We’re in the midst of a fundamental transformation in how society thinks about gender. With transgender people on the cover of magazines, prominent celebrities challenging gender norms in fashion, and the mainstreaming of people who identify as neither men nor women, the last few decades of cultural trends have brought new ideas about gender to the forefront. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attitudes of Millennials and Gen Zers, who are more likely to know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns and to embrace fluid and gender-nonconforming fashion.
Despite this, our workplaces lag behind these demographic and cultural shifts. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey revealed that one in six respondents who had ever been employed reported being fired, denied a promotion, harassed, or attacked because of their gender identity or expression. At Stanford University, Dr. Alison Fogarty and I analyzed similar stories of discrimination from dozens of people under the transgender umbrella. This group included transgender men and women, gender-fluid people, nonbinary people, cisgender but gender-nonconforming men and women, and many others who challenged societal gender norms.
What became apparent over the course of this research was that even organizations that have some understanding of “transgender issues” are poorly equipped to respond to gender-nonconforming employees. In their efforts to create inclusive policies and practices for trans people, even progressive organizations can inadvertently entrench outdated and restrictive norms about gender.
The answer isn’t more policy, but better policy. Through our research, including the personal stories included in this article, we identified four ways company leaders can create policies that empower individual agency, make room for experiences outside of the gender binary, and ensure access to resources and quality of working life for people of all gender identities and expressions.
Interpret Nondiscrimination Policies in a Way That’s Actually Effective
Existing policies that ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression are usually worded as well as they should be, but they’re rarely enforced in a way that’s actually protective. Most organizations — including some of the most progressive companies — interpret this policy as, “If you identify as transgender, we will not discriminate against you.” This interpretation requires transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people to out themselves for their own protection, exchanging their privacy for support. For example, gender transition policies often include company-wide emails to announce an individual’s gender transition, as well as company-wide trainings.
When training individuals on company policy (especially recruiters, hiring managers, and people managers), explicitly state that acting in accordance with nondiscrimination policies requires:
- Reducing the amount of gender information collected unless absolutely necessary
- Not assuming individuals’ gender identities or pronouns
- Respecting the pronouns individuals use for themselves
- Providing opportunities for individual self-identification beyond the binary “man” and “woman”
- Building gender-inclusive facilities, like bathrooms and locker rooms
- De-gendering dress codes in favor of more specificity
Examine Your Hiring Practices
Hiring practices were one specific place where we identified the systemic failure of inclusive policy. Hiring managers typically expect trans people to self-disclose during the hiring process. Attempts at trans inclusion tended to classify individuals as either “male” or “female” and didn’t make space for those in between or outside the binary, and they didn’t address why such a question would be necessary in the first place. For example:
Sawyer, a trans man who used he/him pronouns, applied to a company early on in his transition where his interviewer aggressively asked him his pronouns. When Sawyer mentioned that he was fine with either he/him or she/her, the interviewer refused to take that as an answer, saying, “You need to choose right now. You need to be comfortable, so you need to tell me.”
Cameron, a gender-fluid person who used both he/him and she/her pronouns, had difficulty finding a job. At one career fair, while Cameron was dressed in feminine clothing, recruiters gave her a wide berth due to her appearance. At another career fair, once Cameron mentioned his gender fluidity, a recruiter offered a weeklong assignment only if Cameron promised to dress “consistently.” Cameron found that the only way to secure employment was to hide any mention of gender fluidity and try to pass as a cisgender man in the workplace, a compromise that got her a job but wreaked havoc on her mental and emotional well-being.
Rethink Dress Codes
Policies that extend existing gendered policies (like dress codes) and access to facilities (like bathrooms and locker rooms) to cover trans employees inadvertently exclude nonbinary, gender-fluid, and gender-nonconforming people. These policies were designed for a time where trans people could only receive workplace recognition if they sought to blend in with stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. Yet, as more people challenge the gender binary altogether, these policies lose their usefulness — not only for trans people, but also for cisgender people who don’t wish to wear the professional clothing typically expected of their gender.
More inclusive dress codes would remove gendered language and use greater specificity as to acceptable and unacceptable clothing, framed in terms of functionality (e.g., “that does not impede ability to lift 50 pounds”) or legitimate business purposes (e.g., safety, easy identification of employees, or branding). If disputes occur, these criteria can be the basis for a conversation about specific attire.
We found that formal dress codes or even informal (yet gendered) clothing expectations were an extreme source of stress and conflict for gender-nonconforming people, who frequently challenged these expectations.
Rowan, a nonbinary person who used they/them pronouns, ran up against these expectations when they began changing their gender expression at work. On some days they would dress more stereotypically masculine, whereas on others they would dress more feminine. An HR representative immediately began policing their appearance, citing the damage it would cause to the company’s reputation, and warned Rowan that there would be consequences if they wore dresses or makeup during recruiting events.
Parker, a trans man who used he/him pronouns, identified as a butch lesbian for many years before coming out again as trans. During the time he identified as a butch lesbian, Parker’s more masculine presentation led to his being scorned from both men’s and women’s circles at work, and when he expressed a desire to travel for work-related conferences, he was told that he would have to wear skirts and dresses to do so, which he refused.
Make Transition Policies Flexible
Workplace gender transition policies can lock acknowledgment and support behind unnecessary timelines and milestones. For example, HR may implement a three-step plan involving first coming out to a manager, then coming out to the team with the manager’s support, then finally coming out publicly to the entire company. Along these milestones, the individual may only be permitted to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity within the areas of the company they have come out to.
The fact that timelines are the norm implies that organizations perceive a workplace transition as one-time, bounded, and linear. In reality, transitions are more likely to be constant, amorphous, and unpredictable. By insisting that transitions be pre-planned and structured, organizations gain peace of mind but cause substantial stress for trans employees who may not know in advance what their transition will look like.
Rather than dictating a one-size-fits-all transition process, more inclusive transition policies make transition-related resources — including information on transgender health care benefits, best practices for transgender inclusion, and options for supportive actions HR can take — available to any employee who wants access to them, no questions asked. Placing agency back in the hands of transgender, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, and questioning people allows for a greater range of accommodations, reduces bureaucracy, and increases access to resources and assistance for those who may feel uncomfortable with existing policies.
We found that transition policies did not prevent discrimination. Oftentimes, they weren’t used even when trans employees sought transition, because the employees lacked either the financial means or the desire to follow the narrow path stipulated by the policies. Additionally, they contributed to a perception that there was a “right” way to be trans — and that gender-nonconformity had nothing to do with it.
Alex, a trans woman who used she/her pronouns, was an executive at a multinational tech company when she first began contemplating gender transition. Before making use of the gender transition policy that was available, she tested the waters by growing out her hair and nails. At first, she was met with lighthearted jokes about her appearance — and then with serious questions about her mental health. The unwanted attention, plus the knowledge that another trans woman in the company was being discriminated against after coming out, was enough motivation for her to quit her job rather than take her chances with transition.
Robin, a trans woman who used she/her pronouns, butted up against her union’s expectations of how women should look and act when she transitioned. She described needing to transition in a way that almost parodied femininity — heavy makeup, tighter body movements that took up less space, less-assertive mannerisms — in order to have her gender identity recognized by others in the workplace. Many times, cisgender women would coach her on how to behave like a “real” woman without her asking.
It’s clear that it’s not sufficient for companies to be well intentioned when it comes to creating and enforcing inclusive policies. In order to actually support employees of all gender identities and expressions, company leaders will have to take a different approach that balances flexibility, privacy, and access.
HI! I AM DAVID BRAYZ!
I am a highly-skilled IT Specialist with over 12 years of experience in Web Design, Graphic Design, Web Blogging & ITL Management.