Putting policies in place, she said, doesn't only protect transgender individuals, but enshrines the rights of others as well.
"Having an equitable workplace with respected human rights across the board encourages a more diverse workforce generally speaking," she said. "People who might be discriminated against on other grounds will feel like you are a good employer for them too."