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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity
  3. April 5, 2021

What Androgynous Means: Definition & Gender Expression in the Workplace

The not-so-subtle ways typecasting invalidates identity

Woman with a beanie on drinking coffee
Photo courtesy of Ketut Subiyanto

What does androgynous mean?

Androgyny is a matter of gender expression.

At its simplest, a person who exhibits a mix of both masculine and feminine characteristics (dress, speech, behavior) is androgynous. However, physical androgyny is not the same as psychological androgyny.

That means an adrogynous man might sometimes—but not always—wear makeup and feminine-looking clothes and an androgynous woman might sometimes—but not always—wear clothing and their hair in styles typically associated with men. It also means, however, that both may exhibit masculine and feminine characteristics. An adrogynous woman colleague might be hard-charging and risking-taking in addition to being emotionally intelligent. Similarly, your adrogynous coworker who is a man might demonstrate sensitivity and flexibility mixed with highly assertive behaviors.

And while androgyny is not just about fashion, style is definitely a large part of the adrognynous package. In her 2016 video, artist Arrows (previously Ari Fitz) says androgyny includes everything from the way you do business and the way you walk, to the way you sound and the way you have sex.

Arrows interviewed Ashley Wylde, who self-identifies as a nonbinary trans person. Wylde says androgyny is about being free to express themself in a way that feels most appropriate. Being androgynous lets them break away from some of the boundaries that are applied to them based on their culture’s perception of their sex assignment at birth. Wylde defines androgyny as “any expression that deviates from what is considered traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine.”

Read more: What Is Gendered Language & What Are the Alternatives?

How many people are androgynous?

Data about gender nonconforming populations—people who don’t conform to traditional gender norms—is hard to come by. In 2015, The Williams Institute undertook a two-year study to measure gender expression among California youth, collecting data from nearly 1,600 households in the state. They found that “27 percent of California’s youth are viewed by people at school as gender nonconforming,” with 21 percent of that figure considered to be androgynous.

Further, being androgynous does not necessarily mean a person is transgender or nonbinary, looking at data about those groups specifically can give insight into how common androgyny might be. In 2016, the Institute reported that 1.4 million adults nationwide identify as transgender, with younger adults more likely to do so. That means that as the youngest Millennials and Gen Zers enter the workforce, employers will see more people who are gender fluid and who embrace androgyny as an expression of who they are.

Read more: 20 Leaders Weigh In: Powerful Thoughts on Gender Equality & Diversity

The challenges of being androgynous in the workplace

Being an androgynous person at work is psychologically challenging, at best. It can also derail your career.

The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that “in the year prior to completing the survey, 30% of respondents who had a job reported being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression, such as being verbally harassed or physically or sexually assaulted at work.”

Even getting dressed for the office can be hard, writes HR generalist and gender equality activist Clair Mclaughlin-Dunn. “Choosing what to wear is one sensitive issue when expressing nonbinary gender,” she says. “Each day in the workplace poses challenges to your identity. People may look at you differently. Try to pigeonhole you. Or ask inappropriate questions. All because your appearance differs from traditional gender stereotypes.”

Kailey Kelly at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, wrote her master’s thesis on workplace dress codes and expectations through the lens of six queer, androgynous women. One finding is that it’s easier to dress androgynously in casual wear than formal.

When formal business attire is required, the question then becomes: “Do I feminize myself and probably feel like crap every time I go to work because I don’t feel good in my skin? Or do I put this image out there and hope to god nobody has an issue with it?”

The women Kelly interviewed said they have avoided jobs due to their formal environments and dress codes. One said “she has consciously chosen not to apply to jobs with formal workplaces,” anticipating that “her androgynous appearance would become an issue and that there would be prejudice from customers, and discrimination on the job or in the hiring process from employers.” While these less formal workplaces are more appealing, they also tend to be jobs that are “lower-paying, with less job security, no benefits, and little room for promotion.”

Read more: 10 Questions to Ask a Prospective Employer About Their Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

Code-switching takes a toll

InHerSight asked Dr. Kyaien O. Conner about how changing your appearance or characteristics in order to better fit in can affect people. When you feel you have to suppress multiple aspects of your identity, like the way you dress, speak, behave or even style your hair, you’re code-switching, says Conner, and that can certainly have negative consequences.

“Code-switching is a strategy used by many individuals who identify as perhaps outside of the ‘norm’ and find it necessary to effectively navigate professional settings,” Conner says. “Code-switching most often occurs in environments where a person feels that presenting with their full authentic self doesn’t align with what is considered normative or appropriate for that environment.

“Consciously avoiding in-group stereotypes is hard work and maintaining that vigilance at all times is emotionally taxing. Exerting energy to try to ‘fit in’ or create unauthentic connections with colleagues and leadership inhibits authentic self-expression and contributes to fatigue and emotional burnout.”

Read more: Succession Planning: Building Diversity, Equity & Inclusion into Your Company’s Leadership Pipeline

In a Refinery29 article, Jake Hall, author of The Art of Drag, speaks to the damage of living in a society where gender nonconformity is very little understood, saying “it’s hard to ignore the underlying implication: that my identity is invalid.” Hall says common remarks like, “But you don’t look nonbinary” are frustrating.

“The reality is that there’s no one way to be non-binary,” they say. “Some of us look androgynous; others don’t. Some of us—but not all—also identify as trans. The only commonalities between nonbinary people are that we see gender as a spectrum, and we fall somewhere in the middle.”

Conner notes that the damage (both psychological and career-related) isn’t limited to individuals. The very organizations they work in can suffer. When employees are unable to present their authentic selves, the companies they work for miss out on their unique points of view, perspectives, and contributions that a truly diverse workforce encourages.

Employers should take note of what high school psychology teacher Nicole Piccini says in her presentation on gender development. Researchers have found that there are benefits to androgyny says Piccini: As adults, androgynous people are more adaptable and more flexible in their actions and career choices. Further, they tend to experience less depression, are more self-accepting and resilient.

About our source

Dr. Kyaien O. Conner is a tenured Associate Professor of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida. She is a licensed social worker by profession and is currently the Vice President of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for the State of Florida. Dr. Conner received her BS in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. She has a Master's Degree in Social Work and a Masters in Public Health with a specialization in Minority Health and Health Disparities. She has a Ph.D. in Social Work and post-doctoral training in community psychiatry.

Dr. Conner’s research investigates the factors that influence disparities in health service utilization and treatment outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities and examines culturally meaningful approaches to improving behavioral health. Dr. Conner has received over 2 million dollars in funding for her research on behavioral health disparities. Dr. Conner has 40 publications that speak to the impact of her work, and she has presented at over 45 scientific conferences in the United States and Internationally.

She has received several awards, including USF’s Outstanding Professor Award in 2016 and USF’s Black Faculty Member of the Year in 2020. She has also received many accolades for her work as a public speaker. Dr. Conner presents nationally on issues regarding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, anti-racism, and race-based trauma and its impact on mental health.

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Stephanie Olsen

Contributor

Stephanie Olsen is a freelance writer and copy editor. She writes about everything from women’s issues in the workplace and Ethiopian coffee culture to facilities management and expatriate life. Laughs uproariously at her own jokes.  

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