Audrey Hopkins, 47, became the first transgender individual hired into Eaton Corp.’s 100-member information technology group in October 2005.
Her name and capabilities were already known to her boss and many staff members who had worked with her in her former identity as Dave Hopkins, a 20-year consultant and troubleshooter for advanced computer manufacturing systems.
Today Hopkins, senior IT specialist, reports finding mostly receptive managers and employees in auto plants across America where her skills in software design and business systems are sought after.
Equal access to employment is a policy supported in spirit and statements, according to Jim Parks, an Eaton spokesperson who affirmed a company policy of empathy and cooperation for race, creed, gender and gender identity in the workplace so long as behavior doesn’t intrude on productivity.
"My boss needed my skill set," Hopkins said. She disclosed her status in a gender reassignment process, begun in 2004. "He looked me right in the eye and said he wouldn’t disclose my public identity or jeopardize my right to earn a living."
Eaton Corp. had $12.4 billion in 2006 sales. Its headquarters is in Cleveland, and its Detroit-area offices are in Southfield and Ann Arbor.
Together, Hopkins and her boss wrote down the names of all the individuals she worked with as a male. The boss had conversations with these employees, insisting upon empathy and cooperation. (Hopkins asked that her boss’s name be left out of this story.)
"The company doesn’t pry into people’s personal matters. They have respect for certain circumstances as long as it doesn’t interfere with productivity," Hopkins said.
She made adjustments too. She used unisex restrooms to avoid any controversy as she worked through several surgeries to alter her appearance and gender. She is one of an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 transgender individuals in America today.
Sean Kosofsky, director of policy for the Triangle Foundation in Detroit, said at least 300 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations have come out in support of H.R. 2015, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would include gender expression and identity in its job protection provisions. The measure should come up for a vote by Congress in fall.
Meanwhile, Hopkins has coped with the everyday pressures of being the pioneer in a brave new workplace. At first, she lunched alone as groups of men sat in one direction and groups of women in another. As a former high school football player and rabid University of Michigan sports fan, she longed for the camaraderie of Monday water cooler talk. Slowly, she made new friends and blended back in. "I’m at the top of my game professionally," Hopkins said with a smile.
Natalie Brundred, an executive coach for Business Edge International in Bloomfield Hills, offers advice to workplace pioneers such as Hopkins. "My job is not to pay attention to how I’m the same or different. My job is to pay attention to what I’m building, what I’m creating for myself and my company," she said. "When you focus on that, everything takes care of itself."