In-Between Gender

How Unconscious Cultural Assumptions about Gender Impact Transgender Workplace Inclusion

By guest bloggers Linda Herzer and Gabrielle Claiborne, co-founders of Transformation Journeys Worldwide

What is the biggest stumbling block to achieving transgender workplace inclusion? In our work as transgender-focused diversity trainers and consultants, we find it to be the unconscious cultural assumptions people have about gender. Fortunately, when people receive training regarding these unconscious assumptions, they are empowered to work more comfortably and respectfully with trans colleagues and clients.

So what are our cultural assumptions about gender?

Challenging our Assumptions about Gender

Two cultural assumptions about gender are quickly revealed by considering a question pregnant people are often asked: “Are you having a boy or girl?”

This question assumes there are only two genders. But doctors and medical researchers know that biological gender is not so clear cut. They know there are also intersex persons, individuals for whom the biological components of sex (internal and external reproductive organs and chromosome patterns) do not manifest in typical male and female patterns. Surprisingly, best estimates are that intersex people are as common as individuals with red hair!

In spite of the reality of intersex people, the U.S. continues to organize itself around the cultural assumption that there are only two genders. We even have a term for this cultural assumption; it’s called the “gender binary.” But not all countries operate under the gender binary. Currently there are 12 countries that allow their citizens a third gender option on passports. In addition, three U.S. states – Washington, Oregon and California -also allow residents a third gender option on some legal documents.

These realities are evidence that, with education, states, countries and likewise, workplaces, can change their cultural beliefs about gender.

A second assumption revealed by the question, “Are you having a boy or a girl?” is the belief that gender is determined by genitals. Transgender people challenge this cultural assumption, because they say a person’s gender is determined not by their genitals, but by their gender identity. (Gender identity is “who” one knows oneself to be – male, female, some combination of both, or perhaps, neither male nor female.)

Trans people’s assertion, that all people’s gender is determined by what’s between our ears (knowing), and not what’s between our legs (genitals), runs contrary to our cultural assumptions. Consequently, many people assume that what trans people say about their own gender identities are signs of a mental disorder. But the American Psychological Association (APA) has determined that being transgender is not a mental disorder; it is simply another aspect of our diverse human experience.

Nevertheless, as humans, when our deeply held, unconscious cultural assumptions are challenged, we are more inclined to dismiss the claims of those making the challenge than to carefully consider the evidence. Columbus certainly experienced this in his day! Likewise, we see this happening today in public debates about which bathrooms trans people can use, and whether they should be able to serve in the military.

Fortunately, the APA, and the countries and states that no longer operate under the gender binary, have carefully considered the growing evidence that shows that gender is much more diverse than we ever thought. Many companies are beginning to do the same.

How to Rethink Our Beliefs about Gender

Of course, reprogramming our deeply held cultural assumptions is not as straightforward as rewriting a computer program. It’s an organic process, not a technological fix.

So what things can you do, as an individual, to engage in the reprogramming process? We encourage clients to allow every experience of “gender discomfort” to serve as an invitation to reconsider their own assumptions about gender, and to allow those beliefs to grow and change. For example:

  • Suppose you refer to someone as he or she, and that person corrects you, saying, “I use the pronouns they, them and theirs” (as many non-binary trans people do). If this gives you an awkward feeling, ask yourself if that’s because you’re coming from the cultural assumption that there are only two genders, so everyone should be either he orshe. Use this as an invitation to reprogram your understanding that gender diversity includes more than just male and female.
  • Suppose you feel uncomfortable seeing someone in the restroom whose gender expression is not typically male or female. Might this discomfort be caused by the cultural assumption that genitals determine gender? Use your discomfort as an invitation to more fully embrace gender identity as the determinant of gender.
  • If a colleague pursues a gender transition, how do you and your co-workers respond? Do you celebrate this important life transition in the same way you would celebrate a colleague’s marriage or retirement? If not, what cultural assumptions about gender are reflected in your responses?
  • Talent Acquisition. Often highly qualified trans job applicants have disparities between their current gender identity and their legal documents. Do your cultural assumptions about gender cause you to see such an applicant as “not a good fit,” or are you willing to navigate through these document disparities to bring this person onboard?

According to a recent Harris Poll, 12 percent of Millennials currently identify as some form of trans, and that identification is becoming more prevalent each day.

The time for individuals and organizations to address their cultural assumptions about gender is now. The question is no longerifyou will need a trans inclusive workplace, but how sooncan you create it.

To learn more, contact Gabrielle and Linda through their website,

Supplier Diversity: Why it Matters

When you shopped for the holidays in the last few months of 2017, did you think about the nuances of supplier diversity? Most of us did not, of course. Yet where we bought gifts for our loved ones — clothes, toys, electronics, books, accessories, tools, perfume, and even gift cards for massages, movies tickets or restaurants – has a critical impact on the economy. All of these items came from suppliers – the companies and individuals who sell their goods and services to organizations and retail stores.

Department stores and retailers buy from manufacturers. Grocery stores buy from farmers and food distributors. Your corporate office buys its office furniture and office equipment from suppliers. Suppliers are the backbone of commerce. In fact, without a healthy and diverse community of suppliers, our economy would suffer greatly.

So what is supplier diversity?

Supplier diversity is a proactive initiative that organizations use to ensure they are considering all types of suppliers from which to buy goods and services for their operations and customers like you and me. Diverse suppliers are small businesses and businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans, and people with disabilities, LGBT and other historically disadvantaged vendors.

What prompted the creation of the term “supplier diversity”?

The practice of supplier diversity stemmed from necessity. During World War II, Congress passed legislation to enable small manufacturing plants the opportunity to be considered to win bids to produce badly needed war products, and subsequently passed legislation that continued similar benefits during peacetime. Further iterations were created over the years, and in 1953, Congress created the Small Business Administration (SBA), which has since furnished millions of loans, loan guarantees, contracts, and other forms of assistance to small businesses.

It was not until 1969 after much civil unrest, protests and deaths of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. that President Nixon signed Executive Order 11458, which focused on developing a national program for federal agencies to seek to actively pursue business opportunities with minority-owned business enterprises.

It’s from that executive order that successive federal government acts were passed such as the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994, which included small businesses owned and controlled by women within the goals for awarding procurement contracts to small businesses, and the HUB Zone Empowerment and Veteran’s Entrepreneurial & Small Business Development Acts in the late 1990’s, which focused on awarding contracts to HUB Zone and Veteran and/or Service Disabled Veteran-owned companies. All of the above legislation was passed to ensure that small and diverse businesses are provided every practical opportunity to participate as viable suppliers in our government and marketplace.

Why is supplier diversity important to you and your organization?

According to the SBA, small businesses make up 99.7 percent of U.S. employer firms. They also comprise 64 percent of net new private-sector jobs, 49.2 percent of private-sector employment, 42.9 percent of private-sector payroll, 46 percent of private-sector output, 43 percent of high-tech employment, 98 percent of firms exporting goods, and 33 percent of exporting value.

Without small and diverse businesses playing an active role as strong suppliers of goods and services in the U.S. marketplace, our economy would face serious decline. The jobless rate would exponentially increase and innovation would deteriorate. Organizations that support supplier diversity and small businesses show their understanding of the great impact that these businesses have not only on the U.S. economy, but also on their organizations as a whole. These organizations are able to provide the best and most competitive products and services to their customers and improve the efficiency of their operations. They are also able to tap into and understand new market opportunities where they can promote their brand, products and capabilities.

What are some ways you can support Supplier Diversity?

You don’t have to be a corporate or government buyer to support supplier diversity. Here are some simple ways you can show your support for doing business with small and diverse companies:

  • Reach out to small businesses in your neighborhood when you’re looking to purchase items or services for your home
  • When shopping for office products from major office supply stores catalogs, look for products that are manufactured by small and/or diverse businesses
  • Publicize and provide small and diverse-owned businesses a chance to bid on your upcoming work related projects
  • Donate your time or resources to mentor small and diverse businesses
  • Ask your larger suppliers to subcontract or hire small and/or diverse businesses where possible
  • Attend small and diverse business networking events in your city to meet and engage with the owners of these businesses and learn their stories (you might just catch the bug to start your own small business!)
  • Sponsor small and diverse business events in your community
  • Create a program or process within your company to proactively provide opportunities to do business with small and/or diverse businesses

Have any further questions about supplier diversity? Please contact Lissa Miller, First Vice President – Supplier Diversity at SunTrust Banks, Inc. at

Messages, Memes and “Manilow-isms”

The Messages, Memes and Manilow-isms that Shape our Implicit Associations

Barry Manilow is brilliant at penning songs and jingles that penetrate our “automatic” brain. His legacy includes hits like Mandy, Copacabana, I Write the Songs as well as jingles such as “like a good neighbor State Farm is there”, “I am stuck on Band-Aid, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me,” and “you deserve a break today.” I know these words by heart because they are stuck in my consciousness like, well, a Band-Aid.

That’s on purpose.

Corporate advertisers pay a lot of money for slogans, jingles, tag phrases and the repeated TV, radio, internet and print ads that imprint their brands into our minds with a catchy phrase, symbol or song. We know this. We collectively laugh in our workshops on unconscious bias management that 99% of us cannot NOT think of the company that has the slogan, “Just Do It.” (Nike. I know you know, but in case you’re that 1% that didn’t.)

I can’t possibly look in my historical rear view mirror at my youth and remember when I first heard one of those jingles. They are just on a ubiquitous loop. I don’t know WHY I call a facial tissue a Kleenex, a cotton swab a Q-tip, or a photo copy a Xerox. I just do. I resign myself to the knowledge that my early messages (a form of mental programming by those Madison Avenue Mad Men/Women) has created advertising memes in my product associations through consistent repetition.

Cultural Programing Impacts our Decisions

What does this have to do with diversity and inclusion?

Does any of this sound familiar? Blue is a boys’ color. Pink is a girls’ color. Black people are crime prone. Asians are shifty. Homosexuals are pedophiles. Catholics are idol worshippers. Women are bad drivers. Men are unemotional. Welcome to a taste of MY diversity programming as a child in Central Pennsylvania. While Madison Avenue got paid for those marketing jingles, slogans and product repetition, I received my initial diversity programming for FREE, thanks to my father, brother, neighborhood friends and media representations of people. And, get this, those repetitively stated stereotypes (by others) and heard (by me — and you) live in the same part of the brain.

It’s futile to think that I can block an association in my mind when I meet someone from one of those groups I mentioned, or to have a fast (often negative association) about someone who is different from me when I’m making decisions about who to hire, give that great assignment to, or during and after their interview. Remember the impossibility of trying to not think “Nike”? It’s the same Stimulus-Reaction dynamic with deeply engrained messages about race, gender, age, orientation, disability, accent, religion … you get the point.

Slow it Down

Does this mean that we are doomed to a lifetime of pre-programmed fast associations about those topics? NO. You have an incredible, “deliberate” brain. Unlike other species, we can push the brakes on the “automatic” (or programmed) brain. We can tell ourselves when we’re making decisions about our teammates to “slow down” and pause to check into what’s happening in our automatic brain.

We can ask:

  • does this person remind me of someone (in a good or bad way) from my past?
  • is my decision being influenced by my current mood? (not enough sleep, stress, up against a deadline, etc.)
  • if this person performed exactly as they have and that behavior was exhibited by favorite teammate or direct report, would I view their performance the same or different?
  • what else might be true about the conclusion I’m drawing about this person’s intentions, value to the project and outcomes I’ve seen that could challenge my judgements about them?
  • what do other people who I value, who are different than me, think about this person and the behaviors I’m assessing in this current decision?

Use the Inclusion Muscle

We have the ability to “go to the gym” of exercising the emotional intelligence (EQ) skill of slowing down and pondering the influencers that might be shading our decision-making process with invisible biases. Our goal is to be truly inclusive … and that Nike/Fast Brain/Automatic Pilot/Tinted Lens of Bias is ALWAYS trying to make us go faster, without pausing and letting the Deliberate Brain do some verification of our assumptions.

What we know for sure is, like going to the gym the first few times, the first few passes at slowing down and engaging the deliberate part of our mind feels cumbersome and even unnatural and uncomfortable.But it’s important to develop the Inclusion muscle of slowing down (you can call it mindfulness, if you like that term).

Those who can strengthen that muscle can develop truly inclusive leadership.

For more ideas on how to “nudge” the brain toward greater inclusion, you might check out the book Inclusion Nudgesby Lisa Kepinski and Tinna C. Nielsen.

People Need People…
To Reshape our Biases

“People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world,” sang Barbra Streisand in the 1964 Broadway musical, Funny Girl. Although I had heard this song probably thousands of times, I recently looked up the lyrics and discovered a deeper meaning:

A feeling deep in your soul
Says you were half now you’re whole
No more hunger and thirst
First be a person who needs people

We need relationship with others to be whole. Someone who leans in to being in relationship with others is satisfying a human need on par with hunger and thirst. Those moments when we feel known and seen by another, and/or when we really see and know another person, are some of the luckiest experiences we humans can have. That’s why, when Streisand sings, “people who need people,” it resonates.

Relationships with family, friends and colleagues enrich us. We even make meaningful connections with random airplane seatmates on a short flight. Moreover, what about relationships with people whom you see as different from you? Research says we need those people, too.

How Contact with Others Alters Your Brain

Contact is the opposite of avoidance. It requires stepping in, stepping forward, risking connection and risking rejection. Our beliefs, fears and biases can prevent this connection and contact with people who are different from us. And, by my way of thinking and seeing the world, this is a tragedy.

Many of us can relate to the experience of having a fantastic conversation with an Uber, Lyft or taxi driver about something they are dealing with, no matter what their cultural heritage or background. When we listen and share in an open, non-judgmental way, we are changed. We feel “fed.” We feel that connection of shared humanity. Although we may not immediately recognize it, these interactions change our brain.

The psychologist Gordon Allport, in his seminal 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice, proposed that our filters or biases are reframed when we have contact (and even more significantly, when we have relationship) with people who are different from us.

In our unconscious bias workshops, we share several research studies to support Allport and many other social psychologists’ perspectives that stereotypes and intentional and unintentional discrimination are reduced when we have contact with groups we may consider “other.”

This is Your Brain on Relationships

In a 2012 study by University of North Carolina examining the hiring behaviors of 1,300 heterosexually married men in the US and UK, the men married to homemakers overwhelmingly chose male candidates over female candidates, qualifications and accomplishments being equal. Men with wives who had careers of their own equally chose male and female candidates in the study.

The message in the study is clear: Conversations about work and career between wives and husbands can “rewire” men’s implicit associations about women in the workplace, and can break down social programming about gender roles.

In 2014, in the largest study of white male leaders’ engagement levels in corporate diversity and inclusion efforts, Greatheart Consulting and PwC discovered that white men who had a female or non-white confidante in the workplace were 30-50% more likely to recruit, hire, mentor and promote women and people of color than white men who did not have similar relationships.

Again, Gordon Allport’s contact theory is at work: I see candidates and teammates through different lenses … with less bias … when I have been in significant contact and relationship with people from often-stereotyped groups.

One of my mentors, the founder of Innovations International, Dr. William Guillory, is fond of saying, “The biggest challenge to a stereotype is reality.” How can I hold a bias when I have so many examples, through meaningful contact, that old, tired beliefs or attitudes that I may have absorbed and adopted from societal and family programming is just that: Old and tired?

While on her book tour for Becoming, former FLOTUS Michelle Obama told an interviewer, “It’s hard to hate up close.” Same idea, framed differently and elegantly.

Practice: The Trusted Ten

In our workshops, we present the idea of the ease of gravitating into relationship and trust with people like ourselves and the value of intentionally developing relationship with people who are different from us with an activity called The Trusted Ten. Check out this short video that explains how this could help your leadership efforts and expand perspectives on the teams you lead:

My Holiday Wish: Just Connect

During the end-of-year holidays of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and winter solstice, I hope we all remember to extend our eye contact, our smiles, our kind words and our conversations to people who dress, eat, worship or look differently from us … and not just to “PLU’s “ (people like us).

I hope, while we’re winding down the last days of this year at work and at home, that we connect with others through authenticity and kindness. I hope we can see past political disagreements with our families and our teammates, and look deeper to remember that we need each other. Let’s take the loving words of holiday songs to heart and live them.

Happy holidays, and here’s to a fantastic New Year for you, yours and the new and different connections you’ll make.

And Now a Word About Our Sponsors

A new study shows that nearly three-quarters of executives choose protégés that mirror their own race and gender. In the wake of #MeToo, how can implicit bias training break a dangerous cycle? 

Of all the career strategies designed to land you in the C-suite, finding a sponsor who will introduce you to senior leaders, provide tactical career guidance and advocate for promotions is one of the most valuable. It’s also one of the hardest to get right.

The sponsor-protégé relationship is professional, but it is also, in a sense, very personal. Protégé literally means “one who is protected.”  We take a protégé under our wing. We have their back. We stand in their corner, sticking our necks out for them. With that kind of emotional commitment at stake, it’s not surprising that people in powerful leadership roles tend to sponsor protégés who remind them of themselves.

Overwhelmingly so: According to the Center for Talent Innovation(CTI), an organization that focuses on advancing women and minorities, 71% of sponsors choose protégés who are of the same gender or race. In past studies, CTI has found that 58% of women and 54% of men choose protégés because they “make me feel comfortable.”

Like Me Bias

Our brains are wired to seek safety, and conscious or unconscious biases drive us to find people who seem just like us. The “like me” bias can apply across age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status and nationality. Many of us rarely step outside of our bubbles. We go out of our way to help people who seem like they are part of our tribe, whether by writing a letter of recommendation for our neighbor’s daughter or supporting a struggling family member. Our biases don’t end there, of course. Our race and gender implicit biases are pervasive, whether we are aware of them or not.

This instinct seems to override the best of intentions, especially when we sense risk or fear exposure. Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, the number of male managers who are  uncomfortablementoring women has more than tripled, according to one study. Almost half of the male managers surveyed said they now felt uneasy working or socializing with female colleagues.

Opportunities to interact with senior leaders are critical for gaining visibility. When leadership at a company is overwhelmingly white and male, and those executives choose mini-me protégés, the opportunity for women and people of color to get access narrows. Women reportfewer interactions with senior leaders than men do. Women of color are much more likely to say they never interact with senior leaders, either formally or informally. How do you become a leader if you never have access to them?

Promoting diverse sponsor-protégé relationships can help break this cycle.

Seek difference intentionally

Just as inclusion is a source of competitive advantage to companies, it’s also key to your own personal success at work. Investing in people with different backgrounds can lead to more creative and productive brainstorming. Championing diversity on your team will also help you to be a more effective, inclusive leader.

How to get started

  • Check your bias.
  • Take a look at the people who surround you at work and in your community. Do they share the same gender, racial or ethnic background? Dig a little further: If you don’t think you are prone to implicit bias, test yourself using assessments developed by scientists.
  • Look for perspectives from people who don’t mirror your own background. If you really want to broaden your scope of knowledge, look for someone who can fill in your knowledge gaps. You may find that people outside of your circle can teach you new skills or bring critical awareness about your company’s changing global market.
  • Work with a professional implicit bias trainer to develop a plan to counteract the “like me” bias. Expand your network, even if that means experiencing some social awkwardness. Attend affinity group meetings, company volunteer or networking events and purposefully introduce yourself to people with whom you don’t typically interact.
  • If you are in the position to sponsor a protégé, consider candidates from outside of your typical groups. Try to find diversity in race, gender, language of origin, religion and sexual orientation.

Identifying your own biases and making the unconscious, conscious, can help you to understand where your blind spots are. Taking specific action to overcome those blind spots can help you find the right sponsor-protégé relationship, one that will benefit both of you.

Laura Wenner is a writer and executive communications consultant who helps companies share insights on diversity and inclusion, women’s leadership and corporate social responsibility. Learn more at

Nudging our Brains Towards Inclusion

When it comes to inclusion, our brains need a nudge. With the best intentions, humans . . . even the most “woke” among us . . . can and do frequently default to automatic-pilot decision making, especially when the people we’re making decisions about are different from us (and that means everyone else on the planet).

Our brains have evolved to be good enough, most of the time, notes Sukhvinder S. Obhi, Ph.D., the director of a neuroscience center at McMaster University. However, we still need to stay vigilant about our brains’ natural tendency to stereotype and shut down.

That concept is at the core of the work we’ve been doing with huge, medium and small organizations since 2014.

Here is a refresher on our brain defaults.

  • Since childhood, our brains have been absorbing repetitive data (like stereotypes and advertising slogans and jingles) and this repetition creates “implicit associations” that kick into gear in our daily lives.
  • Some of the most powerful and heavily imprinted implicit associations in many people’s “automatic brain” are about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and age, among others.
  • If we aren’t mindful (paying careful attention to our thoughts and decision processes), we default to the imbedded implicit association of bias, which is frequently negative and may ascribe “inferior” to the “other.”
  • We can (and should) use our intentional brain – think of it as the clutch on the engine, or the rider on the “wild elephant” – to disrupt conditioned patterns of thought and biases in order to be more inclusive, fair and equitable.

Convert Judgements to “Nudge-ments”

I encourage you to “nudge” your mind, the minds of others you work with, and our decision making at work. These “process nudges” can serve to minimize bias and create greater belongingness while gaining access to a broader range of talent we might be missing out on when we allow our blind spots to run the show.

Credit here to Tinna Nielsen and Lisa Kepinski for their book for managers, Inclusion Nudges Guidebook. The DCC team used the book at our January 2019 retreat as an opportunity to “sharpen our saw” and to create more examples for what managers can do during their day to be more inclusive leaders.

Talent Acquisition Nudges

Prior to reviewing a stack of resumes (or even one resume), remind yourself to not allow the following to impact the manner of reading of the person’s experiences: name, address, university, Greek letter organization affiliation, years of graduation, etc.

Before conducting a candidate interview, determine if there’s anything going on in your private or work life that may prevent a fair, focused and unbiased interview. Consider rescheduling if you need to. Research shows that medical student interviewees are rated lower on rainy days than on sunny days.

Ask yourself if the candidate you are interviewing reminds you of someone you know and if that’s creating a positive or negative “projection” on the answers they share and interaction you are having. Adjust accordingly.

Team Meeting Nudges

Start a meeting with a personal learning about inclusion from a book you’re reading. Incorporate this idea of having an “inclusion moment” before every meeting. A few books to check out:

Quiet by Susan Cain

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Inclusion Nudges by Tinna Nielsen and Lisa Kepinski

Before a meeting, remind people to be more mindful of listening to understand, vs. listening to be understood (credit to Franklin Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)

Talent Readiness/Succession Planning Nudges

Before performance reviews or succession planning, review 2-3 common biases that may enter into the process you’re preparing to undertake. This primes the brain to PREVENT the bias trap from “taking over.” Go to this link to review some of the most common bias errors in talent decision making:

Make sure you are keeping photos of people you’re speaking about on the screen so that visual representation is observable: color, gender, age etc.  Studies show that seeing the people you are making decisions about prompts you to assess whether bias is impacting your process.

We’ll be sharing more nudges in the future. Try your hand at least one of the above ideas and let us know the outcome.