What sort of challenges do gender-nonconforming people face in the workplace? And what can you do (as a co-worker) to create a culture that’s inclusive and affirming to people of all stripes?
To find out, we spoke with Aaron Rose, head of training and curriculum development at Translator, a New York startup that works with companies to implement the values of empathy and equality.
Discrimination isn’t limited to the hiring process.
“Our latest stats show that 97% of trans people have experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace,” Rose says. “For trans workers, it’s a common experience, and it runs the gamut from outright discrimination” — telling someone they won’t be hired because of their gender identity, for instance — “to more subtle things, what we might call micro-aggressions, but that certainly don’t feel small.”
Examples of micro-aggressions, which can seem insignificant in isolation but cumulatively make for an overtly hostile work environment, include things like misgendering (using the wrong pronoun to refer to someone), barring someone from certain bathrooms, or asking inappropriate questions. “There’s often a misconception that a trans person’s body and experience is fair game — but it’s just as private as anybody else’s experience with their body,” Rose says. “People aren’t entitled to that information.”
Choosing your words thoughtfully
“Language has quite a lot of power, in terms of the way that it reinforces the frameworks through which we’re seeing the world,” Rose says. “Although there are best practices, language is always going to continue to evolve, and so we need to be ready to evolve with the trends.” So, how can you know what language to use? “The right words to use are the words that the trans person in front of you is asking you to use for them.”
That said, there are some general terms everyone should bring to a conversation about gender:
- Gender identity: someone’s internal self-concept of their gender, this is something that co-workers have no real business asking about — it’s a subjective experience that has no bearing on someone’s ability to do their job.
- Gender expression: counterpoint to the internally-experienced gender identity, gender expression is just that — how someone expresses themselves, be it through their mannerisms, dress, or some other external signifier. Whether transgendered, cisgendered or other, everyone has a gender expression, although it may not adhere to a strict binary of “female” or “male.”
- Sexual orientation: although people often conflate sexual orientation and gender, it’s important to remember they’re completely distinct and independent.
- TGNC, or trans and gender-nonconforming. Depending on context, “trans” can serve to identify not only trans people, but also people of other gender identities — agender, genderfluid, non-binary. But, to be specific when talking about the trans and gender non-conforming community, the acronym TGNC applies, as it encompasses all non-cisgendered identities.
Introducing yourself in a welcoming way
“We’re moving towards a world where we can check in with people about how they want to be referred to, in the same way that if I met someone named Michael, and I had heard someone call them Mike, I might say, Hey, do you want me to call you Michael or Mike?” Rose says.
If your intention is to be as specific in your language as possible, it’s not relevant what somebody’s sex assigned at birth was. On the other hand, “If what you want to know is How do you want to be referred to? — that’s a question that you can ask,” Rose explains. “I think it behooves us, particularly within the organizational culture of companies, to create those norms. They also allow people to speak with a level of nuance, so if something changes, that conversation is already there; it doesn’t have to be created out of nothing.” But while you’ll need to determine someone’s preferred pronouns, “It is not appropriate to directly ask someone if they’re trans. What’s the purpose of that question?”
Rose also suggests modeling behaviour when making introductions. “If I’m not sure about someone’s pronouns, I might say, Hey, I’m Aaron, my pronouns are he / him, so nice to meet you! And they can decline to give me their pronouns, but it creates a really natural way for them raise the subject if they want to.”
Contributing to the climate
While policy decisions are top-down, corporate climate is ultimately built from the bottom up. While this can be complicated — and mistakes will always happen — as Rose explains, it’s also a source of adaptability.
“Every day is a new opportunity to course-correct in the direction of the habits that you want to create,” he explains. “Management can create declarations about a company’s new values, but culture is made moment by moment, day by day — and that creates the space for people to mess up, and make better choices next time.”
What that means is, if you want your company to be more welcoming to transgender and gender-nonconforming co-workers, it all starts with you.