Lisa Kenney, CEO of Reimagine Gender, joins the program to discuss her diversity story and the work that her organization is doing to help all people realize their potential by addressing and expanding limiting concepts of gender.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- How to create a future that is more inclusive to expressions of gender identity (19:00)
- Lisa’s diversity story and how she came to her current work (20:30)
- The generational differences when it comes to gender identity and expression (25:45)
- Lisa’s advice for leaders around gender identity (33:30)
- Why inclusion is crucial for retaining talent (38:30)
- What leaders need to know about pronouns (41:00)
- How to handle disclosure of gender identity (49:00)
- The importance of acknowledging the fluidity of gender identity (52:00)
- How to find the commonalities in our experiences (54:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Lisa, welcome to The Will To Change.
LISA KENNEY: Well, thank you, Jennifer. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to be with you today. Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am excited. We haven’t talked about this topic that we’re going to talk about today in a while on The Will To Change, but it is never far from my heart and mind. As a cisgender identified person, which is something that I always make an effort to share and invite conversation about, and as a member of the LGBTQ community, it represents a part of my identity that I don’t think I had a name for for a very long time, and now I do, so I like to show it off and-
LISA KENNEY: That’s good.
JENNIFER BROWN: … flex my muscle.
LISA KENNEY: That’s good.
JENNIFER BROWN: And I love it too, because it just causes people to sit up on the edge of their chair in the pre-pandemic world when I was in rooms with actual audiences, people were riveted, because gender identity expression is such a fascinating piece of our learning lately. I can remember when the big thing was sexual orientation, and that was big enough, trust me, to come out.
LISA KENNEY: That’s right. It still is because these things do evolve I really fascinating ways.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. But it feels different, and I think it’ll be interesting to hear you weigh in on this. And maybe there’s just been a huge seismic shift in terms of openness in our society, But the response that you get when you start to talk about gender identity and expression feels much less judgmental than, I think, the response to sexual orientation. And maybe because it’s the word sex is in there, I don’t know if we’re being puritan about it. But I have really noticed a difference, and maybe times are changing. I know this is true, the next generations are bringing a level of understanding to us and their own expression and their own sharing of their identities, and also the language that has become available to us to describe the nuances of our identity and the specifics of our identity is such an incredible…
That’s always a good thing. More language to me is always a good thing. When you reflect back on LGBT, which is what we used to just say, “Oh, the lesbian and gay community,” you realize how limiting that was and how conflating it was of so many different identities, and now we’re really getting down to the real stuff, which is cool.
LISA KENNEY: Well, and the other thing that’s interesting about that is that we realized that the LGBT umbrella really wasn’t giving much time to the L or the B or the T, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, very true. Very true.
LISA KENNEY: So it wasn’t as if there was an equal sharing of time in there. But to your point, because you said something that I think is so important, as we think about where we’re going, I think that the work that we all were doing around sexuality years ago absolutely affected how the gender conversation is happening today. And I think a lot of people saw that a lot of harm was done to folks in trying to get through and learn through those times that, “Wow, maybe we don’t have to repeat that. Maybe parents, for example, if they have a gender diverse kid, maybe the point isn’t to force them to comply or for them to keep their gender a secret, but instead to help shape the world around that child so that the world itself becomes more expansive.”
And I think that’s a really critical thing, and it’s just a reminder that the work that we do for inclusion and belonging isn’t specific to a particular time or even a particular topic, it’s really about creating a future that is more inclusive and welcoming and belonging in and holistic for all of us.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautifully said. Lisa, take us back to your own journey, your history, and what led you to be so passionate about this topic, and I know, love what you do, and certainly it’s so important. And it’s only just starting, I think, this topic, our overall understanding of it as a population, but take us back to whatever you’d like to share about your diversity story, defined however you’d like it to be.
LISA KENNEY: Okay. Oh, it’s such a really interesting thing to think about because I do think that all these different aspects of who we are inform, of course, and give us the lens through which we see things. And I think the first thing I’ll say about my own story is, I’m adopted, and I was put up for adoption because my parents had different faiths. And so that was one of my first realizations that who we are as people and the things that we believe can cause disunity rather than unity. And so that was an early lesson because my parents were very open in telling me my adoption story so that was always part of my sense of myself. So that was the first thing.
I think the other thing as a young kid that I realized very early on was my gender just did not fit. I wasn’t quite like the boys and I certainly wasn’t quite like the girls. I had friends who were both, but I knew that I was neither in that sense. And so I mostly felt like my education around gender started from the earliest childhood, because one of the things that happens is you know when you don’t fit in one way or another, is you spend a lot of time watching and observing and trying to learn and understand, and I certainly did that. And I remember it was a wonderful thing, the in-between spaces are sometimes a wonderful place, although they can be very difficult, and certainly as a child, can be harmful in certain ways.
But they’re also great learning places because I knew I could never conform i the ways that I was expected to, and so in some ways I felt liberated to not have to try to do that. The other gift that came with that was also that I remember lots of times, friends of mine,\ who were girls would say something like, “Well, you know boys, they’re like X, Y, Z.” And I would say, “Well, actually they’re not. Here’s the other ways that they are.” And the same thing with friends of mine who were boys and their perceptions of girls. And so there was a way that I already began this translation process, but also it just came out of this observation. I think my own gender was really unclear because I had no language for it. I really didn’t understand what was going on or why it didn’t fit.
As I got a little older and was introduced to some ideas around sexuality, I began to understand that I wasn’t also going to fit in terms of sexuality, and I didn’t know quite what that meant at the time. But it began to make sense of gender for me because sexuality was so intricately connected to sexuality, that it was really the first discussions I began hearing outside of feminist discussions about women. And so identifying as a lesbian in my life was one of those things where I could say, “Okay, this makes sense.” But it was later that I realized, as I began to unpack sexuality and gender, that these things were seen as it’s related or even the same, but in fact, they weren’t.
And that the biggest driver for me was really my gender. That would of course inform my sexuality too and other aspects of who I am, but my gender really became the lens to which I began to understand that going back to my earliest childhood, it wasn’t just that women were affected by this, and it’s not just the gender diverse folks, however they identify are affected by this, that boys and men were also affected. That everybody is affected by these constructions and these definitions of gender, not in the same way and not to the same degree, certainly, but everybody is affected. And so just really began to look at that.
I did a lot of volunteering as I got into my early adulthood and various social justice organizations, but I otherwise followed a pretty traditional corporate career, mostly in marketing. And it wasn’t until later that I came across through friends of an organization that was just starting up dealing with gender diverse kids in the US, a terrific organization called Gender Spectrum. They needed a little help, so I went in and did some pro bono consulting for them really on organizational development, had nothing to do with gender at the time. And it’s one of those things, as you’ve probably had that experience and many of your listeners too, where you get in and you never leave.
That’s basically what happened. This pro bono consulting thing that was supposed to be a two-day event became a long-time relationship, and eventually being the executive director there. I did all that in addition to my corporate job for years and years and years. And then eventually, what began to be clear was that, just as you said, Jennifer, this conversation around gender was picking up traction, not just for parents to gender diverse kids and not just for gender diverse kids themselves, but gender. And everybody began to try to understand what is going on, that maybe this whole idea of gender is more complex than we’ve understood it, but not so complicated that we can’t understand it if we tried.
And certainly, as you say, today’s youth and young adults are driving that conversation in part by educating their parents and grandparents about gender, certainly the workplaces and schools and other places where they exist. And it’s happening at such an accelerated rate that even the difference between millennials and Gen Z is really significant. So it’s really been a number of these dimensions in my own life in terms of where I fit and what I haven’t. There’s certainly challenges on the way, but also great gifts. And one of the things that I realized is that part of what I can do to pay that gift back is to also try to create a place for people and the work that I do.
And so we created Re-imagined Gender as a spinoff, really of Gender Spectrum’s work, because the work became so much bigger than gender diverse youth in the US, and how do we really help organizations and families and others understand what’s going on with gender so that they can help meet the objectives that they have in their organizations or the needs in their families that they have.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That’s wonderful, and not a surprise that you felt called to broaden it. And it’s so much of a bigger conversation, you’re right, because gender norms are a straight jacket, so to speak, for a lot of us. Often what happens, as we know, universal design. I think of it from the people with disabilities community, when something is designed from universal design, it actually is designed better for all of us.
LISA KENNEY: Yes, that’s correct.
JENNIFER BROWN: So I think of gender, non-binary and trans experience as one of those kinds of foundational experiences from which we can understand so many other things. Ask any trans person about sexism and the status change that occurs, and having been being able to walk in both worlds or more than one world is a tremendous source of wisdom. And I feel like the actual evidence of the difference lives in those experiences. I guess the evidence of the case and the point I’m always trying to make as a cisgender person, to say that, “Yes, this is happening. We’re not making it up.” But to actually speak to friends about the biases in our workplaces and what occurs when we transition, or for those of us who are non-binary, all of the microaggressions that we hear on a daily basis and being mis-gendered and nobody talking about pronouns, really, I don’t think it’s pervasive at all.
And so I think we, like I said, we’re very much in the infancy, but we have a lot of exciting road to travel. You just mentioned, I wanted to catch it, the differences between even millennial generation and generation Z, the oldest of whom by the way, is I think 25 now. Is that the cut for generation Z? Ish?
LISA KENNEY: Yes, that’s about right. Yes, I think depending on who who’s defining it, but yeah, it’s certainly I this early to mid 20s. Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: So I’m just curious the differences that you see and what you’re forecasting as this next younger generation… We thought millennials got so much press, almost to the point where I think a lot of millennials were like, “Please don’t call me that. I don’t want to be associated with that.” But generation Z is becoming studied. But what are you seeing in terms of gender identity and expression and how these generations want to be seen and heard and included in workplaces? And where do we stumble as workplaces, as employers, in terms of that inclusion and creating that sense of belonging from the start?
Because I think so much subtle damage, or bigger than subtle damage, happens when we onboard, when we even interview, and then it continues through the life cycle into when we’re hopefully hired. And then we have a whole different experience in the workplace where nobody’s sharing your pronouns. And if you do, if there’s no LGBTQ affinity group. So anyway, I’m just curious, what is that generational difference you’re seeing and what is happening as they enter a workplace that is really behind on this stuff?
LISA KENNEY: Well, those are just really great points, and that I think it helps set a context for some of the other issues that I’m sure we’ll probably cover at least a little bit. One of those things is that I think, first of all, millennials were the first generation to say they see gender on a spectrum or as a mosaic. The majority see that rather than in the binary. And that was a really important shift from previous generations. I think most of us that grew up, we just took it for granted that if you were born a female, you were going to be a girl and then a woman, and the same thing for males growing into boys and men. And that there really were two kinds of bodies, so sex itself was binary. That gender was just the same thing, just a different word, and people weren’t always sure how those were differentiated.
And I think that this shift that millennials went through to say, “Wait, wait, wait. It actually isn’t a binary.” Not only is sex more complicated than that, but our gender is much more complicated than that. So I think that was the beginning of this really big shift in how people saw gender. And as you say, what sometimes is a conversation, it begins as a conversation about, what does it mean to be a woman? Since a lot of the conversation’s about women, or transgender folks. What’s beginning to happen is, as you ask these questions about gender, you realize, “Hey, we all have a gender.”
And so most of us then begin to get to ask these questions of, “Well, wait a minute. How did I become who I am? What influences shaped how I see my own gender?” And that’s true for everybody, and I think that’s one of the gifts of this conversation. What’s happened with the difference between the millennials and the Gen Z is really dramatic. And in part because Gen Z has grown up with technology and access to information and people and perspectives from their earliest days, while most of us didn’t grow up with that. So unless you have somebody in your community or in your family where maybe certain questions would come up that were around diversity, you may not have really had access to those people and to broader perspectives.
Well, today’s Gen Z is completely different. They start from an assumption that gender is diverse, that there is no binary in gender. Those gender identities of a boy or girl are just among the many gender identities that are available. I think one of the other statistics that I came across in some research recently that I found so interesting was, and this was a global study of Gen Z folks, that 23% of those, so almost a quarter of them, expect to change their gender identity at least once in their lifetime. That just isn’t a statistic I think that would have come up in previous generations.
So I think when those of us that are not part of either millennials or Gen Zs but are older, and look at that and say, “Wait, there’s something really dramatic going on.” And the identities are just seen as one aspect of gender. So you might have, for example, in the workplace, coming to the second part of your question, you might have somebody that in the HRS system, they identify as a man and they have a man’s name, or at least what’s perceived to be a man’s name, and he’s coming to work in a dress or skirt, you might have facial hair. And people be like, “Oh, so you’re transgender?” And you say, “No, I just felt like wearing a skirt or a dress today.”
This is a very different understanding, this unpacking of identity from the social aspects of gender, for example, including gender roles and gender expression. And I think this is one of the ways in which people are quite a bit behind, because as you say, we’re so early in this discussion around gender, but Gen Z is way ahead of us and somewhat patient that we catch up, but that patience is waning, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Somewhat patient.
LISA KENNEY: They’re just like, “Hey, come on, this isn’t that hard, let’s get with it.” Even millennials, 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. So this isn’t something that you’re talking about a very, very small group of people, you’re talking about an increasingly very large group of people in our workplaces today, and we need to get caught up, I think, with where they are.
JENNIFER BROWN: Those are great statistics, thank you for those. And shocking, yes. This is not a fringe issue. The pernicious thing about it, I guess, though, is that so many are meaty covering in the workplace, certainly gaging how safe it is to bring our full selves to work. So it’s tricky to make the case of those statistics to the managers and leaders I work with, to say, “Just trust me when I say this number is true, but the thing you’ve got to think about is the psychological safety that we have to create, and we means you.” And then they say to me, “Well, Jennifer, how do I create that psychological safety? When you’re telling me that a substantial percentage of younger workers in my community and therefore on my team and are certainly customers, depending on what company, and I know nothing about that, so do I start by sharing my pronouns? And it feels really awkward and conspicuous, and almost artificial for me to do that.”
And so we go back and forth and talk about, on a personal level, what people can do to invite the disclosure if it hasn’t already been made. And by the way, a lot of us are works in progress too. It’s not like we just do the job interview and we’re a baked in our identity. We’re still figuring that out too. So the welcoming of that, the noticing of the cues, and then the fear of making a mistake, or somehow by trying to invite disclosure, you’re actually making an assumption about someone. And so people just get really wrapped around the axle on this one.
And so I just wondered, if you could play out your advice for people, leaders, colleagues, us as cisgender people to say, “So we know the statistics, we know that people are in our workforce, they’re probably on our teams, and in our working groups, and in our partners. There’s certainly amongst our kids’ friends, and maybe even our kids, by the way,” because I say you wouldn’t believe how many calls I get from parents whose kids have just come out to them as trans or wanting to be referred to by different pronouns and a different name. So what advice do you give people? And if you could get really specific about the language that you say, because I feel like that’s what they want, and I’m always like, “Okay, so let’s script this out and then we can rehearse it.”
LISA KENNEY: I think the point of, how do we do this? I think in some ways it’s actually getting in the way for companies, because what they really need to do is they have to start by providing a framework and language for gender, so that the people in the organization understand what we’re really talking about. The biggest problem organizations have today is the silence around gender, and that’s generally because they’re afraid, the people in the organization are afraid to say the wrong thing, either because they don’t want to offend, or because they don’t want to look ignorant on this topic. So there’s a lot of silence. So that’s one of the issues, is, once you can help people understand in a way that has no judgment, no agenda, nothing.
It just simply says, “Hey, listen, let’s all assume that we’re interested in the human experience. We’re all humans. And so let’s figure out, maybe I can learn more about myself, but I can also certainly learn more about the people that I work with or the people that I love and I’m committed to in my life, and so let’s just talk about what gender is and let’s talk about what gender isn’t.” And I think that is the essential starting place, because where companies get in trouble is when they don’t do that and then they start taking actions out of the assumptions that they currently have, and then there’s some sort of blow back for that.
And I’ll give a quick example of that. There was a company earlier this year in June, as part of LGBT month, wanted to roll out new gender options to the customers who purchase their products. And so they made this announcement and they said, “Okay, so we’re adding a third gender identity and it’s male, female, and non binary.” And I saw that and I was trying to just send a quick note and I said, “Listen, I think your heart is absolutely in the right place. But unfortunately, male and female are sex identifiers not gender identifiers. So you might want to make that correction, although I understand with software, this isn’t easy because I come from a technology world. But this is what’s going on.”
So the best intentions, but executed in a way out of a lack of understanding about what gender is, so instead of signifying their inclusion actually signified… They were hoping to signify what they did understand about gender, in fact signifies what they don’t understand about gender. I think that is one of the challenges, because if we don’t have a fundamental vocabulary and a framework, everything else is fruit from that tree. And it’s just like almost every call I get that begins with something like, “Well, we rolled out this gender policy, and wow, we’ve gotten a lot of really negative feedback,” or something like that.
In about five minutes, by my asking a few questions, I don’t even have to tell them where it went wrong, they know where it went wrong. And I think that’s the most critical thing. And we’ve got to start there. And that other aspect tie to that as we have to tie it to the business objectives. We keep talking about gender in our organizations as if it’s an act of philanthropy for men on behalf of women, and that’s a really flawed premise. And I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve made very, very little growth or progress in that area in our organizations.
We have to really understand that this is, as you said, not only critical to issues like our people management and recruitment, it is absolutely critical in terms of our customers. And it’s not, maybe these folks are in our organizations are on my team or maybe they’re our customers, they are absolutely, definitely our customers, and not just folks that are gender diverse. I was talking to an acquaintance not long ago and he was talking about this job he had taken as a graduate student for this one company and he made really good money. It was a great job, it was a short-term job. And then of course they offered him a full-time job and he was expecting to take that job.
And then the company sent out a couple of things where it clearly indicated that their understanding of diversity and inclusion was not where it needed to be. And he’s a white cisgendered, straight man. And he said, “If they don’t get this, then they don’t get the world we live in, and if you don’t get the word we live in, they’re not going to be around that long. And he didn’t end up taking that job. And I thought it’s a really interesting statement that the people paying attention to what we’re getting right on this issue are not just the folks that we think of as being the obvious folks are going to be caring about what we’re doing on race or gender or sexuality, it is a whole generation of people.
And generations at this point with Gen Z who are looking at this and paying attention and making important decisions, whether it’s what job they take or which brands they buy. And that kind of loyalty is really dependent on how they see this brand addressing these critical issues in 2020 and their belief in the ongoing growth and viability of those companies. So I think it’s a critical business issue, one that we’re really not raising, I think at the right levels, at the C-suite level in most cases, and they’re not realizing all the ways in which they’re already paying a significant price.
One thing I was interested this morning in The Wall Street Journal, I was reading the CMO letter, and one of the stats they had today was related to Mattel and its flight shift Barbie line. And after years of declining sales, relative to Barbie, most of because mom’s not wanting this outdated notion of what it meant to be a girl or a woman, Mattel number of years ago added a new brand called Barbie fashion STEM, not a Barbie person. And my daughter is now in college, I don’t pay much attention to that, but I found the launch of this brand really interesting, where they really have Barbie reflected as the diversity of this society we live in
And just in this last quarter, Bob Barbie saw a 29% sales increase leading the company to 10% revenue growth overall. That’s a business impact. That’s one example, just from today’s journal that really shows what we’re talking about. McKinsey and others have long established that the most diverse companies are the most successful companies. Well, we often don’t think about it as why, and that’s a really good example of why.
JENNIFER BROWN: Fascinating. So then back to the pronoun conversation then, assuming I’m a manager and I already have, I think, what you’re referring to is a baseline, so that you’re not coming into this cold, but you have somehow participated in or had awareness building initiatives and been the beneficiary, I guess, of a lot of contexts for this. And so by the time you find yourself leading a team or engaging people for a project and you want to make sure you’re doing good cultural introductions, as some of us do, it may become more natural as it’s the language that you’re familiar with and it rolls off the tongue, or, I might argue, even with companies that have done a lot of that work, particularly the middle of organizations, misses the memo.
So you can have an award… And that’s my direct boss, not somebody that has a lot to do with my success here. And that person, I have to have psychological safety with. And I’m probably looking at that person and listening to them and gauging how informed they are. So many people are not only uninformed, but they’re really uncomfortable, and that is very apparent. So how encouraging is that? So I guess if you’re counseling that uncomfortable, uninformed manager, even though they should have been paying attention, assuming that they haven’t, how can they get their own engine started if you will, on this?
LISA KENNEY: Pronouns is a really interesting example. I’m glad that you raised that, and I think it’s one of the questions that often comes up with the companies that we work with, which is after they’ve done that work, then like, “Okay, now we get this, what are the first things first? Right now, what should we do to make this actionable? And one of the things about pronouns is it’s a very simple but powerful thing to do. And I think people say, “Well, why does it matter?” And I say, well, it matters really for a couple of very important reasons.
One is respect, we all have a particular pronoun, at least most people have a pronoun that they prefer. And so it’s a simple way of respecting if you go by they, or she, and I explicitly make a choice to not use that, well, then I’m making it clear what’s going on, but it’s an easy way for me to do it if I know and you tell me what it is. It also is a way that signifies that we don’t know what somebody’s gender or their pronouns are simply by their name or how I’m interpreting your gender based on how I understand what you’re wearing or something like that.
So it’s a nice way to just acknowledge that, “Listen, I don’t know, and I’m not going to assume because I respect you more than to make an assumption that could be incorrect, I want you to know, I see you and I care enough to ask.” So I think that’s really important, I think as a cisgendered person or anybody in the dominant culture on any aspect of diversity, I think anytime somebody does something that tries to make it a safer place for those that are in the minority, it does help create a more inclusive organization.
So in this case, I think putting your pronouns, for example, in your email signature is a really nice way to say, “Hey, I’m a safe person for you and I understand, I may not understand all of this, I certainly understand this is important, and so I’m going to model as a manager the very thing that I think creates a safer environment for my team.” And so I think that’s really important. I think the one thing we have to be careful of because every once in awhile, company used to say, “Okay, great, pronouns. Now, we’re going to make a mandatory.” It can be challenging…
It’s great for the people that are comfortable providing them, but when you mandate it, it can be challenging for people, like in my case, where I do put out my pronouns, but if anyone’s received an email from me, it says basically I don’t have any preferred pronouns, meaning in my experience with my own gender, they’re all equally as good/not good, meaning I don’t have a particular preference. So that’s one thing. The other thing is that when we look at that, when we think together about that Gen Z stat, where they expect to change them, if we acknowledge that, “Well, here’s my pronoun for today, then I can maybe tell you what it is, but I just want to know-
JENNIFER BROWN: It may change.
LISA KENNEY: Exactly. May change maybe next month, I’m going to have a different one. So I think if ask our people to do it, I think we need to let those that are uncomfortable for whatever reason choose not to, or at least put some acknowledgement around that that just says, “Listen, here’s why we’re doing it, here’s why it’s important in our organization. And certainly, we understand that that may change, but it will allow your colleagues or our customers and clients to know today how to be respectful to you.” And I think that’s really important. So pronouns are really important, I think, thing to do to just designate or just to demonstrate just respect really from one another, but they can be a little bit tricky.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I love that. You just gave me a good nugget to add to the script, this “script” that I’m asked for all the time, because I’m literally like mobbed after the talks I give to say, “So how do I start that conversation? Send it to me.”
LISA KENNEY: And the other thing, I don’t know if you run into this too, Jennifer, but I think one of the most common questions I get is, “Okay. We need to put gender options in our HR system or in our recruiting system or in our whatever system, just tell me, if you could just send me, what are the ones that I should put in.” And truth, there are lots of different answers to that depending on the context span in the company, depending on how it’s being used. … is three, but by the way, here’s what it… And you realize that as much as we wish there was this script, life is more nuanced, generally speaking.
So you can give a generic answer, but the truth is often, it involves a little more discussion when we’re trying to think about where is the company? Where are they comfortable today? Where are we trying to grow to? And how is it being used? So you want to give that simple answer, but if you’re like me, I often find that that’s something let’s say at least take two minutes to have a conversation so I can understand what you’re trying to achieve, and then I’ll give you my best answers.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think that’s consulting one-one. It’s really important not to jam the car into fifth gear when the engine is cold? And so we meet the client where they’re at, it’s like, what education have you done about this? Who knows that this is an opportunity? How comfortable are people? How widely is this discussed? Is it a very, very niche or private behind closed doors kind of conversation so far? I often find there’s, here’s organic usage of pronouns and email signatures and things. And then I had one of our Fortune 50 companies, actually a big bank, made it official, so they did an all hands email saying, and was that requiring pronouns?
Interestingly, it was explaining what it means, why it’s important to the bank, why it dovetails with the banks DNI commitment, and obviously, making all the points about talent and customers and all that good stuff. And then suggesting here are ways you may want to begin to see this. And it took out the guesswork because I think sometimes organizations leave everybody hanging when they’re afraid to broach something or particularly being afraid of offending people and getting all the angry emails, which is always going to happen.
This is where companies have to be brave, and practical, not just brave, when something is happening organically because you have generational shifts in your workplace, you can put your head in the sand hope that it sorts itself out, but that’s not good leadership either. So I often will say, have you considered thinking about an official communication about this? And officially permissioning this, because that will remove the ambiguity I was mentioning earlier, that middle manager who’s actually not sure, by the way, not sure if HR is going to have your back if you get it wrong.
There’s a lot of fear around languaging and saying the wrong thing, and this by the way, applies to all kinds of diversity dimensions right now, saying the wrong thing is like the theme of 2020, I guess, for some people. And I say, well, you got to try and you’ve got to exercise the muscle and it’s not always going to be perfect. And it’s going to feel awkward perhaps until it doesn’t, until you become more practiced at it. But yeah, I think what you said earlier, I just wanted to highlight is the concept of it may change from day to day, it’s fascinating too, and I think add that to what I advise people to say.
To say, “Hey, you don’t have to give an answer today because disclosure of gender identity expression I understand there’s so many ways that it’s stigmatized.” And so I often think of cisgender people do this more, it will create safety for more people to walk through that door. It’s so important to usualize, I like to say, instead of normalize, but usualize the discussion of gender identity in any given culture is for people from use of the dominant group. Those of us who are in the cisgender group are the dominant group and therefore, we can do things with less risk to us. I think that’s why it’s so important.
And then eventually, the leader goes first or the person with the dominant identity, the safer identity, I would term it. And then over time, if you are very consistent in your messaging and your commitment and you create that container, someone may trust you enough to share that, first with you and then maybe in a team meeting to colleagues. So it’s something you earn, I think, over consistent practice. And I always tell people too, it’s not like a goal, you’re not like trying to win the award by having everybody share their pronouns on your team, it’s much more gradual than that.
Trust is built over time, and we know this to be true, and I think that the disclosure comes from trust and how do we build trust in all things? I just think how would you build trust on other levels, on other dimensions with people? And I think if they can relate it to that, it does help, but the allowance to say, “And by the way, this I acknowledge and understand that gender identity can be fluid and there’s no such thing as a final answer on it,” I think it shows a level of sophistication. I don’t hear many cisgender people even being able to speak in that way and understand those nuances that you just gave us. So it’s definitely a pro tip.
LISA KENNEY: Well, and I think too that for many of us, when we look at it in our own lives, we can see… Our goal as humans is to evolve, with experience and knowledge, we evolve. And I think whether somebody changes their gender identity, many people may not change their identity, but they may change and they evolve as they understand more about themselves, maybe as they also get older. And as we get older, we feel a little less risk when we don’t conform in the strict way that we might’ve been raised or understood as a child. Many people will evolve their gender expression even if they don’t change your identity, and so in some ways, it’s a way to help all of us understand that we’re all evolving.
Some may or may not change this language, but yeah, I remember I used to wear this kind of thing and now I don’t because this feels actually more in harmony with who I am or something. So I think finding ways in which we can all connect and realize that what seems like a pretty significant difference really is not, it’s just maybe in this particular area, this is where I am, but we can connect it to our experience as humans. And I think then it doesn’t feel as scary, and it also doesn’t feel like I’m making a huge jump, and it respects that we all come to our experiences rightfully so. We have all these intersecting influences and we can only know what we know.
And we all have spots in our vision where we simply cannot see because we haven’t either had an experience or we don’t have it embedded in our life, it’s helped us to expand our lens on that topic. And so I think just coming to one another with the empathy and compassion and love and realizing that it’s all okay, and we can also help each other keep those spots not only to not grow, but to get smaller and smaller as we help one another learn about this diversity of experience we’re having in human form and trying to really help each other understand. And then I just think it takes some of that thread out.
And as you say, just creating a space in which people can be given, I love the example you gave because it was this way of saying, “Hey, listen, this is something that we’d love you to know about, we want to give you explicit permission to do, but let’s also help you understand what it’s really about and why would somebody do this.” And tying it to their business purposes and objectives. So I think it’s a great example of how you can create these spaces that just allow everybody to be where they are and come to it in their own way.
And hopefully create a safe place too, that if they do have concerns or they worry they might have concerns, but they also have a place to go in the organization that’s clearly identified that says, “Hey, there’s a safe place if you’re trying to sort this out,” say, for example, as a manager, and you’ve got somebody on your team and you don’t want to offend them, but you’re also uncomfortable and you’re not sure what’s going on, we have a safe place for you to come and talk that through, maybe get some information, listen to what your concerns are and to help you successfully navigate that.
And I think when we can do that from a place of empathy and commitment to one another, then I think we make tremendous headway and people can begin to just relax and take a breath. And we really create these experiences of belonging for everybody in our organizations. And of course, for our customers and clients as well.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That’s a good point. And we are all in a gender expression evolution.
LISA KENNEY: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re so right. I’ve gone through my own and when I first came out, I remember everyone assumed I was the straight friend and I never got attention because I expressed myself I suppose of a more feminine normative way. And at the time, which was the ’90s, it was such a binary, I don’t know. I think that when we came out in certain decades, there was a uniform in a way, there was a way that we’d express ourselves so that we could be recognized by each other, which was so important, that was everything. And I remember experimenting with my own masculine and feminine expression and failing miserably at the masculine expression side of the equation.
It didn’t feel comfortable to me, and yet, I very much wanted to be seen and recognized as part of the community, of course, as I was coming out and I was young, but it was a journey for me. And I did a program with a said Fortune 50 client, actually. And at one point, all of the women in the room, women identified women, and that includes our trans participants and everything. We got up and we talked about our different levels of gender expression whether we liked how we felt comfortable wearing our hair, did we like button up shirts, did we like looser clothes, what kind of shoes do we like.
And it was fascinating to see the diversity, even in an LGBTQ cohort, there was so much diversity in gender expression. And so I just have always found that fascinating, but I feel like that is super-duper insider. It’s an insider experience because people like you and I are in these communities and we can see all the nuances, but from outside, it looks like, I guess, it’s a kind of binary thing. And the world wants you to be in a binary, that’s what we’re taught, unfortunately. And this requires us to not just tolerate the nuances, but really notice them and develop our sensitivity to that even on a day-to-day basis as you pointed out.
So I think that my advice too is to, if we check in on pronouns as well, and other pointer I’m taking is, this is not a one and done, this is not a once a year, okay, is your pronouns he, him? Okay, great. Got it. Can it be part of our hygiene with each other? I hope it can, and I hope we come to a place someday where this is our organizational hygiene, it’s our relationship hygiene that we perform with each other, and that we don’t ever assume we’re finished products because none of us is. And wouldn’t it be incredible to open that door and keep it open any time, anytime someone has an adjustment to that they feel comfortable enough to say, “Hey, by the way, I would like to have these pronouns used for me. Here’s what I’d like to be called.”
Remember a name is the most treasured thing to our ears. And I think like you said, a pronoun is I think similar, to be mis-gendered is something that is deeply hurtful and unsettling and for sure, disruptive to our potential, our performance, all those good things. So this is important stuff.
LISA KENNEY: Yes. And one of the things that we’ll do in our work, for example, and train the associates. So not only do you identify as a man or woman or somebody who’s gender diverse, but what kind of man are you? And it doesn’t take long no matter what the audience is, and any kind of general audience and people say, “Oh yeah, I was the kind of boy who did whatever and now I’m the kind of man that does whatever.” As you say, even in the binary, we all know within our own gender identity that there’s tremendous diversity. So it’s a really such a bond instrument. The other thing is tricky around identity is that whenever I say I am something, I’m also explicitly stating I am not something else.
And that’s what makes gender really tricky in the same way that for example, that Gen Z folks are much less likely to identify as a trans woman or a trans man, in part because what am I communicating? That I’m not a man or I’m not a woman? No, that’s not how they see it. So things like identity and language evolve because our understandings of gender become more nuanced, more richer. And I think the ways in which we also evolve that language means we’re also going to have to evolve the ways in which we’re communicating these aspects of self to one another as well, because the nuance is also changing and making these decorations a little more, a little richer and finer, less blunt. So I think that’s the exciting thing that’s also happening in all of this too.
JENNIFER BROWN: Great. Oh, I could talk to you forever, Lisa, but we’re out of time, but how can people find your work and read your writing? I know you’ve been featured in Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Fortune, all kinds of things, you speak all the time. So how can folks continue to learn from you?
LISA KENNEY: Well, thank you so much. Jennifer truly, it’s been such an honor to talk with you today and I absolutely just love your work and appreciate your podcast and all the other work that you’re doing. In terms of Reimagine Gender, I would say just if they want to reach out to me, they can, the easiest way is to just go to our website and go to info@reimaginegender, and it will find its way to me, and I would be happy to connect with anyone that wants to talk about gender and how they might apply it in their organizations or anywhere else in their lives that it matters.
JENNIFER BROWN: I really appreciate you and appreciate your work and wish we could clone you because there is a lot to be done here, but I think we have the core knowledge. And the question and the challenge is how do we get it out as quickly as possible to those who have the most, I think, power and influence over our ability to bring our full selves to work and reach them with the right knowledge, right coaching, which I know you do and write statistics and research so that we can bring that workplace that is behind along and make sure that people feel comfortable bringing their full selves and making their fullest contributions, which is what we all deserve. So thank you, Lisa, for joining me today. I appreciate it.
LISA KENNEY: Thank you. Thanks so much, Jennifer. I really appreciate it.
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