It was certainly an unusual end to a team meeting. Step forward Mike, a 1.85m tall man, to tell everyone that he was transitioning to live as a woman, and wanted to be known as Michelle.
Coming out in this way took every ounce of remaining courage from someone going through an incredibly difficult personal journey. But it was rewarded with outstanding support that has helped smooth Michelle’s transition, brought the people in the team closer and given them real-life experience of the benefits of being able to be yourself at work.
“I knew something wasn’t quite right”
Michelle says she began to realise she wasn’t happy being male from around the age of five. “I knew something wasn’t quite right although at that time I wasn’t sure what. By my 20s I had an inkling what it might be and by my 30s I knew I would need to do something about it. But it was almost another decade before I actually managed to do it.”
Originally a scientist with a PhD in glaciology and having made several trips to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, Michelle, then Mike, joined Shell’s Contracting and Procurement (CP) team in 1999: “I basically quit science to come and buy stuff for Shell, and found I loved it!”
After an initial three years in Aberdeen, assignments followed in Nigeria, Brunei, London, Paris and Kazakhstan before Michelle moved to Perth, Australia in 2013 to become CP Manager for Prelude, the role she still holds. It was at this point that coming out as transgender became possible, as she explains.
“In some of the countries I was travelling, living and working in, coming out would have been impossible – either due to local legal or cultural restrictions or because there just wasn’t access to the right kind of care and support that I knew I would need.
“I most certainly didn’t choose to be transgender”
“I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as Mike. It’s not easy to describe how I felt, but I most certainly didn’t choose to be transgender.”
After approaching her own doctor in November 2013 and being referred for extensive medical assessments, Michelle was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria, a significantly distressing state of feeling one's emotional and psychological identity to be opposite to one's biological sex. She began hormone treatment, voice coaching and laser treatment to remove her beard.
“Some transgender people decide to undergo gender reassignment surgery, but for many coming out and living as the gender they perceive themselves to be is enough,” Michelle says. “The hormone treatment has begun to change my body shape – I’m probably the only person in Perth delighted to have wider hips!”
Coming out to close colleagues
Having begun the physical transition, by October 2014 Michelle felt the time was right to come out to close colleagues. After seeking advice from HR, she had individual chats over coffee with her direct reports then shared her news with her peers at the end of a managing inclusion leadership session.
“There were about 30 of my peers in the room and when I explained about my situation many of them shook my hand, which I really appreciated,” Michelle shares. “One even sent an email saying, ‘I’m glad you’re in a place, a country, and a company which supports and respects you and allows you to flourish. Farewell Mike and welcome Michelle’.”
When Michelle made the permanent change to come to work as a woman in March 2015, she chose to do it in a low-key way, without a big announcement. “I was the talk of the coffee machine for a few days but after that everything settled down. A lot of people asked questions as understandably they were very curious, and I’ve maintained all along the rule that I’m happy to answer anything people would be comfortable to answer themselves. In fact everyone has been great and so far I’ve known only awareness, understanding and acceptance from colleagues – I really couldn’t have done it without them.”
Full support of the leadership team
Further support for Michelle came from her business VP, Wayne Hutchinson. In a message to all CP projects staff, Wayne said, “Respecting Diversity and Inclusion in our workplace is a fundamental aspect of working for Shell. Michelle continues to have the full support of the CPP leadership team, together with that of her Prelude FLNG Project and Shell Australia colleagues. We ask and expect that you show the same towards her.”
As a long-term Shell employee, Michelle says she knew it would be a safe place to come out. “I genuinely had no fear about my career. Shell is a consensual place to work. It means what it says and genuinely values diversity within the work force. When I talk to other trans people, there is a strong perception that Shell is a good company to work for.
“I consider myself one of the lucky ones”
Attitudes to transgender people do vary across the world and Michelle has had her own challenges during this journey. “It’s very common to feel shame, guilt and embarrassment about being trans,” she says. “Around two thirds of transgender people attempt self-harm or suicide and about one third succeed. Often this is driven by the fear of not being accepted for who you are. I consider myself one of the lucky ones – I’ve never attempted to self-harm and I’ve had no problems inside or outside Shell.”
Although Michelle’s transition among colleagues went smoothly, the process has had some challenges in the workplace as she explains.
“One issue is the ability to travel, which is a significant part of my job. In some countries there are laws against being transgender. Plus, my passport said Mike when I looked like Michelle. Shell has completely respected any concerns I’ve had about travelling to certain places.”
Michelle is now working with HR and other colleagues to help establish more networks and support for other transgender colleagues who might wish to come out. “Of course, it’s always a personal decision but if you’re in a safe space where you know you can be yourself, it makes everything so much easier.”
“I think I’ll do my job better than before”
Personally speaking, Michelle adds: “The mechanics of transitioning is quite distracting, but now I’m through that, I think I’ll perform better in my job than before as I’m not hiding this bit of my life. I feel calmer and more content.”
Outside her day job, Michelle is involved with graduate recruitment in Shell Australia. “I did ask whether me being trans would be a hindrance, but the reality was the opposite – they asked me if I could be used an example of how we handle equality and diversity here at Shell to encourage others who may be gender diverse.”
Summing up what her transition means to her, Michelle concludes: “I’d looked in the mirror for so many years and seen Mike, but had never seen my true self. When I look in the mirror now and see Michelle, I see me, which is wonderful. To live for 41 years and finally to see and be yourself is amazing.”