In 2011, internal news of an acquisition by SAP incited a unique anxiety for one Ariba employee. At 40, Billie Lynn Ross was already in the midst of a life-altering plan.
Then ‘Bill,’ she was undergoing a pharmaceutically-induced puberty to become the person she’d known she was since the age of four – a woman. That plan included openly doing so in her familiar, much-loved workplace, and new ownership brought new fields of uncertainty.
Those fields, however, would yield some unexpected support and lay a path for this Palo Alto-based production operations engineer to “move forward, less scared and less apprehensive.” While that path would lead to a better, much happier future for herself, Billie’s journey would see her and SAP come together to blaze a trail for future transgender employees and transgender children.
This is Billie’s experience living diversity and inclusion.
What about the acquisition made you anxious?
Ariba was a wonderful place to work. The people and management were caring and nurturing. My first daughter was born while I worked here and management made sure I took all the time off I was entitled to and then some. [Billie Lynn has three children, a 21-year-old son, and two daughters, 10 and 8 with her former partner, their mother.] I was coming up with plans to transition in the workplace I knew so well, and where I was among people I was very comfortable with. The news of SAP was a wrench in the gears.The uncertainty of what this new company was like was a huge question mark.
What did those plans look like now that you’re working at SAP?
I discovered the ‘Homosapiens Group’ (the forerunner to Pride@SAP), attended my first monthly meeting, and decided the group would be a good place to ‘out’ myself as transitioning, which I did, quietly at that first meeting and only to two people who put me in touch with three other transgendered colleagues. They directed me to SAP’s Transitioning Transgender Guidelines document. It was a huge Hail Mary. I remember thinking: I have a way to move forward, less scared and less apprehensive. Eventually I would be asked to attend my first-ever conference, Out & Equal (2014), as one of five delegates from SAP. [In 2015 Billie was a speaker on one of the conference’s highest-rated panels: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly: Transitioning in the Workplace and the Importance of the Workplace Ally.]
Did you have open support at work during your transition at SAP?
The path I chose from the transition guidelines document led me to spend six or more months prepping all of my co-workers, one-on-one, to tell them about the changes I was undertaking. (“On some date I’ll be leaving and coming back a few days later as myself,” I’d tell them.) By the time I was ready, everyone was well prepared. And it’s a good thing because it was almost an overnight transformation. I left work on a Wednesday as ‘Bill’ and Friday morning returned as ‘Billie,’ in a dress, heels and tights, no longer hiding the feminine curves and features. There were many people who were very pleasantly surprised by the differences.
You were a key part of the conversation on SAP’s new wide-ranging transgender benefits. How did that come about? Proactively or reactively?
A bit of both, really. Attending Out & Equal got me thinking about where I wanted to go, the support I’d need, and really looking at the benefits available to me. Some benefits, like gender reassignment surgery coverage, are offered by law. But others, like facial and vocal feminization surgery, aren’t. Yes, they are cosmetic; yes, they are comparatively minor surgeries – but their impact is public and profound.
Kaiser, the health insurance provider, was not offering an end-to-end transition plan in accordance with the internationally recognized and accepted standards for transgender health set forth by WPATH. Those gaps in coverage – like facial feminization surgery – can mean the difference between a productive member of society and a homeless person. While I was talking – pushing – Kaiser, I was talking with HR about things like how drugs that suppress puberty in transgender kids can help them avoid painful surgeries later. That’s how we got to where we are today.
By sharing experiences, you provided an education that allowed SAP to do the work to enhance the benefits program. Is educator a role you’re comfortable with? Does it have a place in your life outside of SAP?
I’ve always been a ‘teacher,’ of sorts, and take the opportunity to educate whenever I can, and make things better if I can. I am very open about everything I’ve gone through. But being transgender and knowing it for so long, I’ve always avoided being in the spotlight, and chose to avoid those situations. Once I started transitioning, however, I remember thinking: I’m already being stared at, let’s do some good with it.
Outside of work, I joined an online medical support group for women and was given the opportunity to provide some insight into what my lived experience in this group as a transgender woman meant. At first I did it privately, but realized the only way for them to be comfortable with me was to bare all. How better to make women feel comfortable than to be vulnerable and open as one of them? So many women have the image of a man in a dress, and that stereotype is incredibly damaging.
Has there been a role model (in life or career) in light of your diversity?
For transitioning, no. The people I looked to were family and friends, those I trusted. They sought me out when I finally told them I was transitioning. One friend, who also happens to be a former IBM executive, gave me the best piece of advice that stemmed from her corporate career experience. Initially my plan was to transition physically as far as I could, leave Ariba and start somewhere else as a woman; a ‘fresh’ start, if you will. The trouble is, a ‘fresh’ person has no experience. My friend said “Don’t do it. You’ll be committing career suicide.” Her sound advice was to transition at work, then if it doesn’t work out, leave and take all of my experience with me.
Looking back on the transition process, is there anything you would change?
I’m glad I transitioned openly in the workplace. Within months people said to me: You’re so different than you were. By that I think they meant I’m surer of myself, assertive, calm, and even relaxed. I was a bit of a hot-head before and didn’t deal with stress well. I also wasn’t my ‘real’ self either. What they are seeing now is just me; I’m no longer hiding.
Up until you transitioned, did your identity ever play a role in looking/applying for work or being hired?
Yes and no. I have not applied for a job since 2006 (when I started with Ariba). Thinking back to my original plan of transitioning to a point then leaving, it meant I started to consider employers who had an accepting culture. Apple was a good example, which is something I learned from people who were transgender and work there. But prior to 2006, no; I was ‘Bill.’
What would you want readers to know about transitioning, and doing so at SAP?
What most people don’t realize is I’m not the only one transitioning. So are my kids, my partner, my family, friends and colleagues. We are all adjusting and learning and coping. As for doing so at SAP? First, if you’re considering it, don’t be afraid. My experience has been a good one. I know this too because I’ve spoken with people who have done it at other companies. SAP has our back.