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In this country, there's a growing fight for the rights of transgender people. Over 200 companies, including tech giants like Amazon and Google, have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that federal civil rights law prohibit discrimination against gay and transgender workers. Now, recently, NPR learned of one woman's experience at the computer company Dell. She says she endured discrimination for years and filed a complaint with New York City's Commission on Human Rights. There are two other cases alleging discrimination at Dell. Dell denies liability in one case, and the other's ongoing. And Dell, we should note, is an NPR sponsor.
Here's NPR's Jasmine Garsd.
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JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Sometimes when she's frustrated, when she has some free time, Helen Harris comes here to blow off steam - a little warehouse Gym in Brooklyn. And these days Harris has too much free time and plenty of frustration, which led her to file a complaint.
HELEN HARRIS: I know that my rights have been violated.
GARSD: Harris is a 37-year-old systems engineer. Her job - selling technology to major companies and helping them set it up. NPR spoke to four colleagues Harris has worked with. They describe a talented young woman whose career was completely derailed a few years ago. And they, like Harris, suspect it's because of the way she looks.
Harris is African American and gender-nonconforming. She was born and identifies as a woman. She uses feminine pronouns. She doesn't wear makeup or jewelry. She favors men's tailored suits and shoes and says, ultimately, that's nobody's business, which is why, in late 2015, when she started taking hormones to become more masculine-looking, she did it quietly. Besides, she always saw the tech industry as this place where, no matter what you look like...
HARRIS: If you put your head down and you learn the stuff and you do the work, you can change your circumstances.
GARSD: This was around the same time when Harris' company, EMC, was merging with Dell. Harris and several other employees were sent to training to step into new roles. She says that's when things started getting weird. She says she got heckled by co-workers when she gave presentations and that one of her instructors kept telling her, in order to work with customers...
HARRIS: People have to like you for you to be able to do this job - he kept saying stuff like that to me.
GARSD: Harris says her colleagues, the ones who were at that training where she had a hard time, they all moved up the ladder. She was told to keep on training. So she did - for three years. In her complaint to New York's Commission on Human Rights, Harris alleges that Dell didn't want to put her in front of customers because of how she looked. During that time, she says that she'd speak with managers, executives, colleagues, HR.
HARRIS: What is the problem? Like, if there is a problem with me, like, what I'm doing, can someone please speak up?
GARSD: So there's this idea that the tech industry is a place where stuff like this doesn't happen, where you can scooter into work, piercings, tattoos - no problem. As long as you work hard, it doesn't matter who you are. The diversity numbers at big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple tell a different story. Take Facebook - less than a quarter of tech roles there are held by women; African Americans make up only about 1%.
At Dell, you get a complicated picture. On the one hand, the company has repeatedly been ranked among the 50 best for diversity. But several current and former Dell employees, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the New York office had the atmosphere of a boys club. A woman named Cicilia Gilbert, also a systems engineer at Dell, says it's not just New York - the tech sales culture in general can be brutal; she says it was for her. When Gilbert decided to transition from male to female, she says a trans co-worker warned her.
CICILIA GILBERT: Don't tell these people that you're transgender; it's a career-ender.
GARSD: Gilbert was devastated when, in late 2018, right in the middle of her transition, she was let go.
GILBERT: They said, we're laying you off because your transgender transition is impeding your ability to travel.
GARSD: Gilbert, who is 58, is suing Dell for, among other things, allegedly discriminating against her for her gender transition. The case is ongoing. It's not unusual for a company as large as Dell to have discrimination lawsuits. Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Dell, told NPR that Gilbert's layoff had nothing to do with her gender; it was part of a restructuring where hundreds lost their jobs. And she pointed to the company's support network for trans employees.
NPR spoke to two workers who say the extensive medical coverage and support Dell offers made their gender transition possible. But there was another case back in 2017 - the Massachusetts attorney general investigated a complaint from a former intern, also trans, who alleged discrimination. Dell denied wrongdoing but paid $110,000 in settlement. The last time I met with Harris at the gym in early June, she was still on Dell's payroll, but she wasn't even bothering with going into the office on a regular basis anymore.
HARRIS: I have problems using the bathroom - that's the truth. After the second time I got harassed about which restroom I was using is when I stopped going.
GARSD: Helen Harris says she's exhausted. A few weeks after we met, she quit. I asked Dell about her. Spokeswoman Jennifer Davis wouldn't provide details, saying she wishes to respect Harris' privacy. But she says the matter was resolved amicably. I asked Harris if she'd given up on a career in tech. She said, no way.
HARRIS: I want my money. I don't want to be poor. Like, my father, he picked cotton. My grandfather was a sharecropper. I'm a systems engineer, so I'd rather stay.
GARSD: She quit Dell, but she's not quitting tech.
Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.
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