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  1. Blog
  2. Allyship
  3. August 11, 2020

TERFs & The Dangers of TERFism in the Workplace

And how to stand up to exclusionary thinking

Woman in a white shirt, LGBTQ pride
Image courtesy of Isi Parente

The term TERF pops up in the news every few months, often after a celebrity or other person in the public eye says or does something that indicates their notion of feminism protects and elevates only people who were assigned the female sex at birth.

Many feminists and allies may not explicitly hold TERFist beliefs, but our ideas of gender are so deeply ingrained that our behavior often excludes transgender and gender-non-conforming people from the benefits of feminism. (For example, inviting cisgender women to participate in the office mentorship program but neglecting to invite gender-non-conforming or femme people.) This kind of exclusionary thinking is very dangerous, particularly in the workplace where transgender and gender-non-conforming people struggle to get hired at all.

What does TERF mean?

TERF stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Some people who hold these beliefs may call themselves “gender-critical.”

TERFs believe feminism is for the betterment and advancement of only those who were assigned the female sex at birth, excluding transgender women and gender-non-conforming people from its benefits. 

Some even go so far as to believe that trans women are men who want to infiltrate women’s spaces to cause harm, which is patently untrue.

Why is TERFism dangerous?

TERFism is dangerous because it denies gender and bodily autonomy, and it further marginalizes trans people. Katelyn Burns writes for Vox: “Above all else, [TERF] ideology doesn’t allow for trans people to have self-definition or any autonomy over their gender expression.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant and coauthor of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination Lily Zheng talked to InHerSight about why TERFism is so damaging.

“[TERFs] are reproducing the same sexist prejudice they’ve received from cisgender men, and by doing so, objectifying and insulting all women. Even in 2020, women have their bodily autonomy denied and regulated by others, from needing a man’s permission to have a hysterectomy to accessing birth control to getting an abortion. It’s ironic to see TERFs or ‘gender-critical’ women do the same thing when they claim that womanhood requires wombs, chromosomes, and vulvas.” 

But, as Zheng points out, many people who hold TERFist beliefs or perpetuate this ideology don’t do so because of careful consideration about what it means to be a woman, but instead as a result of “sexist ideas they’ve internalized about the role of men and women in society.” Sometimes even the most well-meaning feminists and allies can fall into TERFist thinking.

What TERFism looks like in the workplace

Overt forms of TERFism in the workplace are often easy to spot:

  • Outright discrimination, like firing someone because their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth

  • Harassment, of a sexual nature or otherwise 

  • Assault

  • Verbal abuse 

But covert forms of TERFism are harder to see and are often perpetuated by those who don’t identify as TERFs or consciously choose to exclude or discriminate against trans people. 

Examples of “covert” anti-trans discrimination might look like:

  • Not inviting trans people to join or including them in employee resources groups (ERGs) or events created for other people of their gender

  • Not using a person’s chosen pronouns or intentionally misgendering them 

  • Enforcing gender-based dress codes

  • A cisgender person giving unsolicited advice to a transgender person about their appearance

  • When a transgender person experiences overt or covert discrimination and cisgender people say and do nothing

  • When cisgender people place the burden of education and/or change on transgender people

Trans-exclusion hurts everyone

Trans-exclusionary practices are clearly harmful to trans people, but ideology, behavior, and policies that exclude or discriminate against trans people are also harmful to everyone in the workplace.

Zheng explains: “While TERF ideology hurts trans people by delegitimizing their identities, it does harm to the entire workplace. At their core, these beliefs arise from a fixation on the gender binary, and the categorization of people into either ‘men’ or ‘women’ based on their physical appearance. When influential members of any workplace or team hold these beliefs, they can contribute to an environment where any gender-nonconformity—say, from a cisgender man who paints his nails or a cisgender woman who cuts her hair especially short—becomes socially sanctioned through discrimination.”  

At its core, TERFism and “gender-critical” thinking is not about equality for all, it’s about equality only for those who conform to narrow notions of gender and sexuality. 

How to stand up to TERFist thinking in the workplace

Work from the corporate level

“Exclusion is a problem of culture,” Zheng says. “Leaders need to model the behavior they want the rest of the organization to adopt. This means hiring trans and gender-nonconforming leaders, abolishing rigid dress codes, explicitly affirming that the company supports people of all gender identities and expressions, and setting expectations for the behavior of the entire company.”

Zheng points out a few company policies that, while they don’t fully address the issue of anti-trans discrimination, do address parts of the problem. In 2019, Goldman Sachs launched its pronoun initiative that seeks to normalize the practice of not assuming a person’s pronouns. Professional services company Accenture has adopted a gender-neutral dress code. Bank of America offers gender transition support to employees, and PricewaterhouseCoopers has a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Partner Advisory Board that advises PwC leadership on the planning and implementation of GLBT initiatives.

No single policy an employer can enact will solve the problem of anti-trans discrimination in the workplace, nor will the action take place just once. Protecting and including trans people in the workplace is an ongoing act, and it can start with simple policies. 

And from an individual one as well

Whether you’re top brass or a rank-and-file member of the organization, you still have individual work to do to ensure TERFism doesn’t pollute your workplace. Trans inclusion must be ongoing at all levels. 

“If anti-trans discrimination is occurring commonly, a baseline level of shared respect must be established in which all members commit to self-betterment, owning up to their actions, and creating a positive culture,” Zheng says. “Bad faith actions like deliberate misgendering or refusing to access learning resources severely undermine this culture and should be dealt with accordingly.”

How everyone can support a culture of trans inclusion in the workplace

  • When you see discrimination, harassment, or abuse taking place—speak up

  • Don’t assume a person’s gender when talking to or about them 

  • Honor a person’s chosen pronouns

  • When planning for “men’s/women’s” ERGs or events, do not exclude employees based on gender assigned at birth 

  • If you’re a manager, openly affirm your support for people of all gender identities and set high standards for employee behavior

  • Take responsibility for your actions—if and when you make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and correct the behavior moving forward

In conducting research for her book, Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace, Zheng found that managers in particular play a critical role in ensuring transgender people have a safe and inclusive experience in the workplace. Just as the behavior of one bad manager can nullify excellent company policies that include and protect trans workers, one good manager can and does make a positive difference in the experience of a trans person in the workplace even if no corporate protections or policies are in place. If you are a manager, make trans inclusion part of your job, whether the company has instituted policies or not. 

One of the many reasons this work is ongoing is that we will all mess up. It’s going to happen. And when it does, Zheng says, “Recognize the harm done, apologize, commit to doing better, and most importantly, actually do better next time.”

About our source

Lily Zheng is a sought-after speaker, executive coach, and organizational consultant who specializes in creating healthy, inclusive, and innovative workplaces. She has contributed to dozens of media outlets, including The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, and Psychology Today.

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Photo of Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

Content Strategist, InHerSight

Emily is on staff at InHerSight where she researches and writes about data that describes women in the workplace, specifically societal barriers to advancement, and workplace rights. Her bylines include Fast Company and The Glossary Co.

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