In-Between Gender

How Unconscious Cultural Assumptions about Gender Impact Transgender Workplace Inclusion

By guest bloggers Linda Herzer and Gabrielle Claiborne, co-founders of Transformation Journeys Worldwide

What is the biggest stumbling block to achieving transgender workplace inclusion? In our work as transgender-focused diversity trainers and consultants, we find it to be the unconscious cultural assumptions people have about gender. Fortunately, when people receive training regarding these unconscious assumptions, they are empowered to work more comfortably and respectfully with trans colleagues and clients.

So what are our cultural assumptions about gender?

Challenging our Assumptions about Gender

Two cultural assumptions about gender are quickly revealed by considering a question pregnant people are often asked: “Are you having a boy or girl?”

This question assumes there are only two genders. But doctors and medical researchers know that biological gender is not so clear cut. They know there are also intersex persons, individuals for whom the biological components of sex (internal and external reproductive organs and chromosome patterns) do not manifest in typical male and female patterns. Surprisingly, best estimates are that intersex people are as common as individuals with red hair!

In spite of the reality of intersex people, the U.S. continues to organize itself around the cultural assumption that there are only two genders. We even have a term for this cultural assumption; it’s called the “gender binary.” But not all countries operate under the gender binary. Currently there are 12 countries that allow their citizens a third gender option on passports. In addition, three U.S. states – Washington, Oregon and California -also allow residents a third gender option on some legal documents.

These realities are evidence that, with education, states, countries and likewise, workplaces, can change their cultural beliefs about gender.

A second assumption revealed by the question, “Are you having a boy or a girl?” is the belief that gender is determined by genitals. Transgender people challenge this cultural assumption, because they say a person’s gender is determined not by their genitals, but by their gender identity. (Gender identity is “who” one knows oneself to be – male, female, some combination of both, or perhaps, neither male nor female.)

Trans people’s assertion, that all people’s gender is determined by what’s between our ears (knowing), and not what’s between our legs (genitals), runs contrary to our cultural assumptions. Consequently, many people assume that what trans people say about their own gender identities are signs of a mental disorder. But the American Psychological Association (APA) has determined that being transgender is not a mental disorder; it is simply another aspect of our diverse human experience.

Nevertheless, as humans, when our deeply held, unconscious cultural assumptions are challenged, we are more inclined to dismiss the claims of those making the challenge than to carefully consider the evidence. Columbus certainly experienced this in his day! Likewise, we see this happening today in public debates about which bathrooms trans people can use, and whether they should be able to serve in the military.

Fortunately, the APA, and the countries and states that no longer operate under the gender binary, have carefully considered the growing evidence that shows that gender is much more diverse than we ever thought. Many companies are beginning to do the same.

How to Rethink Our Beliefs about Gender

Of course, reprogramming our deeply held cultural assumptions is not as straightforward as rewriting a computer program. It’s an organic process, not a technological fix.

So what things can you do, as an individual, to engage in the reprogramming process? We encourage clients to allow every experience of “gender discomfort” to serve as an invitation to reconsider their own assumptions about gender, and to allow those beliefs to grow and change. For example:

  • Suppose you refer to someone as he or she, and that person corrects you, saying, “I use the pronouns they, them and theirs” (as many non-binary trans people do). If this gives you an awkward feeling, ask yourself if that’s because you’re coming from the cultural assumption that there are only two genders, so everyone should be either he orshe. Use this as an invitation to reprogram your understanding that gender diversity includes more than just male and female.
  • Suppose you feel uncomfortable seeing someone in the restroom whose gender expression is not typically male or female. Might this discomfort be caused by the cultural assumption that genitals determine gender? Use your discomfort as an invitation to more fully embrace gender identity as the determinant of gender.
  • If a colleague pursues a gender transition, how do you and your co-workers respond? Do you celebrate this important life transition in the same way you would celebrate a colleague’s marriage or retirement? If not, what cultural assumptions about gender are reflected in your responses?
  • Talent Acquisition. Often highly qualified trans job applicants have disparities between their current gender identity and their legal documents. Do your cultural assumptions about gender cause you to see such an applicant as “not a good fit,” or are you willing to navigate through these document disparities to bring this person onboard?

According to a recent Harris Poll, 12 percent of Millennials currently identify as some form of trans, and that identification is becoming more prevalent each day.

The time for individuals and organizations to address their cultural assumptions about gender is now. The question is no longerifyou will need a trans inclusive workplace, but how sooncan you create it.

To learn more, contact Gabrielle and Linda through their website, www.TransformationJourneysWW.com.

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