The Awkward Problem of Welcoming Gender Minorities into Women’s Groups
Community organizations are awesome. The area I live in has a lot of great ones, and getting involved during the past few years has been incredibly fun and valuable for me professionally. Some of the groups have really broad topics, some hone in on a small area, and there are also a number of groups specifically for women. I love this empowerment, and the communities in these women’s groups are excellent! People around me have encouraged me to get involved with them, and I really want to! However, I don’t identify as a woman. I’m non-binary.
A while ago, a friend invited me to come with her to a women’s business group. She knew the founder and the community is cool and supportive, but I was nervous. I look like a woman, but I don’t feel like I am a woman. Settings like this are especially difficult for me because I enter the room under the pretense that I am the gender described on the door, and there is no smooth way to correct that assumption.
“Hello, nice to meet you—I know this is a women’s group but you should know that I’m non-binary—how are you doing?”
I’d be mortified if I said something as awkward as that. So, I privately reached out to the organizer before the meeting and asked if people of gender minorities are welcome. I was told “yes of course!” and I came with some trepidation. That affirmation was entirely private, so only two people in the room knew that I am not a woman: my friend and the organizer. Everyone else in the room thought I was a woman. Not only did I feel like an outsider in a place where I was supposed to feel community, I also felt like a liar despite the fact that I had no tactful opportunity to tell my truth. It was a great group of people and I’d love to come again so that I can keep learning and bettering my business skills, but it’s been hard for me to come back because the only affirmation I received was that very private “yes.”
It seems like a small thing, but when I don’t see any acknowledgement of gender minorities in a gender-focused group’s description and language, I have to ask myself these questions: Am I welcome? Have others in the group joined with the intention of welcoming me? Is the group an unsafe space for me? These questions aren’t unique to gender-nonconforming people. Women (and any other minorities) ask themselves these questions when going into new social situations. In this case its even more poignant because the group itself is already exclusive to men. Without at least some small mention, I don’t know if its exclusive to me, too.
Why should women’s groups even want to include people of gender minorities?
The simple answer is, they’d be hypocrites not to. All the time, I see groups that are labeled as women’s groups, but when I read about their philosophies, they’re actually about finding community and ways to succeed when the cards are stacked against you (even if they don’t say it outright). To me, that message applies to all minorities. Obviously its not always economical for every group to be completely intersectional*, but when we are focusing on gender (as in women’s groups), the gender demographics who have the cards stacked against them are, simply put, everyone except cis-gendered men. We obviously can’t start naming groups Not-Cis-Men in Business (even though that would make things really easy), but if your group shares these values, it needs to make an effort to also welcome people of gender minorities.
The best solution to this language problem that I’ve found is to just focus on the core values of the group. When I read descriptions on the groups’ websites, there’s often a big emphasis on womanhood, but underneath that are key values like working unconventionally, supporting each other, and building community. Focusing language on those things, rather than gender, not only makes it more inclusive to someone like me, but also to women who don’t identify as much with stereotypical womanhood, and it makes the message a lot clearer. There are so many benefits!
When “Women” is in the name of the group:
Its not always realistic to ask a group to change their name. Yes, it would be ideal, but often times this all-or-nothing attitude prevents the group from doing anything to address the issue at all. The best option, in this case, is to explicitly say somewhere in the description of the group that gender-nonconforming people are welcome. It doesn’t have to be big and bold up front, it just needs to be easy to find and clear. To address this demographic, phrases like “gender-nonconforming people” and “people of gender minorities” are excellent. It can look something like this:
“We welcome current business owners, aspiring business owners, and women and people of gender minorities who want to learn about business and become a part of a supportive community.”
For language in general, using “people” to refer to members of the community instead of “women” or “ladies” is really helpful. In group meetings, it is becoming increasingly popular to share your preferred pronouns as part of the introduction process, along with your name and fun fact.
“Hi, I’m Milo, I’m a graphic designer, my fun fact is that I make a podcast about rocks, and my pronouns are they/them.”
These adjustments are simple and small, but they’ll make a big difference in helping your community to become more inclusive and true to its values.
*Intersectional refers to intersectional feminism, which is an inclusive ideology that recognizes that sexism can’t be overcome without also overcoming racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Intersectional feminism includes individuals of gender minorities, and is opposed to those who claim to support women’s rights but exclude some groups of women in their idea of equality (for instance, black women, queer women, trans women, etc).