It was 2 a.m. when Danielle Piergallini composed an email to classmates at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management announcing she was transgender. She had spent her first semester in the M.B.A. program presenting as male and worried what kind of response she would get after she clicked “send.”
Students and professors had a swagger about them, a kind of “bravado,” she said, and at times it felt unfriendly. (Owen is 70 percent male; only 1 percent reported being L.G.B.T.Q. — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer — in a survey last year at top business schools.)
“There were moments in the first semester when I wondered if I made a mistake,” she said. “Going into the type of male-dominated culture that is business school doesn’t necessarily send a positive signal to someone who wants to transition.”
So she was surprised when emails of support spilled into her inbox right away. Soon after, an administrator helped her figure out how to change her name in school records.
Danielle Piergallini, a transgender woman, got an M.B.A. at Vanderbilt University and a senior position at American Airlines.
To help spread information, Ms. Piergallini blogs and makes YouTube videos about life as a transgender woman. But she scrubbed her name from posts when she started to interview for jobs to avoid discrimination. In fact, gender didn’t come up, though she gave her male name on background-check forms.
Ms. Piergallini had hoped her academic credentials would land her a top role in a company with health insurance that covers sex reassignment surgery, and it did. American Airlines, where she is a senior analyst in business strategy, has employment protections and trans-inclusive health benefits. (She came out to her manager her second month on the job.)
“Discrimination against trans people is there,” Ms. Piergallini said, “but having an M.B.A. and having a good one helps you avoid a lot of those barriers and obstacles.”
Elite business schools have reputations as conservative, buttoned-up corners of college campuses, as bastions of male dominance. Many transgender individuals tend to avoid the business world, and up until a few years ago, there hadn’t been openly trans students at many prestigious B-schools, if any. But more schools are stepping up, and a few transgender students have come out. The shift is important, advocates say, because the more exposure that future business leaders have to the issues, the better they will understand future trans co-workers.
Marnie Florin, who identifies as gender neutral and goes by the pronoun “ze,” organized a trans training program at Columbia Business School last year after meeting an incoming transgender student.
The portion of Fortune 500 companies that include gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies increased from 25 percent to 61 percent between 2008 and 2014, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group.
Marnie Florin, who identifies as gender neutral and goes by the pronoun “ze,” organized a trans training program at Columbia Business School last year after meeting an incoming transgender student. About 200 students and staff members packed the school’s largest classroom for a presentation on terminology and pronouns.
“I wanted to educate people so it wasn’t such a black box that they had been too scared to ask questions about,” Florin said. “Now they’ll act differently in the work environment, and if someone comes out as trans, they’d have a strong ally.” The program will be repeated twice a year at Columbia and, Florin hopes, at Google. After graduating with an M.B.A. last year, Florin got a job there as a finance operations analyst.
To Katherine W. Phillips, the business school’s senior vice dean, the response to gender issues has been impressive. “What you saw was a bit of a transformation in the school,” she said. In September, a newly constructed single-stall restroom opened on the first floor of Uris Hall, with a sign that reads: “All genders welcome.” This admissions cycle, the business school also added an option for applicants to identify as transgender.
Florin, who had worked at a nonprofit, talks about arriving at business school without a role model. “I was really disappointed to find that the L.G.B.T. community at Columbia Business School consisted of so many white, cisgender men” (those comfortable in the sex assigned at birth). Few were transgender or lesbian.
The number of business students identifying as L.G.B.T.Q. is about the same as the national average, at 3 percent, according to a 2014 survey at 38 top business schools by Reaching Out M.B.A., or Romba. But unlike the national picture, which is divided evenly between gay men and lesbians, the L.G.B.T.Q. community within business schools is disproportionately male, according to Matt Kidd, executive director of Romba. Of 1,400 students attending its conference and job fair last year, 62 percent identified as gay men and only 14 percent as lesbian.
As for transgender students, said Mr. Kidd, “I can count on one hand every year the number who are out.”
A study last year by the Human Rights Campaign showed that, despite a changing social landscape, 53 percent of L.G.B.T. workers hide their sexual orientation or gender identity at work. Nearly 10 percent of respondents said they left a job because they felt unwelcome.
Few out people lead large companies. Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, came out publicly as homosexual last year. Martine Rothblatt, founder of the publicly traded pharmaceutical company United Therapeutics and the highest-paid female C.E.O. in the country, is a transgender woman.
“Business schools are a pipeline to leadership roles, so if we want to see more out C.E.O.s, we need more out business school students who will stay out as they go into the work force,” said Beck Bailey, deputy director of employee engagement at the Human Rights Campaign. Mr. Bailey, a transgender man, earned his M.B.A. last year from the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Though the college is known as a top destination for L.G.B.T. students, he said, the business school “was an island unto itself.”
“Business school is a microcosm of corporate America,” he said. “Issues of gender fluidity and gender queerness are just really unknown.” The administration was supportive but “didn’t know what to do” about a student undergoing a transition. They need to understand that many transgender people try to be “stealth,” he said, and pass as a man or woman rather than a trans man or trans woman. Some may never pass as the desired gender.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ashamed of their identity,” said Jillian T. Weiss, a professor of law and society at Ramapo College of New Jersey, who researches gender identity. “But they don’t want to experience prejudice. There’s so much of it, especially in any business environment. They’re trying to succeed in a highly competitive environment and then they have a 100-pound backpack to carry.”
Harvard Business School’s first openly transgender student, who came out in the news media in 2013, said going public was a challenge — and isolating — because she had to be the face of such a small minority group. Harvard business students are broken into small sections, and “they disperse all the diverse people,” she said. “It’s impossible for a nonmajority to be the majority. It marginalizes many different groups.” She now works and lives in stealth, as a woman.
Dominique, a first-year M.B.A. student at Columbia Business School, has not come out to many classmates, and agreed to be interviewed only if identified by her middle name.
Getting an M.B.A. is a big part of her “career pivot” from the Army to a corporate job, possibly in consulting. She said the business school’s inclusive steps made her feel comfortable applying, and friendly admissions officers answered questions about how she should identify on the application (however she wanted). She went with female, and mentioned being transgender in her essay.
She just finished a round of interviews for summer internships, but has not been hired — she suspects because she is transitioning. She is undergoing hormone replacement therapy and hopes to pass as female.
“I just want to go through school as the woman I see myself as,” Dominique said. She does not want to be a business-school trailblazer. “You are there to do business, not to be the trans individual.”
Cory Weinberg is a reporter for The San Francisco Business Times.
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