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  1. Blog
  2. Employer Resources
  3. July 14, 2023

Marginalized Employees Want You to Talk About Gender Identity & Expression at Work. Here’s How.

But they don’t want to lead the discussions—and that’s important

LGBTQ person smiling
Photo courtesy of Anete Lusina
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The fear of discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) topics can be paralyzing. Many leaders, afraid to make mistakes in front of key stakeholders, end up taking the least progress-minded path instead: avoiding DEI altogether. Whether it’s racism, sexism, ableism, or another -ism, fear of addressing hard topics often leads to inaction, which allows inequities to thrive. 

In early 2023, InHerSight wanted to zero in on one of those often-avoided topics to find out how we could make it easier for companies to address one of the many elephants in the room. We chose “gender identity and gender expression”—intimidating because of evolving terminology and a steep learning curve for many—and surveyed 4,200 people on: 

  • whether their employer supports the gender identity and expression of all employees at work; 

  • whether they feel comfortable talking about gender identity and expression at work;

  • whether they’d be interested in learning more about gender identity and expression at work;

  • and, if so, where those conversations should be had. 

These were some of the key takeaways from our findings, which included demographic breakdowns for gender and sexuality:

  • Of all genders, employees who self-describe their gender are unlikely to strongly agree that their gender expression and gender identity are supported by their employer. In fact, 47 percent of these employees disagree or strongly disagree that their employer supports their gender expression and identity. 

  • Almost half of employees who self-describe their gender indicate they are uncomfortable talking about gender identity and expression at work, but on the flip side, they are much more interested in learning about gender identity and expression at work than other genders (78 percent in favor compared to 45 percent in favor for men and women). 

  • Of the forums where gender identity and expression could be discussed, employees who self-describe their gender favor employee discussion groups compared to other genders, whose top pick is lunch and learns. 

  • About 50 percent of employees of all sexualities agree or strongly agree that they feel comfortable talking about gender identity and expression at work; a third are neutral, leaving relatively few who feel uncomfortable discussing the topic.

  • In terms of sexuality, LGBTQ+ employees are more likely than heterosexual employees to say they’re interested or very interested in learning about gender identity and expression at work (64 percent compared to 41 percent).

  • Of the forums where gender identity and expression could be discussed, again, LGBTQ+ employees favor employee discussion groups compared to heterosexual employees, who select lunch and learns. 

What these findings tell us, is that while many LGBTQ+ employees might not want to lead—or be tapped for—discussions on gender identity and expression at work, they still want the conversations to be happening. And their preference for more intimate spaces, such as employee discussion groups, implies a need for psychological safety and to communicate in a space where they feel like they belong.

Heidi Duss, the founder and chief consultant for Culturescape Consulting, says this need for belonging is an important factor for employers to consider when deciding whether to broach LGBTQ+ topics at work. “Your return on investment is your employees being happier. If your employees are happier, if they feel a sense of belonging, then they’re more likely to stay,” she says, adding that the feeling of being an outsider often leads to turnover, which sets back whatever DEI progress a company might have made. “You can recruit diverse talent all you want, but we all know if you don’t retain them, it’s a loss.”

We asked Duss to walk us through ways employers can create safe spaces for gender conversations in the workplace—ones that center on the experiences of marginalized genders and help everyone grow. These are her top recommendations for starting respectful, intentional conversations about gender identity and expression in the workplace. 

How to create safe and supportive spaces during discussions about gender identity and expression in the workplace

1. Model the behavior you want to see

Many aspects of gender identity and expression are new to the majority of the workforce, so it’s up to those leading the conversations to set the tone. “Introduce yourself with your pronouns and a description of yourself,” Duss says. For instance, during our interview, Duss said her pronouns are “she/they” and she identifies as a “cis-white, able-bodied, queer woman.” While employees shouldn’t be required to share aspects of their identity, modeling the behavior invites everyone to do the same and allows groups to cover other important topics, like how to pronounce someone’s name. Thus, a good intro creates a baseline of respect, implying: This is who I am, and I’d like to know who you are, too.

2. Reaffirm the safety of the conversation

There’s a reason 74 percent of employees only feel comfortable sharing feedback when it’s completely anonymous. Being your whole self at work often involves risk, such as discrimination, retaliation, and in the scariest cases, physical harm. In fact, physical safety is the reason many transgender employees avoid certain industries; some environments are simply too risky.

Address those concerns immediately. “Tell the group that this is a safe space and that the conversation won’t leave the room,” Duss says. Duss also recommends opting out of recording more sensitive topics to protect the anonymity of employees. If note-taking is needed, simply refer to employees as “employee 1” or “employee 2.” 

It can also be helpful to offer ways for employees to participate without compromising anonymity whatsoever. DEI consultant Stan Kimer says, “When I do sessions like this via Zoom, I even give people the option of sending questions to me in private chat so I can read them and answer without the asking person needing to be identified.” 

3. Establish rules for conduct 

Employee resource groups or other company-led organizations might have charters that spell out their purpose, goals, and ruling principles, but Duss recommends penning a code of conduct that lays out what respectful behavior entails, why and how someone might be asked to exit a conversation, and what actions the company would take in that instance to reduce harm. During sessions, a designated moderator can uphold these ground rules.

4. Regulate when allies can attend

Allies are essential, but they’re also tangential. Sometimes, the best way to support employees in marginalized groups is to give them a protected space that’s all their own. Duss recommends having a balance of when allies join conversations and when they don’t. Allow said groups to decide which conversations they keep to themselves and which ones they open up to a larger audience.

5. Remind allies to stay curious

The goal of these conversations isn’t for employees of marginalized genders to teach everyone what to do—it’s for, one, LGBTQ+ employees to feel supported and, two, for allies to learn how to become proactive supporters of their peers. “The biggest thing is to stay curious,” Duss says. “If we have questions around ‘why do people use they/them pronouns,’ be curious enough to Google it. We have to get to that level of curiosity where people take it on themselves without putting that emotional tax on the person in the marginalized community.”

6. Invite speakers, panels, and consultants, but make sure they represent diverse experiences

Every topic, speaker, panel, or activity should be viewed through an intersectional lens. “The queer person intersects with every other community that there is, so there are other layers to consider,” Duss says. In other words, you don’t want conversations to be representative of only the white queer experience, but also the disabled queer experience, the Black queer experience, the trans experience, etc. “We have to center those voices and those experiences so that we can fully learn from those identities as well,” Duss says.

7. Be authentic and vulnerable

Discussions or groups that support LGBTQ+ or marginalized employees should take place year-round, not just during Pride or other heritage months. “We are queer every single day, not just in June,” Duss says. So, skip the performative behavior. Instead, make DEI a part of your everyday workplace. “The message needs to carry through to your entire brand and into the fabric of your organization,” she says.

Circling back to fear, yes, without a meticulously planned Pride campaign, that will mean there are more opportunities for allies and leaders to make mistakes. Embrace those moments. “You need to know that you will make mistakes, and be okay with making those mistakes. The vulnerability is important,” Duss says. “It’s the action and the learning that we take afterward that really make the difference.”

9 starter topics to cover about gender identity and gender expression

1. How to use pronouns correctly and why it matters (our resource here): Explore different kinds of pronouns, how to ask for someone’s pronouns, whether they should be in email signatures, etc.

2. What to say if someone comes out to you: Discuss how to react and what to do with the information you’re given. A good response? “Thank you so much for trusting me with that information,” Duss says.

3. The myths of coming out: Many people believe LGBTQ+ people come out once, Duss says, but that’s not true—it happens over and over again. Cover that myth and others that might influence how people understand the LGBTQ+ experience.

4. What it means to fully belong in the workplace: What do cultures of belonging have in common? Who experiences belonging most frequently and why? Start with our guide to why the feeling of belonging is so important in the workplace. 

5. What it means to bring your full self to work: Who can and can’t bring their full self to work and why? How does bias impact that privilege? Duss explains: “If I were to display photos on my desk at my work, and it’s only myself and my wife, I would get questions like, ‘Is that your sister?’” You almost have to justify who you are.”

6. Creating an environment of respect for all people: Respectful work environments are intentional. Read up on inclusion in the workplace

7. Definitions of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, misgendering, etc: Learn how the terms are used and other phrases that might be outdated or used incorrectly. 

8. Gender expectations and how gender roles and norms are evolving: A favorite InHerSight topic: Who’s the meeting notetaker or planning the company bonding activities? Explore gender expectations and how they add unpaid work to the plates of people in marginalized genders. 

9. How to be an ally to LGBTQ employees, clients, and the community: Discuss what it means to be an ally and why, Duss says, only marginalized groups decide who gets to be called an ally.

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