Each day, women face a host of expectations in the workplace because of our gender. From whether you should wear makeup to the decisions you make about raising a family, these assumptions are so heavy-handed that they often feel more like requirements than choices for many cisgender women, or women who who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Yet this narrow set of gendered boxes does not affect cis women alone—it’s also connected to the daily discrimination many transgender and nonbinary people deal with, says Lily Zheng, a diversity and inclusion consultant and workplace advocate. “Transgender” refers to those who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, and “nonbinary” to those who don’t identify as either man or woman. Zheng co-wrote the book Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender Diverse Discrimination, based on research conducted in San Francisco about the discrimination against trans people at work.
Zheng’s insights center on the gender binary, the classification of gender into two opposite and distinct forms—man and woman. While ubiquitous in our society, Zheng says it’s harmful.
“The gender binary is not the shark but rather the water,” Zheng says. “It’s the context that we all swim in all the time.”
Cisgender people play a role in maintaining strict boundaries between genders and enforcing unspoken gender rules. While this “gender policing” toward trans people and other cis people can come from kind intentions, it functions to strengthen a strict and inflexible gender binary that is restrictive to everyone.
“Many cis women internalize years and years worth of their parents, teachers, bosses, and mentors teaching them that you have to look and act a certain way to succeed in the world as a woman,” Zheng says. “Then, older women will talk to younger ones and encourage them to act a certain way in order to succeed as well.”
Zheng found that trans and nonbinary people experienced a wide range of treatment in workplaces, from extreme discrimination and sexual assault to positive treatment, depending on how their gender identities were perceived in the workplace. If a trans person is perceived by others as visibly transgender, their treatment in the workplace can be worse than a trans person who is not perceived as visibly transgender by others.
“Society values masculinity more than femininity,” says Zheng, who described how some trans men in her book who were not perceived as transgender could access privileges usually confined to those in the “boys’ club,” while some trans women with long hair and makeup who were seen as transgender were subjected to harassment and ended up leaving their jobs. Zheng speaks more about this nuanced set of trans experiences in a Harvard Business Review podcast.
“The experiences of trans people are a reflection of how our society understands things like gender identity and gender expression,” says Zheng. “The rules all of us are forced to follow are similar to the rules trans people are often punished for breaking.”
Younger people are increasingly breaking these rules as well.
In this changing climate, Zheng encourages women at work to be open and supportive and use their power—whether it’s managerial power or social power—to speak openly about gender.
You can show respect and allyship at work by advocating for the use of gender-inclusive language, in addition to pushing for things like gender-neutral bathrooms and other gender-inclusive policies. In general, more conversation about gender roles and norms in society, though it may feel taboo, creates space for connection between people and shifts the culture to be more inclusive of people outside of the gender binary.
“There is such a ripe opportunity for conversation, talking to women of different generations at work and saying‘We’re all negatively affected by these same expectations, and we should all work together to challenge them instead of perpetuating them on each other,’” Zheng says.